In their first full meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the UE General Executive Board met over Zoom on June 22 and 23 to review the union’s work, consider current issues facing the working class, and approve a budget for the coming fiscal year.
Director of Organizing Gene Elk’s organizing report covered the period since the August 2019 meeting, as he had been unable to fully attend January’s GEB meeting. He reported that UE’s organizing work over the previous period has been “extremely fruitful,” with UE successfully organizing bargaining units that cover over 1,100 workers, organizing far more workers relative to its size than any other union in the U.S.
Elk reviewed the successful organizing campaigns at Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin; privatized paraprofessionals who work for ESS in New Jersey; and school food service workers in Wallingford, Connecticut. New UE Local 1186 at Willy Street Co-op successfully negotiated an excellent first contract over about six months, while negotiations for a first contract for new Local 119 at ESS were complicated by the pandemic and the employer having to re-bid on their contract with the school district. Elk pointed out the importance of UE’s approach of developing an organizing program based on workers’ concerns, having workers speak out and be the face of the union, and demonstrating mass support for the union as the vote nears.
In the rail-crew transportation industry, where UE represents almost 2,000 workers at Hallcon, three major companies control most of the contracts: Hallcon, PTI and RCI. In California and Nevada, the Union Pacific railroad switched their contract from Hallcon to PTI. While PTI legally should have been required to recognize the union, Elk said, they refused, so UE filed for and won an NLRB election.
UE’s largest victory was at the Kentucky Consular Center, which employs about 400 federal contract workers in Williamsburg Kentucky. After previous organizing attempts came up short, UE was victorious, getting almost 85% of the vote.
Brother Elk also described UE’s work with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a joint project with Democratic Socialists of America, to help workers mobilize to demand COVID-19 protections from their boss. UE is getting real, substantial organizing leads from this work, Elk reported, both through the project and directly from DSA. General President Carl Rosen commented that EWOC is mostly a volunteer operation, using the “distributed organizing model” perfected by the Sanders campaign. The project is generating a lot of interest from the rest of the labor movement. He also noted that Bernie Sanders encouraged his supporters to donate to the UE Research and Education Fund to support this work, and UEREF has received over $130,000 in donations.
Following the organizing report, the board had a significant discussion about the importance of internal organizing to support existing locals in right-to-work states and in the public sector, which is entirely right-to-work due to the Supreme Court’s Janus decision.
“A special responsibility to speak out”
The GEB also discussed and approved a statement, “All Workers Must Stand Against Police Violence,” which opens with the observation that “The protests that have swept our country since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May have put the issue of police violence front and center. The labor movement has a special responsibility to speak out on this issue.”
The discussion was extensive, touching on the relationship between police spending and other public spending, the economic impact of policing on the working class, and clarifying what it means to “defund the police.” Several board members spoke about how they work with police officers in their professional lives, or have relatives who are police officers, and this was reflected in the statement’s criticism of policing as an institution, not of individual police officers. As President Rosen pointed out, “Policing is rooted in systems of control,” and criticizing the institution as a whole “doesn’t reflect on individual officers.”
Antwon Gibson, Local 610, observed that when his stepfather served as a police officer, “officers knew everybody in the community,” and drew a link between the deindustrialization of Pittsburgh and the increasing tendency of officers to come from outside the communities they police.
Becky Dawes, Local 893, urged people to listen to the powerful personal stories of fellow union members who have experienced racism and discrminiation from the police, and shared the impact that such a discussion had had recently in her sublocal.
Larry Hopkins, Local 1177, shared how a relative of his had spent 17 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted because police coerced confession out of him at age 15.
Speaking to the question of what “defund the police” means, Scott Slawson, Local 506, pointed out that the statement’s call for “reducing police budgets so we can invest in the economic development and social services that are needed to make all communities safe and prosperous” is really about the fact that police are overwhelmed with filling a requirement to perform multiple roles, many of which are not their intended function, to protect and serve. He also noted that deaf people and people with mental illness are also disproportionately affected in encounters with police.
The final statement was approved unanimously.
Union Finances “Better Off Than Expected”
Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker, in his financial report, noted that although per capita income for the national union had gone down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was also a significant reduction in staff expenses, and the union is better off than he had expected a year ago. After much discussion and examination, the board approved a budget for 2021.
President Rosen gave reports on political action, the North American Solidarity Project, and the union’s education and international work, which touched on the upcoming elections, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and a new UE publication, “Them and Us Unionism.” The board voted to renew UE’s affiliation with the global union federation IndustriALL.
The board also reviewed the union’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 crisis and regional reorganization, and approved a new strike and defense policy, which encourages striking locals to set up grassroots fundraising through GoFundMe or similar sites, which the national union will publicize among other locals and the general public.