Solidarity for Racial Justice at Eastern Region Virtual Meet

October 23, 2020

UE’s Eastern Region council met virtually on Saturday October 17, with delegates joining an all-day Zoom conference. The new Eastern Region, established this past summer, unites UE locals from New England south to North Carolina, and west to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The regional meeting featured the first joint UE-Unifor presentation of a new workshop, “Solidarity for Racial Justice,” developed as part of the North American Solidarity Project’s equity and anti-racism work. UE Co-Director of Education Kari Thompson and Unifor Director of Human Rights Christine Maclin led the workshop.

In a testament to the prevalence of racism in society, 93 percent of participants reported having personally witnessed an act of racism, with the remaining seven percent answering “not sure / maybe.” Thirty percent reported being the target of an act of racism.

Thompson and Maclin led participants through a series of questions about the history of race and racism. Participants were asked to share (anonymously, using a Zoom poll) whether they knew about each historical event, and if so, where they had learned about it: in school, from their family, from the union, etc. The answers made it clear that schools are not doing a good job educating students about this history — Lillian Meunier, Local 208, commented “I feel so cheated by my school system” — and also that the union could improve our own efforts to educate members about this history.

Many of the questions came from labor history, such as the fact that the National Labor Relations Act excludes agricultural and domestic workers — jobs that were overwhelmingly held by Black workers when the law was written in the 1930s, and which are still predominantly held by workers of color. No participants reported having learned this in school, prompting Matt McCracken, Local 506, to comment that “This would be a better country if labor history was a requirement to graduate high school.”

In response to a question about the Chicago race riots of 1919, Wes Henshaw, Local 123, wrote in the Zoom chat that "No act of racism is an isolated incident..." Maclin called his comment “very, very powerful” and pointed out that “The acts of violence that we are seeing started with a joke that was unchecked or permitted and it escalates. ... This is what has led to genocides and wars.”

Workshop participants then watched 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. Dr. Murray explained that “Racism is not simply being prejudiced. It’s not simply the issue of discrimination. Racism has very little to do with individual beliefs and individual ignorance.”

Instead, Dr. Murray said, racism is “a carefully constructed set of beliefs that is intertwined and intimately connected with a specific time in history.”

“We need to say it openly, because otherwise we can’t fight it. Racism is an essential undergirding — it is a critical pillar — of capitalism. … It did not always exist, it was invented as one of the tools of building the world that we live in today.” Murray described how racism was created to justify genocide against Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and the subjugation of Asia, all to benefit a small group of wealthy Europeans — the capitalists. Racism endures, not because of ignorance and stereotypes, but because powerful forces benefit from its continued existence.

“Who does racism benefit, why was it invented, and who does it serve?” Murray asked. “It doesn’t serve us. It serves the bosses, the ruling class. That’s who it serves, that’s who it was invented for, they are the ones who propagated it, they are the ones who continue to benefit from it. It is the primary strategy of our enemy. Make no mistake about it, it’s their number one weapon, their strongest and most powerful tool.”

Zoom Poll: "Are you ready to support struggles for racial justice in your community?" with 100% answering yes
Following the workshop, UE members responded unanimously in the affirmative about their readiness to take action for racial justice.

Commenting in the Zoom chat, Matt McCracken wrote that “This video needs to be played at every local.” Following the video, participants broke into smaller groups to discuss the issues more in-depth. Reporting on the discussions in the breakout rooms, Antwon Gibson, Local 610, said “The gist of it is really education,” especially the importance of educating the community about what is going on in the workplace.

Dominic Harris, Local 150, pointed out that “these things are structural,” and that even with a diverse and majority-Black city council in Charlotte, NC (where Harris works), the city continues to be run in a “Jim Crow, Dixiecrat” fashion, and that “most of the high-paying jobs and most of the supervisor roles are filled with white men.” Harris concluded, “You can see that these racist systems persist over time.”

“It’s amazing what you can do and what you can learn being in UE”

In his national officer report, UE General Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker spoke about his own path from being a rank-and-file UE member at a newly organized shop in Vermont, through holding local office, joining the national union staff, and eventually running for regional and then national office. “I say this to add context that not everybody starts out with the idea that they’re going to become a national officer.” He was drawn to taking leadership roles in the union because “UE principles of being a democratically member-run organization really appealed to me as a worker.” Reflecting on his career, he declared that “It’s amazing what you can do and what you can learn being in UE.”

Dinkelaker reviewed the numerous ways that the COVID-19 pandemic had affected UE members, the union itself and the working class as a whole. Employers have not been responsive to workers’ needs for personal protective equipment and other safety measures. As a result, he said, the union has seen an increase in organizing opportunities, and he discussed organizing drives currently underway in Virginia, Ohio and New Mexico.

Turning to the upcoming presidential election, Drinkelaker urged all UE members to participate in the process and look at the choice as “a strategic question” of what kind of administration it is better to struggle against. “A Biden administration is going to be more responsive [to pressure] than a Trump administration,” Dinkelaker said.

Dinkelaker concluded by saying that in difficult times like this, “We have to look out for each other. … We cannot rely on the politicians that are in office right now because they’re not basing their programs off of our needs. We actually have to go in the streets in order to get recognized.”

