“Who are we? UE!” chanted some 200 protestors outside the Chicago headquarters of General Electric Transportation Division last Monday.
GE executives did not need the introduction. They’ve faced off with feisty UE — the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America—for most of the union’s 77-year history. And since last year, UE has worked hard to save nearly 1,000 member jobs at the big GE locomotive factory in Erie, Pa. from threatened layoffs.
So it was no surprise that when UE held its national convention this week in Chicago, the union brought the fight to the corporation’s doorstep. Local union president Scott Duke talked his way through the office building’s security to deliver petitions, signed by 10,000 Erie community residents, demanding that the company save those local jobs instead of transferring the work to a non-union shop in Texas.
Had GE execs or onlookers needed a briefing on UE, the union would probably describe itself as it typically does: “the rank-and-file union,” that is, democratic and member-run. Passersby in Chicago might also recognize the UE as the union that twice occupied a local window and door factory in a fight to save workers’ jobs, ultimately helping workers form a cooperative to run the factory. Or they might be surprised to find it’s the union supporting workers leading a wave of strikes and protests in a giant complex of warehouses near Chicago that serves Wal-Mart and other major retailers.
Indeed, after the GE protest, the demonstrators joined workers at a protest outside a new, down-sized urban Wal-Mart near the GE headquarters. Some of the protesters worked at a regional Wal-Mart warehouse; others were retail “associates” from Wal-Mart store workers’ advocacy group, the UFCW-backed OUR Walmart.
The protest ended up at a McDonald’s, partly because UE simply likes the uprising of fast-food workers that spread nationally this week. But there was another connection: UE is trying to protect the good jobs it has helped create at GE from being lost while the kind of low-wage, dead-end jobs at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s proliferate.
One of the leading Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) unions in the organizing drive of the 1930s, the UE is now a small and fiercely independent union with an impact far beyond its size — just 35,000 members nationally. It fights employer demands for contract concessions, like two-tier wages, in circumstances under which many other unions give in. It aggressively conducts — and often wins — organizing campaigns in locations (such as North Carolina) and industries (such as manufacturing) that are extremely challenging to unions. It regularly tries new, or revived, approaches to workplace struggles, such as its current experiments with “pre-majority unionism”: forming union locals in workplaces where the union believes it does not yet have enough support to win a majority in a representation election. This allows the workers to protest or even strike over grievances, potentially paving the way for a majority union and traditional collective bargaining.
Politically, UE’s “independence” most often means fighting Republicans, like 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But it does not embrace the Democratic Party — and supported the effort in 1996 led by the late labor leader Tony Mazzocchi to form a Labor Party, now defunct. UE leaders often talk about the Democratic Party in critical terms that many other unionists feel but cannot freely express. “The Obama-Biden record on issues important to you and your union remains dismal for many working-class voters,” UE president Bruce Klipple told convention delegates, adding that Obama’s election “was somewhat of a hollow victory and very temporary.”
In the late 1940s, UE had nearly a half million members. But it fell victim to the post-World War II “Red Scare.” In 1949 it left the CIO shortly before the CIO could expel it — along with 11 other unions in 1949 and 1950 — for having Communist leaders. Often with the direct or indirect assistance of the government and employers, many of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and remaining CIO unions raided the membership of UE and the other expelled unions, drastically reducing the more radical unions’ ranks. UE membership fell further as automation, then globalization, reduced employment in its core electrical and manufacturing industries over the subsequent decades.
Now, when organizing is hard for all unions, UE more or less organizes enough to compensate for attrition, drawing heavily on member volunteers who help make up for the union’s limited financial resources. Many shrinking unions have turned to mergers to survive, but UE officers say they have the funding needed to stay independent and that a new plan to cut costs and raise revenue will put UE on more secure financial footing than in recent years. (UE has also remained independent of all labor federations since 1949.)
Historically, the fate of UE has been tied to GE, which even now accounts for at least 4,500 of the union’s members, as well as the biggest local, #506, which represents of workers at the Erie locomotive plant that is at the center of a crucial struggle.
For several decades, says UE Director of Organization Bob Kingsley, GE duplicated most of the contract terms negotiated by a union coalition at its non-union plants. This was good for non-union workers, but made them harder to organize. Now, over the past decade, GE has tried to phase in a “competitive wage” policy in which new employees are being hired in some plants at rates as much as $15 an hour less than current workers, and often as low as $13 an hour.
UE is determined to fight the two-tiered wage proposal. The union is stepping up organizing, particularly aiming to set up “pre-majority” unions like one at a Grove City, Pa. factory. By striking or taking similar legally protected collective action, these pre-majority unions may be able to pressure management to offer a better contract even without a formal union bargaining process.
In 2011 the union discovered that the company planned to open a new factory in Fort Worth, Texas, to make locomotives and giant off-highway vehicles. Erie managers at first claimed it would only do “overflow” work from their facility, according to union representative Gene Elk (full disclosure: father of In These Times staff writer Mike Elk). But the company later said that it would move 950 jobs from Erie to Fort Worth unless the union accepted “competitive” two-tier wages and other concessions. The UE agreed to some unpalatable changes in healthcare and pensions, but resisted many other changes GE wanted, including the two-tier wage system .
Then in April of this year, GE announced that it planned to move the jobs, triggering negotiations required by the contract and by law, Elk says. But the union claims that the company had already started the transfer in 2012. UE filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the move was illegal and the work should be returned to Erie.
A decision could come soon, but Elk says the NLRB in Washington is now reviewing the regional office investigation, most likely because of its potential sensitivity. A ruling supporting the union’s charge has the potential to stir up a major political storm. In a similar case during Obama’s first term, when the NLRB decided that Boeing had broken labor law in moving work to South Carolina and ordered the company to return the jobs to Seattle, Republican politicians went ballistic.
Small as it is, UE appears ready to take on the fight. “The flame of independence is still burning,” Kingsley told delegates. “The flag of democratic unionism is still flying. We can still be the junkyard dog of justice. It’s not up to me. It’s up to you. This is the best damn union in the country.”
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.