New Members, New Anti-Racism Workshop at General Executive Board Meeting

October 2, 2020

UE’s General Executive Board, newly expanded by elections held at July’s regional council meetings, met over Zoom on September 21 and 22. Under the regional reorganization carried out over the past few months, each of UE’s two geographic regions is now represented on the GEB by the region’s president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer, along with five at-large members elected from the regional executive board.

For Eastern Region Vice President Darrion Smith (Local 150) and Western Region at-large members Ashley Clemons (Local 1004), Malik Grant (Local 1135), Bob Smith (Local 712), and Teresa Willibey (Local 735), it was their first GEB meeting. Western Region Vice President Larry Hopkins (Local 1177) had previously attended GEB meetings in his role as national trustee.

General President Carl Rosen opened the meeting by inviting all of the GEB members to introduce themselves and tell each other a bit about their personal history with UE. He then gave an overview of the role of the GEB. Made up of the national officers, the regional presidents and fourteen rank-and-file members from UE locals, the GEB is the highest decision-making body of the union in between conventions. Rosen emphasized that GEB members lead and represent the whole union; while they bring experience from their locals and from other locals in their regions, they don’t represent just their local or region. 

“The story of race is the story of labor”

On the second day of the meeting, UE Co-Director of Education Kari Thompson and University of Iowa Professor Yolanda Spears led GEB members through a new workshop, “Building an Anti-Racist Union,” developed in conjunction with Unifor and National Nurses United as part of the North American Solidarity Project. The workshop grew out of a recognition that in order to maintain unity, unions need to be actively anti-racist organizations.

Talking about race can be an “uncomfortable conversation,” said Antwon Gibson, Local 610, “but we still need to have them. It just takes a little bit of courage.”

The workshop was grounded in a recognition that the entire concept of race was invented in order to control labor — as anti-racist trainer Suzanne Plihcik put it in a podcast clip that Thompson and Spears played during the workshop, “The story of race is the story of labor.”

In the early years of the American colonies, there were lots of worker uprisings, including workers of both European and African descent. The concepts of “white” and “Black” grew out of the rich landowning class discovering that if they gave the poor people who looked like them small power advantages, it would switch the allegiance of a section of their workforce from their fellow workers to their employers. Classifying people of African descent as less than human also provided a justification for slavery.

“We’re not taught this in school,” pointed out Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222. Spears contrasted the true history of race in the U.S. with that portrayed in a history textbook, published in 2010 and currently in use in Iowa, which describes slaves — human beings who were literally owned like cattle and frequently subjected to brutal physical violence — as “having fun” and being paid for their labor.

The facilitators outlined the difference between prejudice (feelings of disliking other people because of the color of their skin or other differences), stereotypes (ideas about people based on difference), and discrimination (actions taken based on difference, such as not hiring Black workers). They asked the participants to identify examples of these in their lives, workplaces and communities.

Ashley Clemons, Local 1004, said that during her recent pregnancy she had difficulty getting the health care she needed in her own hospital, and it “got very dangerous very quickly just because they thought I was drug-seeking.” Bud Decker, Local 329, shared that he had seen Black people be denied pain treatment based on the same stereotype, and “that kind of turns my stomach when that happens.”

Decker, Antwon Gibson, and Darrion Smith, Local 150, all pointed out that, in their workplaces, management is composed almost entirely of white people. Smith pointed out that the front line workforce at the psychiatric hospital where he works is “not diverse at all,” because the majority of workers on the floor are African-American, mostly African-American women, while in upper management, the majority are white. “People who look like me mostly hold positions down on the floor,” he said.

As an example of how union locals can be proactively anti-racist — and how doing so makes the union stronger — Western Region President Charlene Winchell shared how her local had successfully united a diverse workforce in 2017 to win the best contract in the local’s history. Winchell said this followed “many years of earning the trust of the Hmong workers” and that in the lead-up to negotiations, the local had organized a potluck, with translation, for Hmong workers and their families so that they could identify the issues, such as paid sick days, which were most important to them in the upcoming negotiations.

President Rosen pointed out that although the younger generations are more open to people of other races and cultures, overt racism is on the upswing because it is being exploited by political forces, including President Trump. He pointed out that this is a reflection of the fact that the economic system is failing and the corporations and rich people who benefit from it are doubling down on dividing working people.

At the end of the workshop, Margaret Dabrowski put her commitment in the Zoom chat: “I will continue to do what I have been doing and that is, in my own small way, showing that it's ok to learn about others, it’s ok to ask if you don't know, it's ok to realize that we are not perfect and we can all do better. and it is definitely ok to recognize and celebrate the differences in ourselves and others. One of the things I love about UE is the ability to meet and talk with people from all backgrounds.”

“We’re looking forward to bringing workshops like this throughout the union,” President Rosen told the UE NEWS. “In order to maintain unity against the boss, leaders of the union need to act personally in a way that doesn’t drive away those of different backgrounds. They also need to look at what is happening in the workplace or the union that is causing racial inequities or divisions and then come up with plans on how to overcome them.”

(In preparation for the workshop, GEB members listened to two episodes of the podcast “Seeing White” by Scene On Radio, “How Race Was Made” (29 min) and “Made in America” (34 min), which are available for listening at the linked websites or by searching for “Scene On Radio” in a podcast app.)

Political Action: Presidential Election Critical for Labor

During the Political Action Report, President Rosen reviewed the materials that the National Union has produced to emphasize the importance of the critical 2020 presidential election: the GEB statement issued in August, coverage in the latest print issue of the UE NEWS, a UE Steward on getting out the vote, and a UE flyer for shops on strategically voting for Biden in order to remove Trump from office. The National Union will also be producing a series of short “What’s At Stake” pieces which will be posted on the website and social media.

