UE Director of Organization Gene Elk will be retiring at the end of his current term, on October 31. Elk first joined the UE staff in November of 1977, and served the union as a Field Organizer, International Representative, and Secretary of the GE Conference Board before his election as Director of Organization in 2015.
Even before he came on staff, Elk had a connection to UE: his uncle Herb Nichol and aunt Lucy Nichol were UE organizers in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Herb Nichol was primarily responsible for organizing UE Local 120 at Locke Insulator in Baltimore, and was later brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his organizing activity with UE. Lucy Nichol organized Sylvania shops in central Pennsylvania.
Elk worked on organizing campaigns in New York and Virginia, with the understanding that when the opportunity arose he would get a job in a UE shop. He moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and got a job at Colonial Manufacturing, where his field organizer was Phil Mamber, who would later serve as president of UE’s New England District 2. After about six months, UE Director of Organization Hugh Harley asked Elk to join the UE staff on a permanent basis to work in western Pennsylvania.
In November of 1981, the 3,700 members of UE Local 610 struck Wabco (now Wabtec) and Union Switch & Signal, in the first large strike in the U.S. after President Ronald Reagan had busted the PATCO strike by firing over 11,000 air traffic controllers. Reagan had also decreed that strikers were no longer eligible for food stamps. Elk was one of several staff assigned to the strike.
The Wabco strike was the first major strike against concessions in an era when most large industrial unions were accepting them. Elk worked with Local 610 and other staff to feed 3,700 people on a regular basis, through food pantries and strike kitchens, and keep morale up during the six-month strike. Ultimately, the strike was successful in rejecting concessions.
After the strike, Elk worked with Local 610 into the later half of the 1980s, when newly-elected Director of Organization Ed Bruno asked him to work in the national office on a new effort to organize General Electric workers.
The new organizing work focused mostly on GE’s plastics division, and led to an organizing campaign at the big GE plastics plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Although UE lost both labor board elections held in Parkersburg, the union did successfully organize GE service shops in New Mexico, Washington, and Illinois — organizing work for which Elk was primarily responsible, and which were the only GE shops that UE, or any other union, had been able to organize since our 1975 victory at the GE turbine plant in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the 1990s, Elk was asked by Director of Organization Bob Kingsley to help coordinate UE’s growing organizing work in the public sector. In 1996, he served as the lead negotiator for UE’s first graduate worker contract, as members of UE Local 896/COGS won a $2,000 increase in the base salary for graduate teaching and research assistants at the University of Iowa and a new healthcare plan, UI GradCare, which Local 896 has maintained to this day.
Over the next decade and a half, Elk continued to bargain contracts and do arbitrations for UE’s growing public-sector membership in Iowa, Ohio and Connecticut. In 2011, Elk became Secretary of UE’s GE Conference Board, and he led UE’s 2015 GE negotiations along with UE President Bruce Klipple. The 2015 negotiations turned out to be UE’s last negotiations with GE, as GE sold its last remaining UE-represented plant, the Erie locomotive plant represented by UE Locals 506 and 618, near the end of the four-year contract.
Elk was elected Director of Organization at UE’s 2015 convention, following Kingsley’s retirement. During his tenure as Director of Organization, UE ramped up our organizing so we now have dedicated field staff who focus entirely on organizing. Elk also worked to reinstitute UE’s traditional staffing structure, where every field organizer has an international representative to help guide their work and talk with them about their assignments.
As a national officer, Elk continued his long-term commitment to servicing Local 329 in Elmira, New York, where he built strong relationships with local leadership over more than a decade and a half.
In his four decades on UE staff, he was guided by a solid understanding of the role of staff in a rank-and-file union. He both preached and practiced the importance of empowering members to run their own union.
The delegates to this 77th UE Convention extend to him a heartfelt thanks for his long service to UE, and our best wishes for a long, happy and healthy retirement.