Meeting from January 26 through 28 over Zoom, the UE General Executive Board heard and discussed a detailed organizational report from newly-elected Director of Organization Mark Meinster. In addition to reporting on a slew of organizing campaigns, many of them involving thousands of workers, Meinster laid out an ambitious plan to provide more support to locals and field staff, to ensure that UE “stays strong and true to our principles.” The board also went over a six-month report on the union’s 2021-22 budget, heard a report on the Leadership and Staff Development Program, and reviewed the union’s political action, education, and international work.
Thousands of Workers Seeking to Join UE
As employers continue to use the pandemic to attack working conditions and seek to use broken U.S. labor law to deny workers’ rights, Meinster said, UE organizing committees have responded by waging fierce and effective union recognition fights and first-contract struggles.
He reported that UE’s organizing work among graduate workers is bearing fruit across the country. In December, UE filed a demand for recognition for 5,000 graduate workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where workers face out-of-control housing costs (MIT is a major landlord in the area) and abuse from supervisors. At Indiana University, a very effective organizing committee has signed up a majority of IU’s 2,500 graduate workers; they also filed a demand for recognition in December. UE Local 1466, which signed up a majority of graduate workers at the University of New Mexico and filed for recognition in December 2020, was finally certified under New Mexico’s “card check” law in January, and at New Mexico State University, graduate workers have made progress towards recognition of their union, UE Local 1498. Several other large groups of graduate workers elsewhere in the country are also interested in organizing with UE, Meinster said.
In October, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC/UE) at Kenyon College in Ohio demanded recognition and filed for an NLRB election for the first wall-to-wall undergraduate student worker bargaining unit in the U.S. The chair of the college’s board of trustees, a former lawyer for General Electric, has determined to fight the workers’ right to organize, leading to legal delays at the NLRB. Meinster said that, despite the legal delays, workers have been “fighting like hell” to get an election in the spring. Kenyon College is also home to UE Local 712, which has represented the maintenance workers there since the 1990s.
Also facing legal delays are 160 workers who write, edit and prepare thousands of visa applications annually for the immigration law firm Hudson Legal. The workers are confident they won an NLRB election in January, but in a last-minute move, the board agreed to company demands to impound the ballots pending the resolution of company appeals. Meinster reported that the UE organizing committee at Hudson Legal is “incredibly strong — these are real fighters.” He also pointed out that UE, in organizing a workforce that is entirely remote, is breaking new ground for the labor movement. “This is part of where the economy is going and where the workforce is going, and this is a real test of whether unions can effectively organize in this sector.”
Meinster also reviewed UE’s organizing work among municipal workers in Virginia Beach and Newport News, Virginia and the ongoing struggle for a first contract at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, NJ.
Support for Locals, Staff
Turning to UE’s existing membership, Meinster discussed several challenges facing the union, and outlined measures the National Union will be taking to provide better support to locals and field staff. These include fostering more opportunities for rank-and-file members to share experiences, compare notes, and learn from one another. As an example, he pointed to the caucus of Service Contract Act locals held in December. The union will also be creating a password-protected website where local leaders can directly access educational and other resources from the National Union.
Meinster also reported at length on steps being taken to help newer staff get the support and direction they need. These steps include providing staff with more opportunities to learn from each other and to be mentored by more experienced staff. By giving staff the support to help with leadership development in locals across the country, Meinster said, the union will continue to build locals’ ability to engage in the aggressive struggle that UE is known for.
Board members had an extensive discussion about how best to implement this work.
Leadership and Staff Development
UE Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker gave a report on the Leadership and Staff Development Program, a new initiative to develop the leadership of rank-and-file UE members from racial and ethnic groups that are currently under-represented in UE leadership and on the UE staff.
The participants include eight members who are receiving a subsidy from the national union, two members whose expenses are being paid for by their locals, and two UE project staff. They have met twice by Zoom, and future plans include having participants sit in on contract negotiations, participate in UE organizing campaigns, sit in on higher-level grievance handling such as third-step grievance meetings, and learn about shop floor actions.
GEB members Antwon Gibson, Local 610, and Larry Hopkins, Local 1177, offered thoughts about their experiences in the program. Gibson said, “When we’re together and united in solidarity, great things happen,” and that he is “excited for what’s next in the program.” He also encouraged other UE members to watch “10,000 Black Men Named George,” a documentary about the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Hopkins reported that he “had the pleasure and honor to co-convene our last Zoom meeting, which was a wonderful experience.” He described how the participants were learning about UE history through studying the publications “Them and Us Unionism” and “Aims and Structure.” “I really believe that the program is right now going in the right direction,” he concluded.
Corporate Democrats to Blame for Voting Rights “Debacle”
During the Political Action Report, UE General President Carl Rosen reported on the union’s efforts to support the push for voting-rights legislation in Congress. Voting rights and the 2022 elections were key points in the policy action report approved by the 2021 UE convention, and the union issued an officers’ statement and calls to action via email and social media, joining the coalition Declaration for American Democracy in a final push over the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday weekend.
In what Rosen described as a “debacle,” two corporate Democrats in the Senate, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, were able to kill any action on voting-rights legislation. Rosen pointed out that the razor-thin majority held by Democrats in the Senate reflects the weakness of Biden as a candidate, who was unable to inspire any down-ballot victories even while running against a wildly unpopular president. Rosen said that it will be tough to get working people to have any enthusiasm for the November elections unless there are good candidates — who can distinguish themselves from do-nothing corporate Democrats — coming out of the Democratic primaries.
One such candidate he identified is State Representative Summer Lee, who is running for an open Congressional seat in the Pittsburgh area. Lee addressed the 2019 UE convention and since her 2017 election has been at virtually every UE rally or picket line in the Pittsburgh area. Local 610 President Gibson agreed, declaring that “She’s on board with our ideas, she supports rank-and-file unionism, she supports what we do as UE.”