First Contract Struggles Take Center Stage at Eastern Region Council Meeting

November 1, 2022

“Not to recommend it, not to suggest it, but to demand change — that right there is the union difference.”

That’s what being in UE means to thousands of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate workers, said Nishad Gothaskar, a member of the UE Local 256 (MIT GSU) bargaining committee. Flanked by over a dozen fellow members of his local, Gothaskar reviewed Local 256’s bargaining goals for delegates to the UE Eastern Region’s fall council meeting, which was held on Saturday, October 29.

UE Director of Organization Mark Meinster presents a charter for UE Local 256 (MIT GSU) to Nishad Gothaskar
UE Director of Organization Mark Meinster presents Gothaskar with a charter for UE Local 256 (MIT GSU).

Referring to Cambridge (where MIT is located) as a “company town,” Gothaskar explained that MIT is the main landlord in that city — and that some Local 256 members are paying upwards of 80 percent of their income in rent back to their employer. Over 40 percent of Local 256 members are immigrants, yet MIT fails to authorize their full rights on visas. Affordable housing and better support for international student workers are key bargaining goals for the local.

Local 256 is also fighting for full contractual protections against sexual harassment, which over half of the local’s women members, and over 60% of transgender members, report experiencing.

Fighting for “real health and safety protections on the job” is another important goal, Gothaskar said, explaining that many MIT graduate workers work with dangerous chemicals, and several members have recently been hospitalized due to chemical exposure. He also noted that while one in eight graduate workers at MIT are immigrants from China, MIT is “falling in line” with the xenophobic and racist attacks on China in the media, increasing the danger of “witch hunts” against Local 256’s Chinese members.

Following his speech, Gothaskar led the delegates in a chant that reflected the fighting spirit of UE’s newest local: “When we fight, we win!”

Alyssa Haradzin, UE Local 696
Top: Alyssa Haradzin, Local 696. Bottom: Jose Rivera, Local 115.
Jose Rivera, UE Local 115

The council also heard from leaders of two other locals in the region who are fighting for first UE contracts: Alyssa Haradzin of UE Local 696, which represents workers at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, and Jose Rivera of Local 115, which represents workers at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey.

Haradzin related how Local 696 has been fighting for a first contract since the spring of 2021. While their employer has been resistant to their demand for a $20/hour minimum wage for all workers, “we have a lot of support” in the community, she said. (Watch video of Local 696’s July rally, at which Haradzin spoke, here.)

Rivera explained how his disgust at “managerial tricks” at Refresco led him to support the union and become a member of Local 115’s negotiating committee. A lot of production workers, including many with over a decade of service, are still making poverty wages, he said, and Local 115 is fighting for an increase in wages across the board for everyone in the plant.

He told delegates that he sensed “a fighting spirit within the members of this union,” and that he hoped to “bottle the essence of that fighting spirit to take it back to Wharton” to bring home a first UE contract. (Learn more about Refresco workers’ long struggle for union recognition and a first contract here.)

Terry Green (left) and Trina Love (right), UE Local 111
Terry Green (left) and Trina Love (right), report on UE organizing among municipal workers in Virginia Beach.

Municipal workers for the city of Virginia Beach, who have been organizing with UE since a pandemic-inspired walkout demanding hazard pay in 2020, have a longer road to a first union contract — under Virginia’s new labor law for municipal workers, they must first convince a majority of their city council to authorize collective bargaining. Terry Green and Trina Love, leaders in building UE Local 111 in Virginia Beach, told delegates how they and their co-workers are getting active in this fall’s city council elections to win a pro-collective-bargaining majority.

“We’re going to keep pushing and moving forward,” Love said. “We’re going for collective bargaining and we’re going to get it.”

Defeating Hate, Voting Critical to Moving Forward

UE Eastern Region President George Waksmunski
Eastern Region President George Waksmunski.

