78th Convention Celebrates Strike Power

October 8, 2023

From September 17-21, nearly 200 delegates, guests, and staff gathered at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh for UE’s 78th Convention. Held under the theme of “Building Strike Power,” the convention celebrated UE’s many victories over the past two years.

Many of those victories illustrated the importance of the convention theme: the successful ten-week strike by members of UE Locals 506 and 618 that concluded in August, the six-day “stand down” by city workers in Durham, North Carolina at the beginning of September, and the first contract won by UE Local 256 (MIT-GSU) the week before convention, won after MIT graduate workers demonstrated their willingness to strike to achieve a first contract that met their demands.

Delegates also met leaders from the organizing victories that have brought 25,000 new workers into UE’s ranks over the past two years and heard from international guests from seven unions in six countries.

Convention guest speakers included two women who have led extraordinary movements that have transformed the politics of their cities: Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates and Pittsburgh-area Congresswoman Summer Lee, both of whom spoke on Sunday, the first day of convention. On Monday, long-time UE ally Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a call for “an economy that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” and on Thursday, the final day of convention, Molly Greenberg of the Moving Forward Network and Tommy Carden of Warehouse Workers for Justice spoke about the impact of the railroad industry on workers and working-class communities.

The invocation was given by Reverend Erin Angeli, the Associate Pastor for Queer and Neighborhood Ministry at the Commonwealth of Oakland faith community. Angeli invoked a spirit of unity, noting that “When we honor the giftedness of everyone in the room, we go further than we ever could on our own.” She stressed the importance of recognizing that everyone has a gift to contribute, giving the example of a strike, in which each member of the union can find a role to play in winning the struggle. “Each gift matters, and when we work together we can honor and utilize all of them.”

Delegates were welcomed to Pittsburgh by Mayor Ed Gainey, who ran against an incumbent establishment Democrat in 2021, and who won with the help of UE. Gainey gave a rousing defense of the labor movement. “If we didn’t have unions we wouldn’t be where we are today” he said, noting that he grew up in a union household.

Gainey made it clear which side he is on. “I don’t know millionaires and billionaires but I know working-class families,” Gainey said. “I understand the fact that it’s working-class families that move the economy.” Gainey also urged delegates to “Pray for our brothers and sisters in the auto workers union,” noting that the current UAW strike is a strike for the future of the working class.

Songs Born Out of Struggle

The convention opened with powerful music from the Fruit of Labor Singing Ensemble, made up of rank-and-file workers, many of whom are leaders in UE Local 150. Fruit of Labor also sang at the opening and closing of many of the convention sessions over the following days. They performed songs that, in their own words, were ‘born out of the struggle of organizing African American workers in the “Black Belt” region of North Carolina and the South.’

(Fruit of Labor’s music can be streamed or purchased at fruitoflabor.org/music.)

On Monday morning, the second day of the convention began with former steelworker and USW leader Mike Stout performing his original song “We are the UE Rank and File.” The song about UE history was originally written for UE’s 1998 convention. For this convention, Stout updated the lyrics to include the historic 2008 occupation of Republic Windows and Doors, UE’s remarkable growth among graduate workers in the past two years, UE organizing in the South, and the 2023 Wabtec strike.

During the proceedings on Sunday, General President Carl Rosen also recognized retired UE NEWS Managing Editor Al Hart, who took photographs for the union. Hart can boast of 50 years in UE, having signed up as a Local 506 member as soon as he went to work at the GE plant in Erie, PA in October of 1973.

“A moment of incredible potential”

“This is a moment of incredible potential for the working class and for the labor movement,” Rosen told the convention in his address, delivered Monday morning, “and no union has done more to take advantage of this moment than your union, UE.”

“Every generation of UE has faced challenges, from the enormous task of organizing the electrical manufacturing industry in the first place, to the red-baiting attacks of the 1940s and 50s, to the deindustrialization of the last four decades. Each generation has met their obligation to preserve UE as a fighting union, a beacon of hope for workers not only in our own country, but across the world.

