Organizing “Heroes” From Across the Country Address UE Convention on Video

October 7, 2021

In his final organizing report to a UE convention before his retirement at the end of October, Director of Organization Gene Elk gave an overview of what he called “one of the most fruitful periods for organizing in UE that I can remember.”

“Despite the pandemic and despite outrageous attacks on the labor movement, I am proud to say that organizing is alive and well in UE,” Elk told delegates “Neither the pandemic nor the attack from the right could stop us from carrying out UE’s mission to organize the unorganized.”

During his report, Elk introduced the UE convention to “bright new faces of UE” by means of thirteen videos, from a wide diversity of workplaces — from K-12 schools and higher education to government contractors, health and human services, food coops, rail-crew drivers, legal assistants, and beverage producers. “All told,” Elk reported, “UE is adding thousands of new members in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, New Mexico, and California.” The workers in the videos, Elk said, “are all heroes, and we commend them for their bravery and activism and we welcome them to UE.”

“Believe in your union”

The organizing report began in California, where for the past year UE Local 1077 has been fighting to preserve union conditions in the rail crew driving industry after a company called PTI was awarded the Union Pacific rail crew contract for its yards in northern California and Nevada. “They were taking over basically the same job that Hallcon had,” said Local 1077 steward and executive board member Lela Jankowski, but refused to recognize the UE contract. “We’re barely making above minimum wage because PTI came in and didn’t keep any of their promises.”

After PTI workers voted for UE in June of 2020, the company appealed all the way to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, DC, hoping that the Trump-appointed labor board would throw out the results. Between the flimsiness of the company’s case and the change in administrations, the NLRB ultimately upheld the election results this past summer, and Local 1077 is now negotiating a UE contract with the company. “We have the union behind us, backing us up to make sure that our jobs are better all the way around,” Jankowski told delegates. “Believe in your union — it’s a good union.”

Delegates next heard from a group of workers who had attended the last UE convention as they prepared for their NLRB vote. Two years later, the paraprofessionals and other workers who work in the Winslow, NJ School District as employees of the privatized contractor ESS were able to report on their hard-won first UE contract. Local 119 President Brookli Potts described the “resistance” that the local faced from both their employer, ESS, and the board of education, which did not want to take responsibility for the working conditions at the contractor they hired.

“We knew that there had to be change and we were willing to do whatever it took to make sure that everyone ... would get better wages because they had not had a raise in over ten years, that they would get some paid time off because there was no paid time off, and other benefits that we were able to get because of the union,” said Sheila Wanzer, who recently retired as president of the local. “It was fun, it was exciting, it had the ups and downs like roller coasters do, but we were successful in the end.”

The organizing report then moved back to California, where Evan Costello and Kelley Bader told delegates about their experiences organizing a union at a chain of coffee shops called Augie’s in the “Inland Empire” region east of Los Angeles. “We decided to organize at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Evan. “Our bosses used a lot of family rhetoric [but] as soon as real problems started to emerge in the pandemic, that rhetoric quickly went away and we realized that the best course of action would be to organize our fellow co-workers ... rather than relying on our bosses.”

“We began our unionization process and as soon as we came forward, the bosses decided to close the shop and lay off every worker, which led us on a fight to reclaim our jobs,” said Kelley, a fight which resulted in significant awards of back wages by the NLRB to the illegally-fired workers. Although Augie’s has closed for good, former Augie’s workers have formed a worker co-op, Slow Bloom Coffee. At the conclusion of the video, Elk presented a charter for new UE Local 1011, which will represent Slow Bloom worker-owners.

“Preaching the benefits of the union” in the South

UE Local 150 leaders at Central Regional Hospital in Butner, NC signed up 70 new members in about two weeks in July as part of their campaign for safe staffing and hazard pay. Chapter President Dr. Rakesh Patel and Chapter Chief Steward Jessica Gazso reported how Local 150’s “Safe Jobs Save Lives” campaign re-energized the Butner chapter of Local 150.