Eastern Region President George Waksmunski began his president’s report with a frank discussion of the danger of hatred and division to working people — whether it manifests as racism, misogyny or attacks on LGBTQ people. “If we don’t stop hate, we can’t move forward,” he declared, noting that “hatred and racism and division are tools of the boss.”

He emphasized that it is critical that working people keep extremist Republicans — who are eager to foster division and are willing to ignore the will of the voters — out of power in the upcoming mid-term elections. “We must vote Democrat in this election, we must encourage people to vote Democrat,” he said, even though he admitted, “I really have a hard time saying that.” Even though Democrats have frequently failed working people, Waksmunski said, “our country is at a tipping point” and “our freedom and our democracy” are on the line.

Waksmunski spoke about the importance of educating UE members on the history and principles of the union, encouraging locals to use the 2020 UE booklet “Them and Us Unionism” for that purpose. (Megan Hedrick, Local 123, interjected that she had used the booklet to sign up three members in her shop.) He also spoke about the importance of aggressive struggle in the workplace. “We need more fights on the shop floor, taking on the boss,” he concluded.

UE General President Carl Rosen echoed many of the same themes in his national officer report. “There’s some real glimmers of hope” in the current situation, he said, “but also some real signs of danger, and we’ve got to navigate through them together.”

Republicans “have a long-term plan to divide the country and grab and maintain power, and they’re willing to try to destroy any remnant of democratic process in this country in order to do it.”

On the positive side, there is an upsurge in worker organizing that “is being driven by workers themselves,” Rosen said. “People are clamoring for a member-run union, a fighting union, a politically independent union, a progressive union — a union like UE. This is a UE moment.”

He reminded delegates that “our power as union members is rooted in our workplaces — in our ability to put fear in the hearts of our bosses and that class of billionaires,” and that “the working class is the only thing that ever moved history in a positive direction, and we have to trust each other.”

How to Fix Inflation Without Losing Jobs

 Why it’s here and how to fix it without losing jobs
UE Director of Education Kari Thompson leading the workshop.

During the workshop, “Inflation: Why it’s here and how to fix it without losing jobs,” led by UE Director of Education Kari Thompson, delegates shared their experiences with rising prices of food, gas, and housing. Several delegates reported that their rent has increased of as much as 16 and 19.8 percent, and one member related how he had tried to buy a house for eight or nine months, but was always being outbid by people willing to pay more than the house was worth. (Nationally, home values are up 17 percent and rental prices went up 18 percent on average.)

As Thompson pointed out, these increases are part of an ongoing cost-of-living crisis that working people have been facing for years — including the ever-rising cost of health insurance, which is curiously absent from politicians’ concerns.

Thompson explained that the current inflation is being driven, not by too much demand, but by shortages of on the supply side. This was confirmed by members’ experiences: delegates from Local 123 spoke about their difficulty getting parts at work, and Elizabeth Jesdale, Local 255, who works at the cooperative grocery Hunger Mountain Co-op, said “It’s just absolutely amazing that we have anything on the shelves at all.”

Members also discussed the role of speculation and price gouging by corporations in rising prices.

Bosses, politicians, and their allies in the media are using inflation as an excuse to engineer a recession through interest-rate hikes, Thompson warned. They are doing this because bosses don’t like the “tight labor market” that is currently giving workers leverage to win wage increases. Higher interest rates will not fix supply-side problems, and while a recession may lead to lower prices, it would be at the cost of potentially millions of lost jobs.

Asked to identify other solutions, UE members suggested taxing corporate profits (“Honestly, take all of it from them,” one delegate said), nationalizing the arms and healthcare industries to “take the profit out of war and sickness,” and making it easier for workers to form labor unions. Local 506 Business Agent John Miles explained how the “green rail” project that UE’s Wabtec locals are pursuing will both reduce carbon emissions and create jobs, noting that 100 people are currently working on a new line to build batteries in Wabtec’s locomotive facility in Erie, PA.

(For more information on inflation and how to fix it, please see this UE NEWS Feature and this op-ed by UE President Rosen.)

