UE Organizing Director Bob Kingsley Prepares To Step Down, But Lefty Union Shows No Signs of Slowing

Bruce Vail

Kingsley gives his final address as the union's Director of Organization at the UE national convention. (UE / Facebook)

In an emo­tion­al moment last week, Bob Kings­ley received a long, loud and some­times rau­cous stand­ing ova­tion from about 250 hard­core union men and women meet­ing in a Bal­ti­more hotel.

The ova­tion was less a response to the report he had just deliv­ered to the con­ven­tion del­e­gates of the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE) than to the fact that his remarks were a sort of swan song, rep­re­sent­ing Kingsley’s last offi­cial report after serv­ing 22 years as the union’s Direc­tor of Orga­ni­za­tion. Kings­ley will retire from UE in sev­er­al months, and the ova­tion was a per­son­al trib­ute to his many years in the front lines of labor organizing.

But there was lit­tle to reflect a retir­ing spir­it in Kingsley’s report. He spoke bold­ly of the union’s recent suc­cess­es in orga­niz­ing Cal­i­for­nia van dri­vers at Ren­zen­berg­er, a Kansas-based com­pa­ny that spe­cial­izes in pro­vid­ing low-cost con­tract labor to rail­roads. He also spoke pas­sion­ate­ly of orga­niz­ing efforts at Gen­er­al Elec­tric plants in Texas and else­where, where the union is engaged in long-run­ning cam­paigns to increase its mem­ber­ship in the company’s sprawl­ing net­work of U.S. fac­to­ries. And new ini­tia­tives are sprout­ing, with orga­niz­ers from UE’s Young Activist Pro­gram vis­it­ing sev­er­al new sites in Bal­ti­more last week, includ­ing an Ama­zon ware­house that just opened ear­ly this year.

Kings­ley esti­mates that orga­niz­ing cam­paigns have brought 30,000 mem­bers into the union dur­ing his tenure as direc­tor, rough­ly equal to UE’s cur­rent mem­ber­ship. The union con­tin­ues to lose mem­ber­ship in its his­toric base in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, he says, but is grow­ing in the trans­porta­tion and pub­lic employ­ees sec­tors. It’s a vic­to­ry of a kind that UE has not been shrink­ing over the last decade, he adds, as have most oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ing unions. (At 30,000 mem­bers, UE is a shad­ow of its for­mer self, hav­ing peaked at about 500,000 in 1945.)

Much atten­tion in the last four years has been on the Ren­zen­berg­er cam­paign. The high point thus far was a sol­id win ear­ly this year in a union recog­ni­tion elec­tion for about 600 van dri­vers in Cal­i­for­nia. UE orga­niz­ers have been active in Cal­i­for­nia rai­l­yards for near­ly four years, he says, and UE was forced to bat­tle for rep­re­sen­ta­tion rights with Nation­al Pro­duc­tion Work­ers Union Local 707. Local 707 had been foist­ed on the pro-UE work­ers by Ren­zen­berg­er man­agers, Kings­ley tells In These Times, as part of a plan to keep the more mil­i­tant UE out. That plan failed, but UE had to devote sub­stan­tial resources to defeat­ing both Local 707 and Ren­zen­berg­er managers.

We’ve been work­ing for over five years” to get UE rep­re­sen­ta­tion, says Malis­sa Gol­la­her, one of the Cal­i­for­nia divers who trav­eled to Bal­ti­more for the con­ven­tion. Some 17 pro-union work­ers were improp­er­ly fired dur­ing the bat­tle between the two unions, she claims, but we won 17 peo­ple their jobs back, with pay. I know, I was one of them.”

UE has ambi­tions to rep­re­sent oth­er Ren­zen­berg­er employ­ees in oth­er states and has already formed small­er units in Ohio, Illi­nois and Neva­da. The largest of these units — about 100 work­ers — is in Chica­go, where the union won a very close Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board elec­tion this year, only to see legal cer­ti­fi­ca­tion delayed by legal chal­lenges to the vote.

Ren­zen­berg­er may ulti­mate­ly become the largest sin­gle employ­er of UE mem­bers, Kings­ley spec­u­lates, a dis­tinc­tion now held by Gen­er­al Elec­tric. Most of the 3,400 mem­bers toil at GE’s loco­mo­tive shops in Erie, Penn­syl­va­nia, but these jobs are under threat as GE moves to shift work to a new non-union loco­mo­tive facil­i­ty in Fort Worth, Texas. UE orga­niz­ers vis­it­ed the Fort Worth site this year, Kings­ley reports, in an effort to build union sup­port. It’s too ear­ly to talk about an elec­tion at Fort Worth, he tells In These Times, but it is one of sev­er­al of 17 non-union GE work­places that are in the orga­niz­ers’ sights.

GE has been very prob­lem­at­ic for UE over the years, Kings­ley con­tin­ues, pro­vid­ing a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of good jobs, but also aggres­sive­ly out­sourc­ing its oper­a­tions over­seas or to right-to-work states. Most recent­ly, GE moved to close its capac­i­tor plant in Fort Edward, New York, elim­i­nat­ing about 175 UE jobs. The man­u­fac­tur­ing work cur­rent­ly done by union work­ers in New York will be tak­en over by non-union work­ers in Clear­wa­ter, Flori­da, next year.

There is no rea­son to expect any rad­i­cal changes in the way the union’s orga­niz­ing depart­ment oper­ates next year, says UE’s Gene Elk, who was elect­ed last week to suc­ceed Kingsley.

The real and endur­ing qual­i­ties of UE are rank-and-file con­trol and aggres­sive strug­gle with employ­ers. I intend to broad­en [the union’s efforts] in both of these things,” Elk tells In These Times. One of things that I am com­mit­ted to doing as an elect­ed offi­cer is lis­ten­ing to the mem­bers, so that is the first thing on my agen­da” as the new Direc­tor of Orga­ni­za­tion, Elk says.

Lis­ten­ing to the mem­bers means that he brings no grandiose new strat­e­gy to his posi­tion, Elk con­tin­ues. Pro­grams estab­lished in the past, such as the Chica­go-based labor cen­ter Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice were intend­ed to be long-term projects and there is no inten­tion of chang­ing that now, he says.

It’s the ware­house project that brought orga­niz­ers to the Ama­zon site in Bal­ti­more last week, Elk explains. UE is not tar­get­ing a nation­al Ama­zon cam­paign, but it does want to test the waters at select loca­tions. Orga­niz­ers were encour­aged by what they learned, he says, with many Ama­zon work­ers inter­est­ed in the ben­e­fits of union­iza­tion. Of course, they [Ama­zon] called the cops on us,” he laughs.

For Kings­ley, he says he plans to con­tin­ue to be active in the labor move­ment after his retire­ment, with UE or per­haps with oth­er unions. I’m not real­ly ready to hang it up yet entire­ly. We’ll see what hap­pens,” he says.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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