The UE 74th National Convention got underway with a Sunday morning session. As delegates gathered in the ballroom at the Baltimore Hilton, they were entertained by a wonderful singing ensemble, the DC Labor Chorus, the first of several labor music artists who will open the sessions through the week.
Deb Gornall, president of UE’s Eastern Region, which is host to this year’s convention, then took the podium to call the meeting to order and welcome the delegates. She then turned the chair over to General President Bruce Klipple, the permanent chairperson of the convention.
Klipple introduced Luci Murphy, Washington-based singer and activist, who sang a cappella and led the delegates in song.
Next Klipple introduced Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, Baltimore-born longtime social justice activist in Washington and Boston, currently senior pastor at the Plymouth Congregation Church of Christ in Washington. Hagler drew upon American history, his own life experiences, and recent events to deliver a powerful speech that was a call to justice and to action. Hagler said the newly-emerging justice movements in the U.S. are our “Third Reconstruction”, and then described the first two Reconstructions. The first was after the Civil War when the federal government was for a time committed to rooting out the vestiges of slavery and protecting the Civil Rights and voting rights of black people in the South, with President Grant using the U.S. Army to crack down on the Ku Klux Klan. But the government abandoned that commitment to justice in 1877.
The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which faced fierce resistance in the South in the revival of the KKK, terrorist acts like the bombing of church in Birmingham, and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on a peaceful voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. Hagler reminded delegates that the Confederate battle flag, which had largely faded from popular consciousness in the century since the Civil War, was revived in the 1960s as a symbol of resistance to Civil Rights. “That flag has everything to do with white supremacy, with slavery, with crushing people’s hopes for liberation,” he said.
The recent mass shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, which killed nine people, was carried out by a racist who seemed to know the historic significance of that church. In 1822 Denmark Vesey, a founder of that church, was hanged for conspiracy to organize a slave revolt, and the church was a center of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Hagler said the Black Lives Matter movement is needed because of the devaluation of black lives in our society, and is an essential step toward justice for all people. “Black Lives Matter is a doorway to making all lives matter,” he said. He refuted those who say that injustice in our society is only about class, not race, and said that even poverty among white people in a place like Baltimore “has to do with race.” The advance of working people in this country has always been held back by the divisions of race and racism.
Hagler’s speech received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the delegates.
Bruce Klipple then delivered his President’s Report to the convention. Klipple told delegates that the convention theme “Mobilize the Movement” was developed by our young activists. He said, “It gives me great hope for our union and the resistance movements against government and corporate attacks on workers’ rights, civil rights, environmental rights, voting rights, and basic human rights,” adding that he knows “our UE young activists will make sure” that we remain in the forefront of those fights.
But the future is not so bright, Klipple said, for unions whose leaders think they can survive the current attacks on labor through “business as unual,” and without reaching out to broader social movements. “Organized labor will not survive the attacks today or the ones still to come if they thing they can do it alone or buy their way to protections through the electoral process.”
Klipple denounced “the shameless hate mongers who will do whatever is necessary to make the evening news. This can’t be the society we want for ourselves, our families, our neighbors. We won’t allow this behavior to go unanswered.” He said we’ll be “raising some hell Monday” joining with Baltimore activists fighting for wage and racial justice and “basic human rights.” He described the importance of the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, and immigrant rights movements.
One growing threat to working people is the so-called “right-to-work” attack on unions. Not only has RTW been passed in three Midwestern states in recent years, and it now threatened in several other states. But the U.S. Supreme Court may be on the verge of imposing RTW on all workers in the state and local public sector. “Brothers and sisters, this will be the test of modern times for unions.” He said he believes UE has the right program to survive under RTW conditions “which we will use with our locals and share with other unions.” But there is concern whether more top-down unions will learn to adapt.
Klipple reflected on UE history and how the union was founded in 1936 by a group of independent local unions, and reminded delegates that with this convention, we begin our 80th year as a union. Those founders built the union in tough times, “mobilizing against many of the same human rights attacks that we face today.” He urged the delegates never to give up the principles on which those workers in 1936 launched UE. “We cannot give up, we cannot let the bastards destroy us.”
Klipple reviewed some of UE members’ accomplishments over the past two years. He praised the militancy and creativity of Local 896 members, the GE locals and others who negotiated nearly 80 UE contracts since the last convention. His review of the successful strike by Local 279 members at Weir Valve brought a standing ovation. “Well done, Local 279!” he said.
Klipple also talked about UE’s organizing work, which has brought in 1,000 workers in two years, and said Director of Organization Bob Kingsley will report on this work in more detail on Monday afternoon. He singled out the gains in Renzenberger in several states and among USCIS workers in Nebraska.
Later in the convention, he said, Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker will review the budget. Through hard work and sacrifices, Klipple said, the union is now close to financial sustainability.
This convention will usher in some changes, said Klipple, not the least of which will be the election of two new national officers, as both he and Director of Organization Bob Kingsley will be retiring. He called on delegates to “put imagination and energy to work this week making plans to fight the good fight and build this great union… There’s nothing that can beat the unity and love we have for our great union and it’s up to each of us to preserve UE for the next generation of members.”
Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker then reviewed the convention agenda for the week, and read off assignments to the convention's standing committees. The first was the Rules and Order Committee, which met immediately and came back before the session ended with rules that were adopted to govern the convention The session then recessed and members gathered outdoors for the official convention photo. Then following a lunch break, the other committees met through the afternoon, and in the case of the Resolutions Committee, into the evening, preparing resolutions, reports, and constitutional amendments to be considered by the full convention over the coming four days.
Those committees are Constitution, Resolutions, Organizing, Education, and Policy Action. Delegates will re-convene Monday morning, and the convention will continue through noon Thursday.
See many more photos from the UE Convention at UE's Facebook page.