Aggressive struggle through concerted action is an essential feature of rank-and-file unionism. We do not see the union as an insurance agency to which members pay a fee in exchange for the services of high-paid business union staff who say they'll “take care of it for you” through legalism, lobbying, and backroom deals. A union is a workers’ organization, built by members to improve their conditions through collective action.
In contract negotiations, this means involvement of the members in developing their demands. It also means using tactics in the workplace that show support for the bargaining committee and keep pressure on management. Too many union leaders believe the best way to negotiate a contract is to keep their members in the dark and keep them quiet. Our approach is to give the members as much information as possible to engage in action to support their proposals and to develop strategies and tactics to maximize membership participation.
The same is true in dealing with violations of workers’ rights that occur between contract negotiations. Stewards often find the chance of resolving a grievance is greater when members collectively express their discontent to management. Many locals have effectively used such tactics as mass grievances signed by every worker in the shop or department, or even delivered to the boss by a mass delegation. Locals find creative ways, while a grievance is going through the formal steps of the grievance procedure, to remind management of rank-and-file support for the union's position. Our reluctance to take our grievances to arbitration grows from our unwillingness to place our fate in the hands of a third party. In some contracts — notably in the Wabtec chain — our members retain the legal right to strike over some grievances after receiving the company's final answer. The existence of this right, even if infrequently exercised, adds a strong incentive for management to settle.
Withholding our labor — striking — is among the most powerful tools workers have. A one-day strike by Locals 625 and 626 in November 2019 was a key element in their successful contract negotiations. The first UE contract at the Kentucky Consular Center was won through a “virtual” strike conducted by members of UE Local 728 while working from home during the pandemic — and the threat of a second one.
The power of strikes is not limited to contract negotiations. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many groups of workers throughout the country, both union and non-union, have struck or walked out to protest unsafe working conditions, in many cases winning immediate improvements and hazard pay. In August 2020, professional athletes in the NBA, WNBA, NFL, MLB, and professional tennis struck to demand action to end the police killing of Black people.
The UE approach to political action — collective action for political change, rather than attempting to buy influence with politicians through campaign contributions or via paid lobbyists — is closely related to our concept of workplace struggle. For our members in the public sector, political action and workplace struggle are frequently inseparable.
Aggressive struggle requires building solidarity beyond our ranks, with other unions and community organizations. UE left the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1949, when the CIO had lost its militant and progressive direction, but we have always found ways to interact with trade union and community allies who share our approach. Among those places are Jobs with Justice (JwJ) chapters, Labor Notes conferences, the Southern Workers’ Assembly, and local alliances in many communities. These include Workers’ Assemblies in Durham, Charlotte, Raleigh and Fayetteville, NC. These assemblies, encouraged by the Southern Workers’ Assembly, are groups of unions, activists, and community members organized around workers’ rights in the South, and are currently supporting UE organizing campaigns.
For the past 42 years, Labor Notes and its network of supporters have actively promoted this kind of cross-union rank-and-file solidarity. It has become an indispensable resource for trade unionists. UE leaders, rank-and-file members, and staff contribute regularly to Labor Notes, sharing our experiences and analyses with other trade unionists worldwide. Labor Notes conferences are now the largest gatherings of rank-and-file union members in the country. UE continues to provide some of the largest union delegations at national Labor Notes conferences and plays an important role in conducting workshops and plenary sessions.
The basis for UE’s participation in local, national and international coalitions, organizations and gatherings has always been a desire to build a more vigorous, responsive, and relevant working-class movement that can carry out aggressive struggle on all fronts to improve conditions for the whole working class.
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THIS 77th UE CONVENTION:
- Calls on the union at all levels to educate our members about the necessity, effectiveness, and most useful strategies of workplace struggle, including the purchase and use of books such as the Troublemaker’s Handbook, published by Labor Notes;
- Calls on locals to ensure that proper democratic practices are in place to involve members in workplace struggle, including, when appropriate, stewards’ meetings and trainings;
- Urges greater publicity for gains achieved by our members through workplace struggle in the UE Steward, UE News, local union newsletters, and other union communications;
- Commits to transparency in all forms of negotiations with the employer;
- Calls for the continued use of the strike as the primary weapon against the employer, characterized by careful planning and timing, full membership involvement, and mobilization of community and political support;
- Directs the national union to provide renewed member education on UE strike policy;
- Urges locals to seek the right to strike on grievances as part of their collective bargaining demands;
- Calls on the union at all levels to:
- Participate in, support, and join Jobs with Justice, the Southern Workers’ Assembly, and other formations that bring together unions and community organizations;
- Participate in the next Labor Notes Conference in Chicago on March 25-27, 2022;
- Encourages members and locals to participate in or assist the formation of Labor Notes Troublemaker schools, subscribe to Labor Notes, purchase bulk subscriptions and books, and submit articles for publication.