Delegates to the Northeast Region’s council meeting at the end of April elected new leadership, honored retiring Regional President Ray Pompano for 53 years of service to UE, and discussed strategies to address sexual harassment and the upcoming Janus decision, which threatens to make all public-sector workplaces “right-to-work.”
Pompano has served as president of the Northeast Region since the previous regional president, Peter Knowlton, was elected general president of the national union in 2015. Prior to that, he was president of UE Local 243 at Sargent Manufacturing.
Pompano described for the delegates how when he was hired at Sargent in 1965, the medical insurance was substandard, and he and his wife were unable to get the coverage they wanted for the birth of their first child. “I made up my mind right then that I would get involved with my union, not to criticize my union but to make it better. Today,” he said, “we [at Sargent] have the best insurance dollar for dollar of anyone in the country.
“People like [UE Field Organizer] Harry Kaplan took me under his wing,” Pompano said. “We improved that contract, we had to take small steps, [but] it became one of the finest places to work. We took this sweatshop of a company and made it one of the highest-paid.”
Pompano praised the work of the national union’s General Executive Board in developing an anti-harassment policy for the union. "Everybody should treat everybody with respect and dignity,” he said.
Pompano also spoke to the challenges presented by the Janus case to the Northeast Region, half of whose members are in the public sector. Without dues, he said, “we can't fight the bosses, we can't fight corporate America.” He also passed out an article from the Hartford Courant, “I'm Sticking With the Union,” about the Janus case.
Recognizing the new leadership in the region, Pompano let delegates know that "I feel so comfortable leaving this region in the hands of the young people." He also emphasized the importance of making the sometimes difficult decisions to keep the national union strong. “A local cannot stand without a national," he said.
Pompano received numerous appreciations from the other delegates throughout the council meeting, including a Local 255 t-shirt, which members presented to him at the Friday night banquet.
Elizabeth Jesdale, Local 255, who has served as the region’s secretary-treasurer since 2012, was elected the region’s new president on Friday afternoon. In her remarks, she spoke about the importance of UE education to maintaining thriving locals and strengthening the subregions, and UE’s tradition of militant struggle. “Struggles and fightbacks all take training, education and militant struggle to pull off and win,” she said. “Each of you are here because you are a leader, you are invaluable to the strength of this union.”
The national union report was given by Director of Organization Gene Elk, who began by recognizing Brother Pompano for over five decades of service to the UE. He also recognized two locals “that have been doing really important work and are emblematic of how UE operates.” He asked the Polly Scott and Michellè Hagman from Local 234 to stand, and praised their local for the six-day strike they conducted last fall, proving “that you can win and you can stop concessions and that a strike is a valuable tool if used properly.” He also recognized Bill Ladd and Lori Brown-Lavigne from Local 228, declaring that it was "only through really, really hard work that the leadership of 228 was able to beat back any attempt at decertification” during the local’s first, one-year contract. After a hard-fought contract campaign that saw over 100 members rally as the expiration nears, the local now has a new two-year agreement with a lot more improvements in it than their first contract.
Elk then spoke about UE’s history, resilience and values. The UE was targeted in the 1940s and 50s, he said, because the union “refused to go on a witch hunt. We didn't care about what political beliefs a member had, but about whether they were good trade unionists who believed in UE's values that the members run this union.” In 1948, UE had 600,000 members, but by 1959 “we had lost over half a million and were just 90,000 strong. Imagine what those 11 years were like.”
Nonetheless, he said, the UE has survived because UE members shared a commitment to making sure that UE's core values survived. In the 1990s, the union “with intent, not by accident” began to organize thousands of public and service-sector workers who wanted to join a rank and file union. “We are really now a general workers union, representing all kinds of folks,” said Elk.
He described how UE is forging a partnership with the Canadian union Unifor, which also represents workers across industries and sectors. “The relationship with Unifor changes everything,” he said, “because now we have resources” to do substantial organizing work. But the relationship is not just a one-way street. “Unifor had gained immeasurably” from the relationship, because “our Canadian friends recognize that a strong labor movement in the U.S. is crucial for protecting their own wages and working conditions.”
On Saturday morning, the delegates participated in a new UE workshop, “Ending Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination in the Workplace and our Union,” led by UE Co-Director of Education Kari Thompson. The workshop grounded UE’s commitment to ending sexual harassment in the preamble to our constitution, covered the legal definitions of harassment, and emphasized the importance of making sure sexual harassment doesn’t happen in the union itself, because conduct that makes members feel uncomfortable or that weakens trust between members makes our organization weaker.
After the workshop, numerous delegates who had attended the Labor Notes Conference in early April reported on their experiences. Local 228 President Bill Ladd said everyone he met at Labor Notes, upon learning that he was in UE, said “you’re in a great union!” He described how some AFSCME members he met in an advanced grievance handling workshop were interested in using UE Steward materials to train their own stewards. It “made me very proud of our union,” he said.
Local 255 Vice President Emma Paradis attended a workshop on boosting bargaining through legislation, where she learned useful lessons to bring back to the “Raise the Wage” campaign in Vermont, which is pushing for legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. She also attended a meeting of Labor for Our Revolution, the group of unions that supported Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016 and are now working together to elect pro-worker candidates at all levels of government.
During shop reports, local leaders described many ways in which UE members have been taking on their employers. Local 203 President Ben Cohen, joined by a large delegation of six other Local 203 members, described how they are “house-training” the management of the “increasingly corporate” City Market cooperative grocery store, where a recent expansion has added a hundred new members to the bargaining unit. Local 208 President Kelly Robtoy shared how her local was making plans to reach out to unorganized workers in northwest Vermont by marching in the Vermont Maple Festival parade with UE balloons and “having a union at work is sweeter than maple syrup” leaflets.
Local 222 President Matt Braddon told delegates how his local, which has sublocals that represent town and board of education bargaining units across the state of Connecticut, has developed a “liaison list” to improve communications with members, where each member of the executive board is responsible for several sublocals. Marie Lausch, former president of the local and a 911 dispatcher herself, described how 911 dispatchers often feel underappreciated for their crucial public-safety work. Local 222 recently made workplace deliveries of chocolates and certificates of appreciation to their members who work as 911 dispatchers, in seven sublocals around the state.
When Local 234 leaders Polly Scott and Michellè Hagman spoke about their successful strike last fall, President Pompano recognized Scott for her 45 years of service as a UE member, and Field Organizer Abbie Curtis told the council that the majority of the strike leadership were women. Kim Mew, Local 274 shop president for the Town of Greenfield clerical unit, spoke about how new leadership, including her, is rebuilding the union’s presence. “Things are going to change in Greenfield and we're fighting hard,” she said. “We're rebuilding from the ground.” Mike Wells and Charity Dugener from Local 267 talked about their local’s plan to handle the impact of the Janus decision.
In addition to new President Elizabeth Jesdale, Bill Ladd, Local 228, was elected Vice President, and Kelly Robtoy, Local 208, was elected Secretary-Treasurer. The region elected an executive board consisting of Lori Brown-Lavigne, Local 228, Chris Carey, Local 269, Kathleen Coonrod, Local 203, Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222, Anthony L'Italien, Local 279, Autumn Martinez, Local 255, Jason McGrath, Local 274, Wayne Morrison, Local 243, and Mike Wells, Local 267. Dan Leary, Local 222, Emma Paradis, Local 255, and TJ Mallett, Local 269, were elected as Trustees. Margaret Dabrowski will join Jesdale and Robtoy in representing the region on the national union's General Executive Board.