“Now it is our turn. Because of the hard work that each and every one of you has put in every day to build and sustain our union, we now have a clear path forward to UE gaining the capacity and resources needed to help lead the struggle on behalf of the entire working class.”

Building Strike Power

Rosen also noted that “Large sections of the working class have realized that there is no savior, no politician — and certainly no employer or corporation — that is going to provide us with decent wages and benefits, protect our rights, or address the existential threat of climate change. Workers, especially younger workers … are realizing that they need to use, or be willing to use, our ultimate power, which is the power to withhold our labor, to strike.” That, he said, is why the union chose “Building Strike Power” as the convention theme.

Speaking on the resolutions “Collective Bargaining” and “Restore the Right to Strike,” Scott Slawson, Local 506, emphasized that “the right to withhold your labor is critical” and “a very empowering thing.” He explained how his local’s ten-week strike this past summer had built “a massive amount of unity and solidarity” among Local 506 members.

Ricky Steele, Local 506, added that in order to run a successful strike, “We have to mobilize our members, we have to educate our members what is happening and what can happen.” He also spoke about the importance of community support. “We have to let the community know that we’re not just fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the community.”

Donald Quick, Local 150, described the six-day “stand down” by sanitation workers in Durham, letting delegates know that the struggle is ongoing and “We’re going to stand on what we believe.” He pointed out that city workers could shut down the city anytime and said city workers took a stand because “This is serious business, this is our families, our lives, our livelihoods.”

Eastern Region President George Waksmunski declared that striking is a “human right” and that workers should always be able to withhold their labor, regardless of the law or the contract, pointing out that laws are made by “the folks who are owned by the capitalists.”

Dawn Meyer, Local 808, said that during coordinated bargaining by Locals 208, 808, and 1008, the strike vote taken by Local 1008 members helped all three locals. “We got good, solid raises for all.”

Willie Brown and Patrice Jacobs, Local 150, and Ramona Malczynski, Local 1466, also spoke on the resolution.

“Our members run this union”

Throughout the week, delegates attended to the business of running their national union, discussing and debating 20 resolutions that will make up UE Policy for the next two years, along with the report of the Policy Action Committee, which reviews the union’s priorities for the coming two years and develops an action program for locals to use following the convention.

General Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker gave a thorough financial report on Wednesday morning, and received a standing ovation and praise from delegates for his stewardship of the union’s finances. In the afternoon, several amendments to update and modernize the national union constitution were discussed and approved. The constitutional amendments have been mailed to locals for a vote. (Amendments to the UE constitution must not only pass at convention, but be approved by a majority of locals in membership votes following the convention.)

The convention re-elected General President Carl Rosen, Secretary-Treasurer Dinkelaker and Director of Organization Mark Meinster to two-year terms. Director of Education Kari Thompson also ran for the Director of Organization position.

Discussing the final resolution on Thursday morning, “Aggressive Struggle,” many delegates rose to speak to the importance of members running their own union. Scott Slawson, Local 506, said, “I hope people understand the importance of this resolution and the democracy of our union.” He encouraged other UE leaders in attendance to learn how to run their own local, to talk to and educate their members. “As leaders we have the responsibility to train the next generation of upcoming leaders in our union,” he concluded. “We are a rank-and-file union, our members run this union, we have to remember that and we have to step up and run our locals.”

Western Region President Bryan Martindale cautioned delegates against not only depending too much on union staff, but depending too much on a small group of officers. “Always look at your members to make decisions,” he urged.

Lexi Kenis, Local 1466, pointed out that as members of a rank-and-file union, UE members have a “unique ability” to engage in aggressive struggle that other union members sometimes cannot. Antwon Gibson, Local 610, illustrated this point with a story his father told him. The local union that his father belonged to, in an AFL-CIO union, voted on their contract but the national union overturned the local’s decision. “The UE is a lot different,” said Gibson. “The rank-and-file members run this union. I want you all to know that’s the UE difference.”

Following discussion of “Aggressive Struggle,” the convention closed with delegates singing “Solidarity Forever.”

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