Rosen invited members of the board to share what they were seeing and hearing in their shops and communities about the election. Western Region Secretary-Treasurer Becky Dawes, Local 893, reported that she is seeing “some positive signs” in the people she is talking with, a sense that people are more in favor of change. “That’s promising to me because it comes from different avenues.” Jim Borowski, Local 106, emphasized that it’s important to focus on “how this affects labor.” Appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the Supreme Court are a “direct offshoot” of who is in office, he said, and “that’s going to affect us.”

Eastern Region Secretary-Treasurer Scott Slawson, Local 506, Western Region President Charlene Winchell, Ashley Clemons, Local 1004, Antwon Gibson, Local 610, Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222, Bob Smith, Local 712, and Teresa Willibey, Local 735 also spoke. The overall consensus was that the election is hard to call — underlining the importance of turnout.

Reporting on the struggle for Medicare for All, Rosen pointed out that there is no emergency relief in site for millions of workers who have recently lost health insurance. NNU has restarted their Medicare for All campaign but it will need a lot more heat from the working class to really move legislation. Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222, reported about her participation in a Connecticut Town Hall with Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) in August, and Western Region President Winchell said that in a meeting with staff for Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Local 716 President Sam Foti “did a wonderful job talking about the need for Medicare for All, talking about his own background, [and] some of his members, what’s happened to them personally.” Ashley Clemons, Local 1004, expressed interest in being involved in any future Medicare for All activities. “Medicare for All is a hill I will die on,” she said, sharing that her mother died after she was denied life-saving treatment for a condition that “wasn’t a death sentence originally.”

Rosen reported that, after players in the NBA and other sports “boycotted” games as a protest for racial justice in August, UE played a key role in putting together a “Labor for Black Lives” statement to encourage other workers to also take action by stopping work. UE has also been advising the Green New Deal Network on the development of the THRIVE Agenda, which merges parts of the Green New Deal with an economic recovery agenda. Rosen noted that the THRIVE Agenda is likely to form the basis of the fight for a pro-worker economic recovery under the next administration.

“Significant opportunities to organize”

“We have significant opportunities to organize hundreds and hundreds of workers right now,” Director of Organization Gene Elk told the board during the Organizing Report. “This is a very fruitful time for organizing and we’re trying to make the most of it.” He reported that the union has organizing campaigns underway at several large bargaining units in New Mexico, Kansas City and Chicago, and is also pursuing an opportunity to organize municipal workers in Virginia, following a successful strike for hazard pay by Black sanitation workers. Municipal workers in Virginia will receive limited collective bargaining rights in May 2021.

Elk also reported that the National Union has assigned staff to help with the recertification elections that Locals 893 and 896 face in Iowa, as a consequence of the anti-union legislation passed in 2017 when right-wing Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature, along with the governor’s office. In addition to severely limiting the scope of collective bargaining and prohibiting dues checkoff, the law governing public-sector unions requires them to win a majority vote of the total workforce prior to each contract expiration. While both Local 893 and 896 won their 2018 recertification elections handily, the pandemic is making it more difficult to reach workers, most of whom are now working from home. Local 893 President Becky Dawes reported that her local is using all available means to communicate with people, and encouraging members and activists to use their social networks: “If you know somebody, talk to them.”

At Kenyon College, where UE Local 712 represents the maintenance workers, Elk reported that UE is engaged in a “very novel” campaign with undergraduate student workers who want to organize into UE. Student workers do not have collective bargaining rights under the NLRB, so the Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee is demanding recognition with a series of escalating actions. Local 712 President Bob Smith told his fellow board members that “these students, especially the organizing committee, they really have it together. They’re a well-organized group.” Over the years, Smith said, every time his local has been in a struggle “the students always come out to support us,” including when the local successfully fended off the college’s attempt to outsource maintenance work in 2012.

Elk also reported on negotiations for a first contract at the Kentucky Consular Center in Williamsburg, KY, where workers organized new UE Local 728 in June. Workers are continuing to put pressure on the company with a safety petition, signed by a significant majority of the workers who work on-site (100 or more are currently performing their jobs at home).

Financial Task Force Established

In line with a new article of the UE Constitution adopted at the convention last summer, the GEB established a Financial Task Force, consisting of one trustee and one GEB member from each region, along with the Regional Presidents Charlene Winchell and Donna Morgan and Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker. The Financial Task Force will review and oversee the national and regional budgets and make reports and recommendations to the general executive board. The Eastern Region’s additional representatives on the Financial Task Force will be GEB member Antwon Gibson, Local 610, and Trustee Don Brown, Local 506. The Western Region’s additional representatives will be GEB member Becky Dawes, Local 893, and Trustee Delores Phillips, Local 1118.

After walking new GEB members through how the union’s budget works, Dinkelaker reviewed both the final numbers for the union’s 2019-20 budget and initial projections in the first few months of the 2020-21 budget. The board also heard reports from Director of Organization Elk and Secretary-Treasurer Dinkelaker on the impact of COVID-19 on the union’s operations, and from President Rosen on the North American Solidarity Project and the union’s international and educational work.

Subscribe!

If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to the UE NEWS — for as little as $5/year you can support great labor journalism and receive the print edition of the UE NEWS four times per year.

You can also sign up to receive monthly UE NEWS Bulletins via email, or follow UE on Facebook or Twitter.