Local 150 President Bryce Carter gave a report on his local’s political action work. Although the pandemic disrupted their plans to hold their regular political action day at the state capitol, political action was central to the union’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Local 150 “instantly put out letters to the elected officials” who oversee the cities, state departments and universities where the local’s members work, explaining workers’ safety concerns. Carter reported that “Some of our cities, folks were not as responsive as they should have been” and “It was a constant battle of hitting them with letters, constantly emailing them, getting on them about making changes.”

This led to the local’s “Safe Jobs Save Lives” campaign which was “very effective,” Carter said. “It opened up some eyes, it brought in more people, more workers who just realized they had enough of dealing with the managers.”

Carter also reported that Local 150 is supporting Jessica Holmes for state Labor Commissioner, and that Cal Cunningham’s campaign had also reached out to the local. Cunningham is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Thom Tillis, of whom Carter said, “We need to get him out of there.” Because of the local’s public campaigns, “more and more of these elected officials have been seeing what we’ve been doing,” Carter reported, but it’s a “constant battle of getting them to understand where we’re coming from. ... We have members who have passed away, we have members who have been sick, we have members who are not at work.”

“We made sure we put it out to our chapters how important this election is this year,” Carter said. Dominic Harris, President of Local 150’s Charlotte City chapter, added that “UE 150 is always out front and taking a stand on various issues throughout the state,” and Local 150 Vice President Sekia Royall explained about the local’s “take two” campaign: “We’re encouraging our members that when we get out to vote, we make sure that we take two of our family members, community members, or co-workers.”

In the Women’s Caucus report, Leslie Riddle, Local 170 and Sekia Royall, Local 150, let other delegates know that UExtraordinary Women will be holding a women’s leadership training on Thursday, November 19, at 6:30pm Eastern Time. The leadership training is open to all UE members who want to promote women’s leadership in the union and are comfortable in a space that centers the experiences of women. Interested members can register here.

Keeping Workers Safe During the Pandemic

Nor surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic — and employers’ lack of respect for workers’ safety — loomed large in shop reports. Jim Borowski, Local 106, reported that after he was exposed to COVID-19 while doing his job as a volunteer EMT, “Not once did they ask me to get tested, not once did they ask me to do anything else except go to work.” Bryce Carter, Local 150, Matt Braddon and Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222, Karen Rizzo, Local 613, and Sharon Johnston, Local 625, all reported on how their locals are working to keep workers safe during the pandemic. Braddon also noted that Local 222 had recently won two union members’ jobs back, in different units, and successfully completed a move to a less expensive office.

Alex Smith, Local 203, reported that City Market, the cooperative grocery store in Burlington, VT where Local 203 members work, tried to end hazard pay in September, but the union successfully fought to preserve it, backed up by members wearing union buttons and shirts. Hazard pay for Local 203 members is currently $75 per week for full-time employees, and they have won almost $3,000 in hazard pay (per member) over the course of the year. Local 203 has also gotten a safety committee going, which has met several times with management.

Melissa Pelkey, Local 255, said that her local had just signed a memorandum of understanding several days prior which will extend through January 7. The MOU provides for storewide hazard pay of $2.20 per hour — previously, cashiers had received $2.25 hazard pay and all other workers $2.00 — and extends their enhanced accrual of paid time off, although at the lower rate of 105% of regular accrual. The local also won a differential of $4.25 for workers who will be coming in from 3 to 5am during the holiday season to do stocking before customers arrive.

Scott Slawson, Local 506, and Janet Gray, Local 618, reported that Wabtec had recently announced layoffs at their Erie plant, affecting both locals. “We'll continue to fight, continue to struggle,” said Slawson. (Slawson is quoted extensively in this Erie Times News article about the layoffs.)

Brian DeSanto, Local 642, told delegates how his local had expanded its membership by organizing workers from the maintenance and housekeeping department. “They decided that management did not really have their interests at heart,” he said. Deb Brosseau, Local 221, reported that her shop, NEKCA, is focusing on internal organizing as they return to work in-person, and on pushing management for safety precautions (NEKCA is one of two Head Start agencies, whose employees work in schools, represented by Local 221.) Leslie Riddle, Local 170, lamented that “we would like to be out organizing,” but noted that workers at Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital did hold a rally in September that received news coverage.

Bill Ladd, Local 228, said that his local is recruiting volunteers for their safety committee, developing a new website to make it easy for members to find answers for “simple questions that tons of people ask.” They are also dealing with some attendance issues. “The company thinks they can run roughshod over not only the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] but the Service Contract Act, so we’re going to set them right on that.”

Bud Decker, Local 329, reported on negotiations over the implementation of New York’s new law requiring employers to provide a minimum of 56 hours of paid sick leave. Although the local agreed to modifications of the call-out procedure, they secured 80 hours of paid leave.

With contract negotiations coming up in April, Local 123 President Wes Henshaw reported that their company, Daikin, has been trying to “put their foot down,” but that the union has “been able to keep everybody’s discipline down.” Lillian Meunier, Local 208, Antwon Gibson, Local 610, and Steve Atkins, Local 684 also reported on grievances.

The region held subregional caucuses to choose topics for subregional education events for next year, and conducted special elections to fill vacancies on the region executive board. Lillian Meunier, Local 208, Elizabeth Jesdale, Local 255, Karleen Torrance, Local 618, and Brian DeSanto, Local 642 were elected to join the board.

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