“We’re getting a lot of young people coming in which is a good thing”

During shop reports, most of the manufacturing locals reported that their employers are busy, and hiring new workers (though in a number of cases they are struggling to hire workers or to get parts, confirming the reality that supply shortages that are at the root of the current inflation). Local 506 President Scott Slawson said that the Wabtec locomotive plant in Erie, PA has recalled all of the UE members who were laid off during the pandemic, has hired 150 more new employees, and expects to hire another 150-200 people before the end of the year. “We’re getting a lot of young people coming in, which is a good thing,” Slawson said, because they “bring new life into the union.”

Dee Towne, UE Local 228
Local 228 President Dee Towne.

However, it wasn’t just manufacturing locals that reported new members, and new activists. Several locals spoke about UE’s four-part “Building Union Power” workshop, held over four weeks in September, and how it has helped them engage members. “It really gave us some ideas and some tools to try to get more people interested,” said Local 228 President Dee Towne,

New Local 274 President Marc Avery described how he talks to every new hire in his shop about the importance of the union, and how being in a union means being able to negotiate over wages and working conditions. “I love being in a union,” Avery declared. “This is the first union shop I’ve been in and I think it’s fantastic.”

Scott Slawson, UE Local 506
Local 506 President Scott Slawson.

Delegates from Locals 203, 221, 222, 329, 610 and 613 reported on new contracts that had been bargained since the last council meeting, and delegates from Locals 267, 506 and 684 talked about the preparations they are making for upcoming negotiations.

Local 506 President Slawson reviewed how in 2019, when Wabtec purchased the Erie plant from General Electric, the company provoked a nine-day strike when they tried to scrap the eight decades of progress Local 506 had made in negotiations with GE. (The state of Pennsylvania deemed the dispute a lockout, due to Wabtec’s imposition of unilateral changes.)

One of the compromises Local 506 made in order to settle a new contract with Wabtec was agreeing to restrictions on their right to strike over grievances — something they now regret, said Slawson. In the three years since Wabtec took over the plant, their refusal to abide by the contract has led to thousands of grievances, and their refusal to settle those grievances has led to an unprecedented number of arbitrations. In the most extreme case, the company has taken the local to federal court in an attempt to overturn a “binding” arbitration decision that the union won.

As a result of this corporate obstinance, Slawson said, Local 506 is committed to winning back an unrestricted right to strike over unsettled grievances in their upcoming negotiations.

Remembering “Giants” of the Labor Movement

The council meeting took time to remember two retired UE International Representatives who passed away this year: Saladin Muhammad and Humberto Camacho. Region President Waksmunski said Muhammad was “a giant in the labor movement and a giant in many of our eyes and our hearts,” and “a kind, gentle person with a fierce will to fight for working people.” UE General President Rosen spoke about Camacho, whom he called “a real legend, not only in UE but in the labor movement in the Los Angeles area, in the civil rights movement, and in the immigrant rights movement.”

Waksmunski then showed a memorial video:

Following the memorials and a short break, Nichel Dunlap-Thompson, Local 150, roused the delegates with a performance of her original song, “Ain’t Gonna Let This System Turn Me Around,” which is based on the traditional civil rights movement song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”

Elections were held to fill vacant seats in the region’s leadership: Em Hammond, Local 221, Dean Pacileo, Local 243, Mike Casarico, Local 267, Marc Avery, Local 274, and Tony Culver, Local 684, were all elected to the region’s executive board. The council meeting also appointed a committee to review the region’s constitution, consisting of Megan Hedrick, Local 123, Bryce Carter, Local 150, Gary Stuard, Local 203, Elizabeth Jesdale, Local 255, Bryan Pietrzak, Local 506, and Alyssa Haradzin, Local 696.

At the end of the meeting, President Waksmunski called first-time delegates — more than a dozen of them — to the front of the room to be recognized, and presented each with a copy of “Them and Us Unionism.”

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