Organizing Report Demonstrates UE in “Fighting Shape”

October 23, 2019

“We live in dangerous times,” declared UE Director of Organization Gene Elk as he introduced the organizing report to the Convention on Monday afternoon. “The National Labor Relations Board, which was originally established to help organize unions, has been turned over to the union-busters that seek to destroy us” and “income inequality is skyrocketing, as stock prices continue at record levels and good-paying jobs disappear.”

Nonetheless, Elk declared that “it is a time of opportunity” as working people are hungry for organization to fight back and that “once again, leadership has been thrust upon UE.”

“In UE, even in dangerous times, we’ve gone back to what’s always worked for us. We’ve mobilized our members and fought back.”

“Now is the time to fight”

Elk briefly reviewed for delegates one of the most dramatic mobilizations and fight-backs the union has engaged in over the past two years, the nine-day strike by members of UE Locals 506 and 618 in Erie, PA. He noted the important role that Bernie Sanders (who had spoken to the convention that morning) played in making the strike a national issue. He then invited all of the Local 506 and 618 delegates to join him on the stage, and the rest of the delegates gave them a standing ovation.

A group of six men on stage, most wearing UE gear
Left to right: Don Brown, Leo Grzegorzewski, Scott Slawson, Tom Bobrowicz and Jason Trayer

Local 506 President Scott Slawson described the strike as “a tough-fought battle,” and described how a strong UE steward system was able to get information to all 1,700 members quickly. After negotiations broke down around 2:30am, the negotiating committee texted 17 executive board members, who texted their stewards and “by 5am we had the plant evacuated and surrounded” — no small feat, as the Erie plant covers 1,000 acres and has 10 entrances.

Slawson told the convention “how emotional of an experience it was as we drove by the plant” and saw UE members “standing up for their rights, standing up for the rights of all working people, because that’s what this was about.”

He also pointed out that the decision to strike was democratically and overwhelmingly endorsed by the members. The weekend prior to Wabtec’s takeover of the plant, Local 506 held a strike vote and “97 percent of our membership said now is the time to fight.”

Elk also praised the work of UE members in Iowa. Iowa’s 2017 public-sector anti-union law required all UE public-sector locals in Iowa to go through “recertification” elections over the past two years, in which the union would be decertified unless a majority of all workers in the bargaining unit (not just of those voting) voted to retain the union. UE prevailed in 13 of 14 recertification elections, with thousands of Iowa workers voting their support for UE. Elk recognized the Iowa delegates and International Representative Greg Cross, who headed the work in Iowa.

“Deeper, sharper and more focused”

Recognizing that the union’s new-organizing work needs to be “deeper, sharper and more focused,” UE has established a dedicated organizing staff, Elk said. While the union is embracing new technology to make it easier for workers to find UE, the organizing staff still rely on UE’s time-honored tradition of creating large and diverse organizing committees which are capable of winning recognition elections.

As he prepared to introduce workers have done that across the country, Elk reminded delegates that “the women and men who you will meet today are heroes, because they are all working hard to organize their co-workers and build UE in their workplaces.”

Organizing “the worst of the worst”

Photo of an African-American man speaking
Kevin Hawkins

International Representative Mark Meinster introduced Kevin Hawkins, a worker at MTIL in Chicago and president of new UE Local 1124. Workers at MTIL fought for almost two years to win union recognition and a first UE contract.

Meinster said that in the work done by the UE-founded Warehouse Workers for Justice to organize warehouse workers in the Chicago area, there was “one warehouse that has always been the worst of the worst” — MTIL. Workers complained of wage theft, having to work in standing water, refusal to promote women to higher-paying jobs, and pervasive management

Hawkins told delegates that “When I first started [at MTIL] it was a real mess, a real big mess.” He went through the organizing drive and was one of six members of the bargaining committee that negotiated the first UE contract, which involved a one-day walkout.

“Nothing made me more happier,” Hawkins said, than seeing management’s “face drop” as workers walked out. “I really felt good about that, I felt like I really accomplished something.”

“Even though we may be far from where we want to be, things have gotten better,” concluded Hawkins. “I’m going to keep fighting every day for our shop and make sure that everybody knows that UE is there to stay.”

“We're fighting this battle and we're not giving up until we win!”

International Representative Karen Hardin introduced two workers from ESS, a private company which employs paraprofessionals, bus aides, and after-school aides under contract with the Winslow School District in Winslow, New Jersey. She explained that the labor board is making the process of organizing unnecessarily difficult, but that the workers are determined. (ESS workers eventually got an election on September 24, which they won.)

Hardin also thanked the rank-and-file volunteers who had traveled to Winslow earlier that month for a meet-and-greet: Jim Borowski, Local 106, Pat Pelar, Local 625, and Mark Hinkel, Local 155.

Photo of two African-American women on stage
ESS workers Sheila Wanzer (left) and Brookli Potts (right)

Brookli Potts praised “the warmth” she felt at the UE convention, and “how you guys just embraced us Jersey girls.” She said management has instilled a fear of speaking up in her co-workers. “We’re responsible for all the children of the Winslow township school district,” Potts said, yet ESS workers lack protection themselves.

Sheila Wanzer told the convention that meeting Hardin “instilled some hope” in her, "and that’s what I was looking for because I truly felt like David and I was going up against Goliath.” She described ESS paying workers less than a living wage while pocketing hefty profits from their contract with the school district as “stealing the workers’ money.”