“COVID-19 has made everyone acutely aware of how fragile healthcare is and how fragile the workplace is,” said Patel. “I think we really got everyone motivated to talk about the issues, and we wanted to make sure the hospital was providing us with the proper PPE, making sure the patients were tested, making sure there was a lot more transparency than we're used to.”

During 2020, Local 150 was successful in winning hazard pay for DHHS workers, but the state ended it in January of this year. “When we stopped getting our hazard pay, we saw it reflected on our March 1 paycheck,” Gazso said, and her co-workers were ready to take action. The chapter leadership “decided as a team that we were going to hold some protests outside and we did one on April 14 and another one on May the fifth.”

Gazso explained that the reason “we've had such a great turnout with our membership is because most people feel included, and they know that we're fighting for them for their hazard pay.”

In Virginia, UE has been organizing city workers in the Tidewater region who are trying to win union recognition after that state overturned its Jim Crow-era bans on bargaining for municipal workers. The new Virginia bargaining law requires a municipality to vote on whether it will allow collective bargaining, so as Elk noted, “We have a tough job to do. We have to simultaneously convince the boss to authorize collective bargaining while building majority support for the union.”

Floyd Hines, a 37-year public utility worker for the city of Virginia Beach, said that city workers are fighting for “Things that we should have been getting all the time” like better wages and hazard pay. He explained that his job is just as important as other city services like fire and rescue: “We’re out 24 hours a day ... we keep your water flowing.”

Michael Fair from the city of Newport News public works said a major reason why he and his co-workers have been “working hard to unionize” is discipline: “There’s no set structure for discipline so a supervisor just disciplines his employees however he feels that day or however he feels about that employee. A union would provide some structure and ensure that all employees are disciplined the same.” He told delegates how he has been going out and meeting with his co-workers “preaching the benefits of the union.”

Virginia Beach human services worker Christina Wilson-Darien said, “I've worked with so many people that have worked so hard and they're truly under-appreciated. They love the individuals that they work with that they take care of and I believe collective bargaining would help” with chronic understaffing, which “really doesn't benefit the clients that we work for.”

“We're coming together,” Wilson-Darien concluded. “It's coming slow but we're getting there.”

“That's why we're a union now”

Elk presented a charter for new UE Local 696 to workers employed at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, who won an NLRB election earlier this year and are now bargaining for their first UE contract. “We started a union because we want a voice on our job,” said Jocelyn Kirkwood, a member of the Local 696 organizing committee. “Our management was making decisions about our workloads, our staff-to-patient ratios, [and] safety issues, especially during COVID, without our input. … We want to have our voice at the table when those decisions are being made about things that impact our livelihood and life.”

“We haven't had an annual raise in two years,” added Chris Gridley, “and when COVID hit they had no plans in place to protect us, to protect the patients.” Crystal Grabowski concluded, “We are able to advocate for ourselves and our patients' needs when we are united as staff and that's why we're a union now.”

Tom Knowlton, President of UE Local 222-92, described why he and his co-workers at the Wallingford Board of Education food service in Wallingford, CT left a do-nothing union where “we weren't told anything” in early 2020 to join UE. “UE sat down with us, they told us how they’re going to train us, help us, be there for support, give us materials. We liked everything that we heard and so far, everything that we've heard has worked out and UE’s doing exactly what they said they were going to do.”

“The members are getting more information,” Knowlton continued. “We’ve seen improvement and we’ve seen unity … people talking together, working together. If there’s a situation, we talk it out, we get results.”

“It's better than it's ever been,” he concluded. “That's what we like. That's why we're glad we’re here” in UE.

