Youth Climate Activist Tells Eastern Region: Put People Over Profit

May 1, 2021

John Paul Mejia, an activist and educator working with the Sunrise Movement, told delegates to the UE Eastern Region Council meeting last weekend that it is time to “change the definition of normal in society.” The Sunrise Movement is a youth movement dedicated to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process, through a “Green New Deal.”

Mejia, who is eighteen years old, told delegates that his commitment to climate activism began during his sophomore year of high school, when Hurricane Irma threatened the city of Miami, where he lived with his mother. “It was scary,” he told delegates, and he and his mother went to stay with a more affluent friend. In the wake of the hurricane, his working-class neighborhood was “quiet and barren.”

“It felt like my people were disposable,” Mejia said.

But in the aftermath of the storm, he “witnessed something beautiful” — his neighbors taking care of each other, even with limited means. They cooked for each other, shared generators, and practiced what Mejia named “solidarity in the midst of struggle.”

Mejia reviewed the history of the Great Depression, another time when our nation was faced with multiple crises (including, as he noted, the man-made environmental catastrophe of the “dust bowl,” which displaced 3.5 million people from the plains states as environmental refugees). During that time, millions of workers struck and organized their communities, demanding, as he said, “a new normal.” This working-class activism resulted in the New Deal, which brought the minimum wage, Social Security, and the National Labor Relations Act. The New Deal was crucial to helping UE and the other industrial unions of the CIO organize millions of workers and establish a decent standard of living for most working people in the U.S.

Although the original New Deal left many people behind — farm workers and domestic workers, who were at the time overwhelmingly Black, were excluded from most New Deal labor protections — Meija suggested that we can “do it differently now,” with the Green New Deal.

He outlined the basic provisions of the Green New Deal: a federal jobs guarantee that would provide jobs at decent wages to all who want to work, programs to transition workers in fossil-fuel industries to clean energy jobs with equivalent pay, and guaranteeing health care to all people through a single-payer Medicare for All program.

In the vision of the Sunrise Movement, Meija said, “No one is disposable.”

“Improving the lives of all of our members”

UE Director of Organization Gene Elk gave the national officer report. He detailed the changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the union to make to its organizing program. Some of those, such as making virtual meetings a regular part of most people’s lives, haved saved the union thousands of dollars in travel expenses, allowed UE to more easily bring members into organizing campaigns, and increased the union’s organizing capacity.

Elk reviewed several major organizing campaigns in the public sector, among several thousand graduate workers at New Mexico’s two public universities and hundreds of predominantly Black municipal workers in Virginia Beach and other nearby cities in the “Tidewater Region” of eastern Virginia. He also described two private-sector organizing drives where UE is expecting the employers to “follow the Amazon script to terrorize workers.”

“COVID-19 has certainly brought new challenges to all of us that no one would have anticipated, Elk told delegates, but “your leadership through tough times has been heroic. It is by leading through tough times that locals ... continue to be engaged in improving the lives of all of our members.”

During the shop reports, Tom McIntyre and Dana Soloff of new UE Local 696, which was formed by workers at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania in March, shared their experiences organizing with UE and their hopes for their first UE contract.

Eastern Region Vice President Darrion Smith, Local 150 and Bryan Pietrzak, Local 506, spoke on Medicare for All during the political action report. Smith reviewed the history of Medicare, noted that when it was implemented in the 1960s, its authors intended the program to eventually be expanded to cover everyone in the U.S. Pietrzak shared his experiences at the Medicare for All strategy conference in January, told delegates about the 2021 Medicare for All Act, which was introduced in March, and urged UE members to attend the May 15 “How to Fix Healthcare” workshop, which will be held virtually.

Passing the Torch

Eastern Region President Donna Morgan, who has led the region since 2017, had earlier announced her intention to retire. During his remarks, Director of Organization Elk wished Morgan “a long and healthy retirement. Donna, we very much appreciate your leadership these last years and the support you have given to all of the Eastern Region locals.”

Delegates elected Field Organizer George Waksmunski as the region’s new president. Waksmunski has served on UE staff since November of 1991; prior to that he was president of UE Local 651. Antwon Gibson, Local 610, was elected as vice president, and Scott Slawson, Local 506, was re-elected as financial secretary. Melissa Pelkey, Local 255, was elected as recording secretary.

Jim Borowski, Local 106, Wes Henshaw, Local 123, Bryce Carter, Local 150, Leslie Riddle, Local 170, Kathleen Coonrod, Local 203, Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222, Bill Ladd, Local 228, Bud Decker, Local 329, John Miles, Local 506, Karen Rizzo, Local 613, Karleen Torrence, Local 618, and Brian DeSanto, Local 642 were elected to the region executive board, with Borowski, Carter, Riddle, Dabrowski and Decker elected to serve as at-large members of the national union’s General Executive Board. Bud Decker and Margaret Dabrowski were elected as at-large delegates from the region at the upcoming UE national convention.

Don Brown, Local 506, and Dominic Harris, Local 150, were elected the region’s trustees, and Ricky Steele, Local 506, as the alternate trustee.

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