“They are committing a crime and a moral sin,” Wanzer declared, and she had a simple message for her bosses: “Get your foot off my neck — we're fighting this battle and we're not giving up until we win!”

“This is truly a family,” Wanzer said of her experience of the UE convention. “I thank you for welcoming me into the family.”

“Hope is what that feeling is”

Field Organizer John Ocampo introduced Mourning Dove Wochos and Patrick McCauley, two workers from the UE organizing committee at the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. Organizers believed Willy Street to be the largest unorganized food co-op in the country at that time. (It’s no longer unorganized, as Willy Street Co-op workers won their union election on September 3 and 4.)

Ocampo described how workers at Willy Street Co-op had built an organizing committee of 40 workers and then signed up two-thirds of all their co-workers in under two weeks, all without their bosses getting wind of the union drive. The lesson, he suggested, is to “act swiftly, fool the boss, don’t let the boss fool you.”

Wochos related her experiences trying to improve working conditions by joining the co-op’s employee council. “I thought that I could make a difference. I thought if I joined employee council I could use my voice, speak up for my co-workers, end the corporatization of our co-op and really make a big change.”

Although her experience on the employee council was disillusioning, Wochos reported that she still thinks she can use her voice to make change “thanks to UE.” Joining UE with her co-workers, she said, helped her realize “how many of us genuinely care, about our co-op and about each other.”

“It’s because of that love and compassion that we are eight days away from our election and we are still going strong.”

“Standing here and being with all of you,” Wochos said, “it’s just a really indescribable feeling — hope. Hope is what that feeling is. We’re all here today because we give a damn, and that’s really powerful.”

She thanked UE members “for paving the way for us. Thank you for helping us create a better world and a better future. We are stronger together.”

Wochos then performed an original song she wrote for the organizing drive, “Stronger Together,” and received a standing ovation.

Building Power Nationwide for Rail Crew Drivers

Introducing leaders of UE’s largest organizing victory over the past two years, International Rep. Meinster briefly reviewed the history of UE organizing at Hallcon. In 2009, 180 rail crew drivers in Chicago organized UE Local 1177, the first real union in the industry (Hallcon was at that time known as Renzenberger). Since then, every UE convention has welcomed new groups of Hallcon rail crew drivers, and in 2015 the union negotiated a national agreement.

However, UE members continued to be undermined at the table by “Local 707,” a mobbed-up company union that stood in the way of workers making advances in wages, working conditions and benefits.

In 2018, UE built a nationwide organizing committee of Hallcon workers in eight states who were “represented” by Local 707 but wanted a rank-and-file union, and an NLRB election in August brought 650 new Hallcon drivers under the UE banner.

Photo of an African-American woman speaking and a white man standing behind her (to the left)
Hallcon workers Ed Bockoven (left) and Nandell Baines (right)

Hallcon driver Ed Bockoven told the convention that Hallcon is “a horrible, horrible company” and “nothing but thieves.” Now that he and his co-workers have a UE contract, “we no longer have to work 60 hours a week. We finally got a mandatory two days off.” He said he is “excited to see what’s next” as UE continues to build power for rail crew drivers.

Nandell Baines, the president of new Local 977, which represents Hallcon workers in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kansas, said that before workers organized with UE “everything I saw was unjust,” and the company was rife with abuse and favoritism.

Photo of a white woman
Alisa Mastenbrook

Alisa Mastenbrook of new Local 1477 (New Mexico and Colorado) reported that “getting rid of 707 was a battle,” and recounted how a regional manager and his spouse urged workers to “stay with the devil you know.”

In the new national agreement with Hallcon, ratified in December, UE won a contract provision allowing workers at non-union yards to join UE through “card-check” (signing a majority of their co-workers on union cards), and Meinster reported that groups of workers in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas and Beaumont, Texas had joined through this process. However, in Fort Worth, Texas, the company is refusing to follow this part of the contract. Meinster introduced Barbara Chapman from the Fort Worth yard, who briefly addressed the convention.

“The UE formula works”

Elk then introduced members of UE Local 1018 from the Frank Lanterman Regional Center in Los Angeles: Fatima Anda, Cristian Corea, Marc Baca, Anthony Bucci and Adrianna Aguirre-Robertson. Almost 200 workers at Lanterman voted for UE representation in March of 2018, and then engaged in a 14-month struggle for a first contract, which featured a one-day warning strike, several informational pickets, and repeated mass demonstrations at the meetings of their center's board of directors.

Photo of three women and two men holding a charter for UE Local 1018
Local 1018 members receive their charter

In an emotional speech, Anda told delegates how she was physically abused by a supervisor in January of 2017 and retaliated against for speaking up. “They see me as nothing,” she said of management’s attitude towards her.

Following the incident, she approached Baca and asked “how can we start a union?”

Baca said that, having worked directly for the center’s executive director for 13 years, he saw first-hand the corruption, self-serving interests, and favoritism

He described how, with the help of UE organizers, the organizing committee at Lanterman talked with their co-workers and slowly built their support into a supermajority of their co-workers. “The UE formula works,” Baca said. “It was UE who had the faith in us and really believed in the workers.”

“You guys are beautiful; you guys are awesome. I’m so glad to be part of your family.”

Fighting Shape

Elk concluded the organizing report by telling delegates “UE is in fighting shape. We’re organizing. We’re mobilizing our members in first contract fights and we’re on the picket lines fighting for justice. Even though we live in dangerous times, we’re fighting back and advancing the interest of the working class.”

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