On behalf of the entire membership, the national officers express our deep sorrow at the passing of Boris H. “Red” Block, a great UE leader and a ferocious fighter for the working class.
Red provided strong direction and leadership to the union in a period of difficult challenges for our union. During Red’s years as a national officer, once-powerful unions headed down the perilous path of “concession bargaining” – giving back hard-won gains that their members had fought for over decades – and many surrendered to the seductions of labor-management cooperation schemes. During that time we also experienced the rise of the Ronald Reagan administration which, as one of its first official acts, fired all the members of a federal workers union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) – thereby inaugurating a new era of strikebreaking and union-busting in America.
Red’s absolute clarity of principle – rooted in UE traditions which he understood so well – enabled our union to respond forcefully to these crises. To the calls for unions to unilaterally disarm and cooperate in management’s goals, he replied, “When the lion and the lamb lie down together, it’s usually the lion that gets up and burps.” On concession bargaining, Red told the 1984 UE convention, “Our record … clearly shows that while others spent their time concocting sugar-coated but in truth bitter pills, rationales to make concessions, to agree to givebacks in the guise of equality of sacrifice, we in UE dug in our heels and in no uncertain terms told the bosses that, as working people, we have nothing to give back. And when necessary we backed our position with united action on the shop floor, in our communities and when required on the picket line.”
He didn’t hesitate to speak out sharply against the “swing to the right” represented by widespread popularity of Ronald Reagan. In his farewell speech to the 1985 convention he denounced the way ordinary Americans were being tricked into supporting politicians who worked against their interests. “They use the same brain washing tactics they use to sell us toothpaste to convince us that our enemies are our benefactors. They have succeeded in getting most of us to call what were formerly called reactionaries by a more respectable-sounding name, conservatives … I say, call them what they really are: a reactionary is a reactionary is a reactionary.”
Red came into the union at the end of World War II, and worked in Westinghouse and RCA plants before joining the staff. Though not present at the birth of the union, he came of age as a fighter in the battles to preserve UE from ruthless efforts to destroy it in the 1940s and ‘50s. Among his many contributions while on the union staff, Red provided guidance to Local 332 during the long 1969-70 GE national strike, and coordinated the work of the GE locals as Secretary of the UE-GE Conference Board from 1973-75.
Red oversaw the entire union’s bargaining strategy, and personally led the UE bargaining team in successful negotiations with the powerful General Electric Company in 1976, ’79, ’82 and ’85. Many years later, UE members who served on the GE bargaining committee in those years still reminisce about Red’s brilliant negotiating skills and strong leadership, which earned him, and UE, the grudging respect of both the company and the other GE unions.
As a national officer, Red led the union through a transition period from the founding generation – which included his predecessor Jim Matles and President Albert Fitzgerald, who served until 1978 – to a younger generation. Red believed deeply in the advancement of women and minorities in the union, the workplaces, and society, a commitment that he demonstrated in part by his support for Amy Newell as his successor, the first woman ever to serve as a top officer of a national industrial union.
As Secretary-Treasurer, Red was a vigilant guardian not only of the union’s treasury, but of the principles of honesty, integrity, and frugality that he learned from Jim Matles and other UE leaders. The tight rein that Red held on union spending was legendary, and he left the union on a sound financial footing for the battles that lay ahead.
Although many current members of UE do not remember Red Block, all should be aware of Red’s immense contributions to UE’s continued existence, and to the preservation of the strong principles on which it is built. We all owe a great deal to Red Block.
JOHN H. HOVIS
BRUCE J. KLIPPLE
ROBERT B. KINGSLEY
Director of Organization