Western Region Council Meeting: Answer to “World Thrown Into Chaos” is Organizing, Education, Political Action

November 17, 2020

In her President’s Report to the Western Region council meeting, held over Zoom on November 7, Western Region President Charlene Winchell declared that “The world has been thrown into chaos because of the lack of leadership from our president.” She noted Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his encouragement of violence and “vilifying of organizations that stand up for people’s rights” such as Black Lives Matter and organizations fighting for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

She noted that the economic impact of the pandemic has left “Many people unemployed, homeless or hungry. … People are worrying about how they will pay for housing, medical insurance, healthcare and groceries” while unemployed or living from paycheck to paycheck.

“No doubt, these are difficult and challenging times for all of us. We need to continue fighting for our rights,” Winchell told delegates. “I am so proud of all of you continuing to go to work during COVID-19 and fighting and protecting your members’ rights.”

Although Pennsylvania was called for Biden during the course of the meeting, making him the president-elect, UE General President Carl Rosen warned in his national officer report that “Joe Biden wasn’t our guy,” and that it’s important to have a realistic assessment of the new president-elect.

“We’ll be in better shape dealing with a Biden administration” in terms of appointments to OSHA and the labor board said Rosen, but he cautioned that “When it comes to things like trade policy and foreign policy, there’s no reason to expect that a Biden administration is going to be particularly better than the other Democratic administrations that have not done well by us, and frankly sold us out.”

“We’re going to have a big fight ahead of us,” Rosen continued. “We’re going to have to just light a fire as much as we can under Biden and under some of these Republicans” and “put serious heat on them now to approve an economic stimulus package to get people back to work.”

The “good news,” Rosen said, is that “Many in the working class, especially the younger generation, they’ve just had enough of the way things have been and want very serious change. You can see that in terms of the street protests that have been happening but also you can see it in the workplace, and where we’re really seeing it is in new organizing.”

Walkout Boosts First Contract Struggle in Kentucky

Cristina Brookman and Jerred Harris, members of new UE Local 728 at the Kentucky Consular Center in Williamsburg, KY, reported on their local’s fight for a first contract. Brookman said that management keeps trying to change things like attendance rules, and that when the workplace had 10 active COVID-19 cases in two weeks, “the company didn’t really seem to care.” But workers are fighting back.

When the company announced they couldn’t meet again until December, workers held an emergency meeting over the weekend and voted to all call off the following Monday. After the walkout, the company changed their tune, and the bargaining committee is now meeting every day with the company.

Matthew Soliz, a former worker at Augie’s Coffee in California, described how he and his co-workers contacted UE after looking up which unions had endorsed Bernie Sanders. Augie’s owners shut down the coffee shops and fired all of the pro-union workers after they demanded recognition, “but we stuck together,” said Soliz, “we rallied the community and we let the boss know we weren’t going away.” Augie’s workers have now formed a worker co-op in order to, Soliz says, “build jobs that work for us for the long term” where workers are “not underneath the thumb of our boss.”

Delegates also heard from Penny Bauer, who is part of a group of Hallcon rail crew drivers in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin that recently joined the union, and International Representative Mark Meinster, who reported on current organizing campaigns in Western Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Chicago, Washington, DC., and two large campaigns in New Mexico which are “going really well.”

Solidarity for Racial Justice

UE Co-Director of Education Kari Thompson led the union’s new workshop, “Solidarity for Racial Justice.” The workshop has been jointly developed with Unifor and National Nurses United as part of the work of the North American Solidarity Project, but unfortunately Unifor Director of Human Rights Christine Maclin, who co-presented the workshop with Thompson at the Eastern Region council meeting in October, was unable to join the Western Region council meeting.

The workshop included a quiz about the history of race, racism and labor, and a video of a talk given by Dr. Linda Murray to a 1986 Human Rights Conference held by the Canadian Auto Workers, one of Unifor’s predecessor unions. Participants then split into smaller groups to discuss their experiences of employers trying to divide workers based on race, and ways that institutions such as schools, banks, workplaces and even unions reinforce racism. (For a longer description of the workshop content, see the article “Solidarity for Racial Justice at Eastern Region Virtual Meet.”)

Local 1187 Vice President Thai Nguyen shared that at his workplace, “About half the shop is Vietnamese and there is racism, unfortunately. Being Asian it may be a little different than Black people but it’s still there.”

In a frank discussion about how local unions can encourage more participation and leadership from members of color, Local 808 President Eric Franke related that small step his local took was to have the “UE: The Union for Everyone” graphic translated into Spanish and Vietnamese and posted on the union bulletin board. Local 896/COGS President John Jepsen detailed how his local is reaching out to international students, who make up a large percentage of the University of Iowa graduate employees represented by the local, to help them fight arbitrary “language testing” requirements.

Regional President Winchell discussed how her local, Local 1121, brought workers together during their 2017 contract negotiations. “The company was really trying to divide our workers,” she said, noting that the shop employs workers of many diverse backgrounds, including white, Hmong, Black, Chinese, Latino and others.

