Historic Organizing Gains Highlight of Convention

October 8, 2023

“We have had an incredible two years of organizing in this union,” declared Director of Organization Mark Meinster as he began his report to the convention on Monday afternoon. “Young workers are leading a resurgence of unionism in this country.”

He reminded delegates that “This is the generation that grew up with economic crisis, war, the ongoing scourge of racism, the intensification of climate change, crushing student debt, the decimation of our public schools, and the failures of our political system — with Black and Brown youth hit the hardest by these issues.”

He reviewed how UE was originally built by independent worker committees in the big plants of the electrical manufacturing industry, workers who kept alive “the flame of militant, class-conscious industrial unionism” throughout the first part of the 20th century. “Then in the mid-30s, their moment came. Workers were in motion all over the country in plant after plant, industry after industry. That flame that was kept alight all those years became a firestorm that organized the industry.”

Just like those early UE pioneers, the close to 25,000 workers who have joined UE in the past two years have organized in a rank-and-file, worker-led way, Meinster reported. They are joining UE because of UE’s principles of rank-and-file control, aggressive struggle and uniting all workers, principles written into the preamble of the UE constitution by the pioneers of the 1930s, who were themselves young workers.

Meinster then introduced rank-and-file leaders from over a dozen different workplaces.

Organizing the South

“If there’s something happening on our campuses, there’s definitely something happening down South, the region with the lowest union density and worst labor conditions,” said Meinster as he introduced municipal workers from Virginia Beach. “During the pandemic, [Virginia Beach sanitation workers] launched a strike on their own — with no union, just their own courage and grit.”

Virginia Beach worker Terry Green described how after that strike, “UE came in and started organizing the workers. As we were organizing the workers, we were gathering our allies and building a relationship with city council.” In 2020, the Virginia state legislature had granted collective bargaining rights to municipal workers, overturning a Jim Crow-era ban — but only if the city passed a resolution to establish it.

This took, as Green said, “a lot of work and organizing.” By developing relationships with city councilors, the union was able to win $36 million in raises, a $15 minimum wage, and a step pay program in May of 2022. In municipal elections that fall, the union interviewed all the city council candidates and, for those who said they supported it, “We even made them sign a sheet to hold them accountable for their word.” After the elections, the city council had a majority in favor of collective bargaining, and recently passed a resolution establishing a task force to set it up.

Green reported that he and another union member are now on that task force. He said that the city has been more accountable to developers than workers, because it collects money from developers for the work that city workers do. But with collective bargaining, he said, “Now it’s our turn to collect it back from them.”

Willie Brown from Local 150’s Durham City Workers Union chapter described the painstaking organizing efforts that led to the dramatic six-day “stand down” by sanitation workers in early September. “That came with some serious, serious, serious work,” he said.

When UE graduate worker members from around the country came to North Carolina for the Saladin Muhammad Organizing Blitz in June, “that little help energized Durham” and helped lead to the sanitation workers taking action.

He said the “hardest part” for sanitation workers was making the decision to strike because they “loved their job and they love serving the community.”

Brown reminded delegates of the importance of workers taking ownership of their own union. “You got to get out there and recruit, you got to get out there and say something!” he declared. “You got to do the footwork. That’s what organization’s about.”

Taking on Tough Fights

Marina Smoske, Abby Schultz, and Maddie Cupak of newly-chartered UE Local 666 described how they “organized against the devil,” and condemned the “abject failure of labor law” to protect their rights from their union-busting employer, Hudson Legal.

After workers filed for an NLRB election in August of 2021, “Management attacked us and came after us as individuals,” said Smoske, telling delegates how the company revoked her long-standing disability accommodations. Schultz was not only terminated, but she and another worker were harassed online — the company set up a website accusing them of “sabotage activities to destroy the United States of America” — and then sued twice.

Cupak said that relying on the law to protect their rights was nearly futile. “Companies like Hudson don’t care what the law says or what protections it gives us on paper.”

Nonetheless, Local 666 prevailed in their NLRB election when votes were finally counted in July 2022, and continues to pursue justice. “As long as we at UE Local 666 are here to fight, we’ll give our bosses hell,” concluded Schultz.

Anthony Sanchez of UE Local 115 told delegates how workers at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey won not one but two NLRB elections and finally secured a first contract this past summer.

He recounted how, at the beginning of the pandemic, he had told a supervisor in a staff meeting, “our health and safety is at risk” and “the supervisor got very aggressive with me, started yelling at me in front of everybody.” Workers “said enough is enough and they all walked out.”

“That action led to us getting organized,” said Sanchez. “We started uniting more. We started doing marches on the bosses,” and eventually won a first UE contract that a boss admitted was the best first contract at any Refresco plant in the country.