Delegates next heard from UE’s first fully-online organizing campaign, covering 200 workers spread all across the country. They work for Hudson Legal, writing and filing reports and applications on behalf of immigrants. They are grossly underpaid, have substandard benefits, and deal with difficult working conditions. They have signed up a super-majority of their co-workers as UE members, demanded recognition, and filed a petition for an NLRB election — but the company has engaged in legal delaying tactics, aided by the NLRB’s snail-like pace, a vestige of the Trump labor board.

“We work long hours, often more than forty hours a week, to make sure that we meet our clients’ immigration needs,” said Hudson Legal worker Maddie Cupak. “We love what we do and we take pride in our work, but we believe that all workers deserve a voice on the job,” added Charlie Miller.

“You can rest assured that UE will continue to give Hudson Legal workers all the support they need to win this campaign as we confront and outlast the outrageous delays suffered by Hudson workers in the NLRB election process,” Elk said.

“A fighting union”

“Those of you who attended the 2019 Convention will remember the stirring report given by workers from the Willy Street Co-op, whose landslide NLRB election victory took place just one week after that convention,” Elk said by way of introducing a video made by the members of UE Local 1186, who in the past two years successfully negotiated a first UE contract with the co-op and aggressively defended their members’ health and safety during the pandemic.

“Under our initial organizing efforts started in 2019, one of our major goals was to win higher wages, especially for our lowest earners,” said Local 1186 Chief Steward David Droster, “and I’m happy to report that under our first contract we've been able to make major gains in these areas. We are currently gearing up for our next contract fight, and we intend to make similar gains.”

Steward Sawyer Johnson told delegates, “We call ourselves a fighting union. If we can't win something through negotiation or the grievance process then we're going to organize to win it.”

Johnson illustrated the local’s fighting spirit by relating how, last spring, “Our fellow worker Sydney was fired unfairly due to management's administration mistakes that they refuse to correct. Because management wasn't going to return Sydney even after we grieved, we knew we had to organize. Our membership placed phone calls, sent emails, signed and spread petitions, and after a couple weeks of struggle we won! And not only that, but we won getting this worker three weeks of full back pay.”

Another Local 1186 steward, Mike Tomaloff, spoke about the local’s fight to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I know for a fact that the union helped reduce the spread of COVID at our co-op by fighting for our rights to be safe and healthy through those hard and sometimes scary times.”

“Thank you, UE sisters and brothers for the amazing support we got organizing our union at Wily Street Co-op,” said Local 1186 President Thayer Reed. “It has been an awesome experience and we look forward to contributing as UE continues to grow.”

“We organized a strike in less than 24 hours”

Four hundred Service Contract Act workers at the Kentucky Consular Center were in the middle of a UE organizing campaign when the pandemic hit last March. “The NLRB shut down and we had to pound on their doors to force an election,” said Elk. KCC workers transformed their organizing from an in-person to an online or a virtual campaign and then in short order new UE Local 728 bargained their first union contract, backing up their demands with a one-day walkout while working remotely — UE’s first ever virtual strike.

Local 728 First Shift Chief Steward Kevin White explained that working for a federal contractor is “pretty much like having the reset button hit on your career every three years, with a new set of bosses put in place. Without union representation progress in this type of work environment is nearly impossible.

“We were told [unionizing] couldn't be done because it had failed in the past,” he continued. “Union busters had divided people on political and social issues, and lots of people were discouraged. But when the time came for our group to organize, over 80 percent of the workforce voted yes in favor of unionization and this all happened during a pandemic, while the vast majority of the workforce was working from home.”

Jerred Harris, an at-large member of the local’s executive board, related how when management was stalling during negotiations, “We organized a strike in less than 24 hours, asking coworkers to call into work the following day. Over 200 people participated in the strike and by the close of business, we had a bargaining date scheduled and a signed contract soon after.”

Second Shift Chief Steward Holly Shupe and President Ronnie Hollingsworth spoke about Local 728’s enforcement of their new UE contract through the grievance procedure. “We’ve had a lot of wins; we've had some small losses,” said Hollingsworth. “We have had three [grievances] settled in our favor before fully taking them to arbitration,” Shupe explained. “Two employees had ‘occurrences’ dropped and one employee also received back pay from an unfair suspension.”

