UE’s Eastern Region held its spring council meeting on Saturday, April 13. The hottest topic of discussion was the successful nine-day strike by Locals 506 and 618 against Wabtec in Erie this winter.
“I am so proud of my brothers and sisters for standing up for what is right,” said Eastern Region President Donna Morgan, introducing the members of the Erie locals who reported on the strike.
“There's a reason corporations and people in positions of power do not want you to experience this,” Local 506 Business Agent Mike Ferrito said, speaking about the “common energy” that brought UE members together during the strike. “It's the closest thing that I felt to God in my life,” Ferrito said. “You become somebody's family.”
Local 506 President Scott Slawson emphasized the key role that Local 506’s steward system — 107 stewards in a plant of 1700 members — played in being able to carry out the strike successfully. He also cited the “absolutely amazing” support from the Erie community.
Local 618 Business Agent Janet Gray spoke about how the strike brought UE members together: people who don’t always get along “were in that hall helping each other to survive for however long” it would take to fight off the company’s concessions.
Ricky Steele, Local 506, said “It changes your relationship when you have a common enemy and our people stood strong.” He reminded UE members that the struggle for workplace justice “is bigger than us, and don't let your people forget this.”
Organizing, Not Two Tiers, Is Our Future
In his address to the council meeting, UE General President Peter Knowlton emphasized that two-tier wage agreements, such as Wabtec is demanding in Erie, do not save jobs. He pointed to the shuttering of the Lordstown, Ohio GM plant, less than a hundred miles from Erie, during the strike — despite the UAW’s concessions.
“Two-tier wages haven’t stopped IUE-represented GE shops in Cleveland and Roanoke, Virginia from closing,” said Knowlton. “Two-tier wages in Schenectady, NY, have not stopped hundreds of IUE members from being permanently laid off as GE’s business in power generation shrinks and the two tiers that the Machinists union agreed to in a motor plant in Wisconsin did not stop GE from moving those jobs to Canada.”
Knowlton also spoke about how UE has changed from primarily manufacturing union to one that embraces all workers who want a democratic, rank-and-file union, and about changes UE is making to address financial challenges. “People have been writing UE’s obituary for the last 30 years, yet here we are. Our ability to survive and maintain relevance in the labor movement is our ability to change and adapt to changing circumstances without changing our basic principles, structures, and accountability to each other.”
International Representative Mark Meinster gave the organizing report. “Time and time again we hear from employers: why should we give you something when there are no other unions in your town, or in your company? You're too high paid, and if you don't give in to what we wants then this plant is going to close.”
This constant employer offensive is made possible, he said, because unions currently represent less than six percent of workers in the private sector. “Organizing is how we turn that around.”
“What UE members do is a shining example of what the working class needs to do in this country,” Meinster continued, and announced a new “Rank and File Organizing Network” of UE members who can assist the organizing team. (Interested UE members can sign up by texting UE to 24587.)
Nola Lilly, Local 170, and Steve Atkins, Local 684, shared their experiences of joining UE. It was a “long, hard, three-year struggle,” Atkins said.
“We're not going to give up, and we're going to keep fighting”
During shop reports, Local 123 President Wes Henshaw reported that after his local held a couple of well-attended rallies protesting conditions in the shop, management began verbally abusing union members, calling them “weasels.” However, Henshaw said, “they are learning that we're not going to give up, and we're going to keep fighting.”
He also emphasized the importance of training new stewards and teaching them how to protect their fellow union members. Henshaw introduced Jess Sims, a new steward who was attending her first regional council meeting, and told the delegates how proud he felt “seeing my stewards grow and learn and be here to represent and get involved.”
“Words are very important,” he stressed, “and how you articulate yourself will win you victory after victory after victory.”
A number of locals reported that, like the Erie GE plant, their shops have recently been sold to new corporate owners. Jim Borowski, Local 106, shared how when Buckeye Pipeline took over his shop, Local 106 members lost their pension and retiree healthcare and had to face a recertification election. A successor clause in their new contract will give them more protection if they are sold again. Sharon Johnston, Local 625, reported that their plant had recently been sold to Hitachi, and that the local is using the slogan “Dare to Care” to try to get members involved in the union in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations.
A large delegation from Local 610 reported on their preparations for upcoming negotiations with Wabtec. President Antwon Gibson reported that there has been increased membership participation and that the local is “prepared to put up a good fight.” Rubber Plant Divisional Steward Ian Glasgow reported on the March 6 rally where Local 610 joined Local 506 and 618 strikers at Wabtec’s corporate headquarters in Wilmering. “It was cool to see people come together from different unions,” he said. Management “don't like that one bit.”
Local 150 President Bryce Carter and Chief Steward Ray Sanders reported on Local 150’s activities throughout North Carolina, including organizing municipal workers in multiple cities, grievances in the Department of Health and Human Services, and their local’s upcoming political action day at the state legislature. Local 170 President Jamie Beaton reported that Local 170 has organized two new chapters, and is pursuing a mass grievance about pay in the Division of Highways.
The council meeting also discussed and affirmed agreement with the position of US Labor Against the War and the UE General Executive Board the U.S. should not intervene militarily in Venezuela. Local 506 Vice President Tom Bobrowicz said, “You look at what our leadership had said about Venezuela, we have absolutely no reason to be there. It's a political game that they're paying with people's lives.” He also noted that Venezuela “has the largest oil reserves” on the planet, and suggested that attacks on Venezuela’s “socialist” leadership were intended to discredit Bernie Sanders, “a candidate that we need to have in the White House.”
Donna Morgan was re-elected as president of the region. Delegates also re-elected Vice-President Darrion Smith, Local 150, and Secretary-Treasurer Scott Slawson, Local 506. Janet Gray, Local 618, was elected to serve as Recording Secretary. Steve Atkins, Local 684, Jim Borowski, Local 106, Bryce Carter, Local 150, Bud Decker, Local 329, Antwon Gibson, Local 610, Wesley Henshaw, Local 123, John Miles, Local 506, Leslie Riddle, Local 170, Karen Rizzo, Local 613, and Jeff Van Meter, Local 766 were elected to serve on the regional executive board. Jim Borowski and Antwon Gibson were elected to at-large seats on the national union’s General Executive Board, and Bud Decker will attend with voice but no vote. Don Brown, Local 506, Ricky Steele, Local 506, and Chris Wohlford, Local 170, were elected to serve as regional trustees, and Raymond Sanders, Local 150, was elected as the alternate trustee.
President Morgan recognized the long service to UE of International Representatives Dennis Painter and Marion Washington, both of whom are retiring. The 50/50 raffle money was donated to Local 150 leader Bonita Johnson, who is in need of a kidney transplant. UE members who want to support Sister Johnson can find information on the Eastern Region website, ue-easternregion.org.