First Contracts at Universities in New Mexico, Massachusetts

The stage then filled with over 50 graduate workers from nine campuses. The nine new UE locals represent over 24,000 workers.

Anjali Dvorak of UE Local 1466-United Graduate Workers at the University of New Mexico and Hannah Melick of UE Local 1498-Graduate Workers United at New Mexico State University described their organizing, their legal battles with their employers “to prove that we were in fact workers,” and the gains of the first UE contracts at their universities, which were ratified in December 2022.

Dvorak pointed out that New Mexico’s prohibition on strikes in the public sector kept workers from exercising their full power. “In New Mexico, building strike power means asserting our working-class rights to strike despite our status as public workers,” she said. Melick spoke about Local 1498’s struggle for tuition remission at New Mexico State University, one of the few of its peer institutions that requires graduate workers to “pay to work.”

June Stenzel from UE Local 256 (MIT-GSU) told delegates how graduate workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won a first contract just the week before convention, which included wage gains, protections against discrimination, and union shop. Organizing at MIT had begun in February 2018 “in a meeting with just 15 people,” and “despite an ugly anti-union campaign,” grad workers won their NLRB election in April 2022 with a 66 percent “yes” vote.

During their year-long negotiations for a first contract, Stenzel said, “our bargaining strategy focused on worker-led issue campaigns,” with workers sharing their stories of facing unsafe conditions in laboratories, harassment from supervisors, and unfair fees imposed on international workers.

The union held all-day informational pickets in the spring of 2023 and members voted down MIT’s “insufficient contract proposal” by 88 percent. “This is when we began gearing up towards a strike,” Stenzel said, and “on Labor Day, we announced the upcoming launch of our strike pledge, to tell MIT that we would strike if necessary.” One week later, the day before the strike pledge launch, MIT settled on terms acceptable to the union.

Wave of Graduate Worker Organizing in 2023

Delegates then heard from graduate workers at six universities who all joined UE by overwhelming margins between January and July of this year.

Summer Pappachen, Adrian Ray-Avalani, Kavi Chintam, and Mounica Sreesai of UE Local 1122-Northwestern University Graduate Workers explained that NUGW was founded in 2016, but only affiliated with UE in 2022, after working with a different national union. “We want to thank you all for embracing us as part of your family,” said Pappachen; Ray-Avalani said that Northwestern workers “felt the UE difference” immediately, winning their NLRB election only 99 days after affiliation. Sreesai said Local 1122 is organizing not just for immediate gains, but “for a just and equitable system of higher education.”

Wisam Awadallah of UE Local 197-Teachers and Researchers United at Johns Hopkins University condemned the university’s dismissal of their union as “a small group of students,” saying, “They fundamentally do not respect us, or consider us workers.” He declared that with “the power of a credible strike threat ... we will win the contract our members deserve.”

David Černý and Morgan Kincade of UE Local 1103-Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago said that they affiliated with UE because of UE’s commitment to rank-and-file control and respect for autonomy. Černý described how, prior to affiliating with UE, GSU had struck in 2019 and organized graduate workers to refuse to pay their student service fees, a campaign which resulted in a “resounding victory” after 14 months. Kincade said that in negotiations for a first UE contract, Local 1103 has already won a historic commitment to expand disability accommodations for graduate workers, and that the local sees their organizing as part of a “long-term struggle to transform university labor.”

Rendi Rogers of UE Local 261-Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth said graduate workers at Dartmouth College began organizing during a housing crisis. “It wasn’t uncommon for people in our unit to be commuting over an hour to work or living in places without plumbing or spending over 70 percent of their income on rent.”

She described her employer as a “tax-exempt hedge fund trying to disguise itself as an institution of higher education,” and told delegates that her local is currently building towards a strike. The way to change the world is through class struggle, she said, and “We’re going to do everything we can to make the world better for future generations the way you have for us.”

Rachel Bergman of UE Local 1105-Graduate Labor United at the University of Minnesota noted that GLU’s labor board win in April was the sixth union election for graduate workers at that university in 30 years; they won by an astonishing margin of 2487 to 70. “We joined UE specifically because this is a democratic rank-and-file union,” she said.

Chris Guston of UE Local 1043-Stanford Graduate Workers United described how Stanford University “de-prioritized, demeaned, and failed to support” graduate workers, and told of workers “being forced to work 70 hour work weeks for 20 hours of pay.” SGWU went public with their union drive on April 3, collected over 2,500 union cards on that first day, and just two months later won an NLRB election.

“The key to a dignified workplace lies not in asking the administration” for improvements, said Guston, “but in taking action to demand them.”


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