Blue-Collar Victory at NJ Bottling Plant

The next video was from four workers at the Refresco bottling plant in New Jersey, where UE won an NLRB election in June among the 250 predominantly immigrant workers — so far, the largest NLRB win of any union among blue-collar workers in 2021.

Diana Vasquez explained that “the critical situation that led us to want to form a union was COVID. Thanks to this everyone rebelled, because of the inhumane way in which we were treated.” César Moreira added that “They didn’t listen to us in the midst of a pandemic where there were many people who were infected. Since then, there’s been a lot of chaos at the company.”

“There are many problems at the plant and in the company,” said Irma Carrillo. “Mistreatment of workers, low wages for the work that we do, health insurance that isn’t sufficient for us to take care of our families or ourselves. And it’s for all these reasons that we decided to seek a union of all workers.”

Lida Guevara said, “We have tried to unite as workers and that is an example we hope to help take to many other companies so workers can link up with people who can help them learn the ropes ... and organize the people to fight.”

Elk then presented the Refresco workers with their new charter as UE Local 115.

New Mexico Graduate Workers at Two Universities Build Super-Majorities

The organizing report concluded with videos from two of UE’s largest organizing campaigns in recent memory. Fifteen hundred graduate workers at the University of New Mexico and 900 graduate workers at New Mexico State University built large UE super majorities over the past year and filed for union recognition with the state’s Public Employees Labor Relations Board. (Under New Mexico state law, public employees have the right to “card check,” where the union is recognized after a majority of workers sign union membership cards.) Although both universities raised legal challenges, the labor board decided in August that graduate workers are in fact covered by the law.

NMSU research assistant Bryson Stemock told delegates that graduate workers at NMSU are not “justly compensated” for their work. “We have our pay, but then we have to pay tuition on top of that, and once you take away tuition from our pay ... we're below the federal poverty line, which is about $12,000 and we tend to make an average of about $11,000.”

“We do really important work for the university, which includes teaching our own classes, like many of us do already, grading papers, working in labs, working in museums and a lot of administrative tasks as well,” explained UNM teaching assistant Alana Bock.

“We decided to unionize over longstanding issues of low wages, inadequate healthcare benefits and poor working conditions,” said UNM teaching assistant Lindsay Morrone, “and we did not have a meaningful voice to address these concerns with the university administration.”

UNM teaching assistant Ramona Malczynski described how the UE organizing committee at UNM signed up over 1,000 graduate workers on union cards in about three months in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, then withstood nine months of “legal pushback and stalling” from the university administration. However, with the favorable labor board decision, Malczynski said, “We look forward to negotiating our first contract with the university administration in the next few months and we'll keep struggling and making sure that we get all the issues addressed that need to be addressed.”

Following the videos, Elk presented charters to new UE Locals 1466 (UNM) and 1498 (NMSU).

“When we organize, we give greater power to the working class”

Elk concluded the organizing report by reminding delegates, “Please never lose sight of the fact that when we organize, we give greater power to the working class and we re-energize UE with new leaders. Do not let anyone tell you differently.

“For the last 85 years UE has been at the vanguard of the labor movement because we have a clear political and social vision that gives hope for a better future … a better world, because our members run this union from the bottom up, and because we put organizing at the center of almost everything we do.  

“The bosses, the corporations, and the enemies of an empowered working-class did everything they could do to bury this union. Our predecessors kept this union alive, allowed us to endure, and now we are once again growing.

“You inherited this union from them — Jim Matles, Florence Criley, Albert Fitzgerald, Ernie DeMaio, Tommy Quinn, and countless other UE stalwarts who paid a heavy price for their loyalty to UE and who fought to keep this union alive.  We — you — have the responsibility to keep building this incredible union.”


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