The movement for justice lost a warrior on August 29 when former UE Field Organizer and Black Workers for Justice leader Dennis Orton passed. Dennis made historic contributions to UE’s work in the South.
Dennis Orton was a genuine trade unionist, organizer, representative, and negotiator. He had years of experience before joining the UE staff. He was a national representative of the Grain Millers Union, representing primarily white workers in the western United States. In 1996, Dennis joined the Southern Regional Staff of SEIU, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1998, Dennis became Co-Director of the Southern Center for Labor Education and Organizing (SCLEO), a project of the Brisbane Institute at Morehouse College. There Dennis helped to coordinate two international Worker's Schools linking workers in the US South with the international struggles against privatization in the public sector and the international private sector struggles of workers in the global auto industry. In 2001, Dennis was part of the Black Workers for Justice delegation to South Africa for the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) where BWFJ members met with members of COSATU, the central national trade union federation of South Africa at that time.
Brother Orton joined UE as a project organizer in 2003 to help build the Petersburg chapter of UE Local 160, the Virginia Public Service Workers Union. It quickly became the largest chapter. He then led the team that built the Department of Administration Chapter of UE Local 150, the NC Public Service Workers Union. As part of the International Workers Justice Campaign in NC, Dennis coordinated UE Local 150’s Municipal Council for years that expanded from Durham and Rocky Mount City to Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Charlotte. Dennis was the lead organizer when the historic 2006 Raleigh City sanitation workers strike broke out and helped lead it to significant wins. He helped found the Charlotte City workers chapter. Dennis was assigned back to Virginia where he led the founding of UE Local 160 chapters in the Tidewater and Northern Virginia area. He serviced Local 123, as well as Locals 120 and 121 in Baltimore.
Brother Orton, left, with UE Local 150 leaders Bonita Johnson (center) and Darrion Smith (right).
As UE field organizer for the private sector in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, Brother Orton worked closely with the Carolina Auto, Aerospace & Machine Workers (CAAMWU) chapter of UE Local 150 at the Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant in Whitakers, NC, especially from 2016 to 2018. He guided project staff Carolyn Beale and Ethel Jones in spearheading the "Fight for $15/Hour and a Union" campaign and securing endorsement from twenty local churches. He doggedly pursued unfair labor practice charges on behalf of contract workers, union members who were outsourced after the workers petitioned for $15/hr and held a public press conference. Brother Orton also networked with the Teamsters Union, representing Cummins workers in West Virginia, in a joint campaign with CAAMWU-UE150 for affordable health care benefits from Cummins.
CAAMWU President Jimmie Thorne recalled Brother Orton as very dedicated and consistent with his assistance and training of union members and stewards as the frontline for defense of workers rights. Thorne recalled Dennis would often drive from Virginia down to Whitakers, NC to meet with workers, even if only two or three attended, reminding Thorne of the Bible verse, “when two or three are gathered, I will be there with you.”
UE Eastern Region President George Waksmunski remembered Orton as “one of the most decent men I have ever met. He cared so deeply for the working class and the labor movement.” He noted that Orton was patient with people who expressed ignorant beliefs and “could challenge ignorance in a way that would engage conversation to help people see.”
Orton retired from UE on May 1, 2019.