“First and foremost is getting to know the workers,” Winchell said, “then comes trust.” After building trust, she emphasized the importance of communication. By keeping all the workers in the shop informed despite language barriers, Local 1121 was able to organize a walkout with 100% participation, and won their best contract ever.

Dewon Mitchum, Local 1177 and Victoria Hilton, Local 808, both shared that in the diverse, multiracial neighborhoods where they live, their neighbors get along, but that it’s sometimes hard to bring that sense of connection across different backgrounds into their workplaces.

“This is a hard conversation to have,” Thompson said as she concluded the workshop, but important. “It’s part of the history of our union to know that if we allow the boss to divide us along racial lines, along language or religious lines, that the boss is the one that profits, they’re the ones that win. And it’s up to us in the union to address these questions head-on and to figure out the ways that we can do better to build the organization that we want to be and to build new leaders who are more representative of our communities and our organization as a whole.”

“If we all stick together and work together, we can do many things”

New leadership was a common theme in many shop reports. Local 1187 President Justin Thompson and Vice President Thai Nguyen talked about how they have taken over from an older generation of leadership. “We’re all learning a lot,” said Thompson, who was fired by the company for aggressively representing his local’s memership (his case is currently in arbitration). “Local 1187 is strong,” said Nguyen. “We’re sticking together and we just want Justin back.”

Local 1008 President Joel Faypon reported that after elections in September, his local has a number of new board members. “I’m thrilled to have them on board,” he said. He also reported that his local has won several grievances on training and overtime, with settlements putting tens of thousands of dollars in members’ pockets.

Local 1077 has several new chief stewards, said Virginia Soto, including for the PTI drivers who recently joined the local. New Local 1124 President Eddie Bronson said that he and others in the local leadership are “learning as we go.” Shaun Mazur, Local 1107 and Elizabeth Jensen, Local 1121, also reported on the election of new officers in their locals, and Local 1118 President Delores Phillips spoke about her efforts to recruit new leaders.

Local 1004 Chief Steward Jessica Bautista said that at Henry Mayo Hospital, most of the union’s activity has centered around the COVID-19 pandemic. “One of the main concerns that our members brought up was the PPE [personal protective equipment] and making sure it was accessible to everyone,” she said, adding that it was “very frustrating and nerve-wracking for everyone.” However, since the union brought it up with the administration, it hasn’t been an issue.

Local 1177 President Larry Hopkins reported that the UE Hallcon locals are talking to the company about hazard pay for drivers nationwide, launching a sticker and button campaign on hazard pay. They have also won several termination grievances, recruited new stewards, and added new yards in Minnesota and Wisconsin to their bargaining unit. Local 716 President Sam Foti said his local has also added a new yard, and Mo Davis, Local 1477, reported on grievances with the company. (Locals 716 and 1477 represent Hallcon workers in Ohio and Colorado/New Mexico, respectively.)

In a UE first, Mike Plachy, Local 1139, joined the virtual regional council meeting while deer hunting — Regional President Winchell read his report so he could remain quiet.

As a result of Local 1421 President Bryan Martindale’s ongoing efforts to convince plant managers that discipline is an ineffective method of changing workers’ behavior, “we haven’t had a write-up in over seven years,” he said. “New plant managers are not such a big deal if you get to them early.” He also reported that lab workers at his company, Stepan Chemical, have decided they want to join UE.

Local 1135 President Malik Grant said that his local has won several grievance victories, and Local 808 President Eric Franke told delegates on his local’s new contract. Charles King, Local 1123, reported that his company has recently been taken over by a new parent company, and Teresa Willibey, Local 735, said management at her company has recently become more combative, and are trying to force older workers out the door. Sharry Niedfeldt, Local 1161, said that despite some difficulties in her local, she continues to remind her co-workers that “If we all stick together and work together, we can do many things.”

Anthony Bucci, Local 1018, said that after his local settled their first contract in 2019 after a 14-month struggle, “Little did we realize that our work was just beginning.” Local 1018 has formed several committees to engage their broader membership. Their new workplace health and safety committee has won improved sanitation supplies, the ability to work from home for the vast majority of the local’s members, and a $40 per month COVID stipend for all workers. The local also circulated a petition, signed by over 100 members, demanding that their employer stop requiring an irrelevant test, which “does not test anything that has to do with our job,” in order for workers to receive the bilingual pay differential granted by their union contract.

Local 893 President Becky Dawes and Local 896 President John Jepsen reported on their locals’ successful recertification elections. Both locals have also been dealing with the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state of Iowa. The University of Iowa has been “basically non-communicative” about COVID-19 said Jepsen. Dawes, a child-abuse investigator for the state, reported that “most people do not wear any kind of masks when I go into a home” and that the state’s COVID-19 response “has been horrendous and our dear governor has been in the paper multiple times for her failure to protect her Iowans.”

General President Rosen commented that “Listening to all these shop reports, it’s really good to hear all of the really good work going on by all of the locals, standing up and fighting on behalf of their members.”

Delegates also heard political action reports from Regional President Winchell, Local 1177 President Larry Hopkins and Local 1018 President Anthony Bucci. Sam Foti, Local 716, was elected to an open seat on the region’s executive board, and General President Rosen presented the region with a new charter.

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