UE General President Peter Knowlton will be retiring with over three decades of service to UE as a field organizer, district and then regional president, and national officer, though as Knowlton is quick to remind anyone he's around these days, this is not the end of his contributions to the union — he plans to stay active as a retiree.
Knowlton is known throughout the union for his willingness, even eagerness, to debate and discuss difficult issues; his passion for UE's progressive values and democratic practices; and above all, his boundless optimism.
Knowlton had a wide variety of organizing and social-movement experience prior to coming to UE in the mid-80s, in the student, environmental, and Native American solidarity movements. Working for a Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) weatherization program in Minneapolis in the 1970s, he saw first-hand the promise of environmental policy to create good union jobs and bring them to communities suffering from marginalization and unemployment. As a union cab driver, he and his 600 coworkers tried to buy out their company and re-establish it as a unionized worker co-op.
In 1982, Knowlton was hired to be the state director for AFSCME in South Dakota, which brought him to the state during the lengthy battle UE was waging for a first contract at the Litton microwave oven factory in Sioux Falls. UE and AFSCME were among the most politically and organizationally active unions in the state, and in 1983, they combined forces to help elect the first woman — a labor friendly candidate — to the Sioux Falls City Commission.
In 1985, Knowlton joined the UE staff and was sent to Massachusetts where he was involved in one plant closing struggle after another. He helped develop groundbreaking tactics at JC Rhodes, where UE Local 284 came remarkably close to convincing the city of New Bedford to use eminent domain (the legal right of government to requisition property for the good of the community) to keep the plant open. The eminent domain legislation passed two of three required readings, but on the last reading the mayor betrayed the workers.
Knowlton was not only central to this innovative campaign to preserve good jobs in the face of corporate greed, he also worked with then-UE News editor Peter Gilmore to produce a booklet, Refuse to Lose: Eminent Domain and the JC Rhodes Campaign, so that other UE members and other unions could learn from Local 284’s experience.
Knowlton was elected president of District 2 in 2001. During his first few years on the General Executive Board, the union made a number of difficult decisions to address the union’s finances. While Knowlton and the district he led did not agree with all of those decisions and debated them vigorously, that disagreement did not lead to divisiveness.
As District 2 president, Knowlton was instrumental in convincing the members of the Connecticut Independent Labor Union to affiliate with UE as amalgamated UE Local 222. In 2005, he helped guide the union through the transition from districts to regions — after which he served for a further decade as president of the Northeast Region.
Knowlton was elected General President at UE’s 2015 convention after the retirement of General President Bruce Klipple. During his term he has consistently encouraged UE members to discuss not only the future of the UE, but a working-class vision for the labor movement, the country, and humanity itself. He has brought UE leadership to the newly re-energized struggle for Medicare for All, single-payer healthcare, a longtime UE political goal that Knowlton consistently prioritized as a district and regional president. He has also prioritized the pressing issue of climate change, and the possibilities of reviving good, union jobs while tackling this existential threat to humanity. Knowlton has played a key role in developing and nurturing UE's relationship with the Canadian union Unifor and the resulting North American Solidarity Project. He worked hard at restoring and creating strong relationships for UE with a number of progessive unions in the U.S.
The delegates to this 76th 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.