“I do not have to tell you we are in horrifying and shocking times,” said Northeast Region President Elizabeth Jesdale as she welcomed delegates to the regional council meeting on November 2. “Our rights and the rights of our sisters, brothers and comrades are being stomped on and diminished daily… It is up to us to gain the education and skills to not only fight for ourselves, but for us to reach out and pull up the unorganized so they may break their chains.”
President Jesdale also introduced guests from the Eastern Region, who were returning the favor after their council meeting in October was visited by a delegation from the Northeast. The two regions organized the exchange to help facilitate discussions about the union’s regional restructuring proposal. The regional council meeting was also joined by many guests from host Local 228, in addition to their delegates.
Regional Secretary-Treasurer Kelly Robtoy, Local 208, gave the General Executive Board report, noting that the borad has created a task force to explore whether and how technologies like conference calls and video conferencing could be used to allow GEB members who are unable to travel to participate in meetings. She also reported on the board’s discussion about regional restructuring and an anti-harassment policy.
Autumn Martinez, Local 255, reported on the delegation that attended Unifor’s Canadian Council meeting in Halifax in August. Much like UE, she said, Unifor is strong, progressive and militant. She noted that attending the women’s caucus at the meeting was “very empowering.”
The council discussed and adopted the Anti-Harassment Principles, Responsibilities and Procedures developed by the General Executive Board. Kathleen Coonrod, Local 203, noted that the procedures are for regional business but encouraged delegates to consider adopting similar responsibilities and procedures in their locals.
The region also voted to make donations to Jobs with Justice chapters and workers’ centers throughout New England, and to renew its affiliation with US Labor Against the War.
Democratic, Rank and File Trade Unionism In Action
There was extensive discussion about the challenges of having a lost-time regional president and the union’s regional restructuring proposal. Since May, when President Jesdale was elected, she has been paid on a lost-time basis while continuing to work in the shop. “You all aren't getting what you need from a regional president,” she told delegates.
The restructuring proposal was developed in part to ensure that all UE members have access to a full-time paid regional president, and delegates discussed how to best address concerns about regional autonomy as the union changes its structure. “These are tough discussions,” Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker told the council meeting. “We have to make sure it's thought out and this helps everybody. We want to make sure all of that is laid out.”
General President Peter Knowlton, in his address, reminded UE members that “we are very different than other trade unions,” especially in the way that UE practices transparency in decision-making, finances, and wage and salary policies for staff and officers. He noted that the council was meeting in the same room that Local 228 had used for negotiations earlier that year, when they filled the room with members, who came to observe negotiations and put pressure on the company.
UE “sets the example for what democratic, rank-and-file trade unionism means in the United States,” Knowlton said, and he said the upcoming North American Solidarity Project meeting in Port Elgin, Ontario will address the question “How do we start making the rest of the labor movement more like us?”
Guest Speakers Talk Labor History, Medicare for All, Strikes
Guest Leslie Riddle, Local 170, treated the Northeast Region to her historical reenactment of legendary organizer Mother Jones. “At one point I was considered the most dangerous woman in America,” Riddle as Jones told the degelates, “Because when I showed up, men put down their tools.” Riddle told the story of how Jones, who was born in County Cork and was always proud of being an immigrant, traveled throughout the country organizing coal miners and other workers.
Delegates also heard from two guest speakers, both former UE field organizers. Todd Ricker, who now works for National Nurses United in Maine, gave a presentation about Medicare for All single-payer healthcare. The presentation detailed the shortcomings of our current for-profit healthcare system. “In a for-profit system, what's the easiest way for an insurance company to make more money?” Ricker asked. “Raise the rates, limit your coverage, deny claims.” He praised Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) for bringing the message about Medicare for All to a national audience during his 2016 presidential campaign. Now, Ricker noted, “if you’re a Democrat running for office and you can’t say you’re for Medicare for All, you have a lot of explaining to do.”
Heather Riemer, director of AFT Vermont, spoke about the two-day strike by 2,000 AFT nurses at UVM Medical Center in July, which received “amazing” support from the community, including many UE members joining the picket lines. The nurses created a “Member Action Team” to prepare for the strike, with one representative for every ten nurses. The number one issue in the strike was not having enough support staff. In addition to winning commitments to improved staffing and raises between 16 and 30 percent in a new three-year contract, the nurses won a commitment from the hospital to raise the start rate for all support staff from $11 to $13 immediately, and to $15 next October. Riemer also spoke about her involvement in the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization whose mission is that “working people should run the economy.”
Leading off the shop reports, a large delegation from Local 203 reported on City Market’s expansion to a second location, which has prompted management restructuring and an “atmosphere of austerity and tension.” Local President Thomas Grace got laughs when he reported that the head of human resources has now received the new title of “Head of People and Culture.”
Kelly Robtoy reported that Local 208 has been focusing on educating their members on the importance of voting in the upcoming elections, and that the conference calls for locals representing federal contractors have been “very useful.”
Local 222 President Matthew Braddon shared how his local is tweaking their dues structure to make it more fair for the lowest-paid members. In his sublocal’s recent negotiations, “management just threw crap in our faces,” but they were able to settle it without the mediator, with management coming around to meeting some of the union’s demands, including significant raises and extra money in the clothing allowance. Marie Lausch, also from Local 222, reported that only four people in the whole local, which represents over a thousand people in 34 bargaining units, had opted out of paying dues after the Janus decision made the public sector “right to work.”
Local 228 President Bill Ladd reported on his local’s recent win over misclassification, which won $30,000 in back pay for drivers. Chief Steward Lori Lavigne shared how the local was mobilizing members to fight back against changes the company was trying to make to their health insurance, hanging signs in cubicles and getting over 300 petition signatures in two days.
Local 234 Vice President Atti Sequin noted that his local was on strike this time last year, and spoke about his local’s 80 years of militant history. “We're not going away, we're the ones who make the product.”
Local 255 President Autumn Martinez told delegates that her local now had an all-woman executive board, and that they are fighting grievances around mold remediation issues and just cause. They are also insisting that management bargain over a variety of new policies. “If they want these policies, they need to pay us for them.”
Local 269 President Chris Carey reported that Erving Industries is attempting to re-open their contract to negotiate “a company scheme” for health insurance which includes a third-tier plan with a health savings account. He also said that the local is finally getting the company to hire new workers.
Short staffing is also an issue at Weir Valves and Controls, reported Local 279 Treasurer Anthony L’Italien. The company, which is trying to sell the division, is not bringing back people who are on layoff or hiring in an attempt to look more profitable to a potential buyer.