One of the last of the founding generation of UE leaders, Charles Newell died May 30, just four months short of his 100th birthday. Newell was the father of Amy Newell, former UE organizer and UE Secretary-Treasurer from 1985 to 1994, the first woman to serve as a national from officer of a manufacturing union. His wife of 53 years, Ruth (Voithofer) Newell, was also a UE organizer; she died in 1999.
Born in Templepatrick, Ireland, Newell migrated to California at age 19. He took a job in the oil fields and attended community college. He earned a degree at the University of Washington, and then spent six months in the Soviet Union learning about the new social system there. He briefly returned to Northern Ireland and helped organize a mass hunger march on London by residents from all over the United Kingdom, protesting Depression poverty conditions.
Returning to the United States, he worked at machine shop jobs in New York City in the early 1930s, including Merganthaler Linotype, and helped James Matles build a union among machine shop workers, first with the independent Metal Trades Industrial Union. The group affiliated with the International Association of Machinists, but when they were unable to change that union´s policy of barring African Americans from membership, they joined the newly-formed UE in June 1937.
Charlie Newell was one of the first four organizers hired by Matles, UE´s first Director of Organization. In one of his first assignments, Newell moved to East Pittsburgh, PA to assist in organizing the flagship plant of the Westinghouse Electric Corp. Workers in the plant soon elected Newell as their business agent. Although UE had won NLRB certification in East Pittsburgh and at several other Westinghouse plants, and had achieved its first national contract with rival GE in early 1938, Westinghouse took the position that it would bargain with UE, as the law clearly required, but would sign no agreement with the union.
Charlie Newell and the East Pittsburgh shop leaders turned the company´s stubbornness to the union´s advantage. Local 601 conducted a running battle against the company on grievances and worker issues. Militant job action forced managers to agree to memorandums-of-understanding that met various worker demands. But with plant bosses forbidden by corporate policy to sign anything, there was no contract of any kind, and therefore an absence of a "no-strike clause" or any other restriction on the union´s freedom to raise hell on additional issues. This went on until 1941, when Westinghouse finally saw the wisdom of signing a contract with UE.
Jim Matles in Them and Us, his 1974 memoir and UE history (available from the union), describes Newell´s early contributions:
"Charlie Newell, a skilled toolmaker, became one of the first volunteer organizers during the Metal Trades Industrial Union days in the early thirties. He was among those fired from Mergenthaler after being fingered by a company spy. As a shop worker he mastered the complexities of such matters as job classifications, job descriptions, wage-payment systems, incentive pay plans. Few in the union were his equal in this department.
"The workers in the East Pittsburgh shop, not bound by a contract and operating a vigilant shop steward system that Charlie Newell helped establish, were free to conduct their flash stoppages and shutdowns. A rank-and-file committee, assisted by Newell, handled the bargaining. The people in the shop handled the on-the-job action. It was a combination that proved extremely hard for the company to deal with. All over the Westinghouse chain, the unsigned memorandums-of-understanding developed at the UE´s East Pittsburgh organizing ´laboratory´ served as a model for workers who adopted similar guerilla warfare tactics in their own shops."
Newell had learned to fly airplanes before the outbreak of World War II, and he served in the war as a pilot and flight instructor with the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force. After the war he returned to UE organizing in western Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and later California. In the mid-1950s he left the union and took a job as a stock broker; later he got involved in residential real estate development. But he never abandoned his progressive political views or his commitment to unionism. He once tried to organize the first union of stock brokers, and fell only one vote short of succeeding. His daughter Amy recalls the FBI coming to their house when she was in elementary school and the 1950´s "red scare" was still ongoing. The feds hoped that with his move into a business career he´d be willing to rat out his old friends in UE. He was not.
Amy Newell describes Charles Newell as "a great father." Shortly after his death she told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, "He had an incredible intelligence and kind of a zest for life." He continued driving until he was 94, was on no medication, and remained healthy until a sudden case of pneumonia took his life. The headline of his obituary in the local paper summed up Charlie Newell well: "From oil fields to Air Force, Newell led full life."
In addition to Amy, Charles Newell is survived by his son Gerry Newell and grandson Fred Newell, also of Watsonville.