Last week the United Electrical Workers (UE) published a new pamphlet, Them and Us Unionism, which argues that the labor movement needs to return to the class-struggle unionism that animated the founding of the industrial unions in the 1930s.
The 24-page pamphlet highlights five principles of class-struggle unionism—each of them near and dear to us at Labor Notes:
- aggressive struggle
- rank-and-file control
- political independence
- international solidarity
- uniting all workers
It’s a worthwhile read for activists in all unions thinking about how to put the movement back in the labor movement.
The UE is one of the only unions remaining of the 11 left-led unions who were expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as part of a Cold War anti-Communist purge (the Longshore Workers—ILWU—is the other, with the rest destroyed, or absorbed by rivals).
Like many of its counterparts’, the UE’s ranks have thinned dramatically over the years—a trend that began in the late 1940s under the combined assault of the country’s biggest employers, red-baiting anti-union politicians, and other union leaders who were happy to raid. Capital flight, automation, and a general environment hostile to union organizing have reduced the union to 35,000 members; besides factory workers its ranks now include rail crew drivers, co-op workers, graduate employees, public sector workers, and social workers.
Precisely because of its politics and the actions that flow from them, the UE nonetheless remains an important pole of attraction in the labor movement. Its members occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in 2008. It’s led solidarity work with independent unions in Mexico. Its Vermont locals gave important support to Bernie Sanders in his first run for Congress in 1990 and the Senate in 2006. Reflecting its commitment to independent, pro-worker politics, it’s been a cornerstone of Labor for Bernie and Labor for Our Revolution.
Today the UE, which now bills itself “the Union for Everyone,” continues to organize new members, including an experimental effort in collaboration with the Democratic Socialists of America to support workers fighting for safe workplaces during the pandemic.
PRINCIPLES IN PRACTICE
An example of the UE’s commitment to “rank-and-file control,” principle #2, comes from the 200 social workers at the nonprofit Lanterman Regional Center in Los Angeles, who joined the UE in 2018. They assist people with developmental disabilities and their families to access services.
Lanterman was founded in 1966 as a product of struggle by disability rights activists. “At the time people were being put in asylums or put in a hospital somewhere,” said Anthony Bucci, who’s worked at Lanterman for three years. “Families successfully argued that there should be a community-based structure where they could go and speak with someone who speaks their language and get access to services and advocacy.” There are now 21 such centers in California.
But Lanterman workers were frustrated with high caseloads and management’s unwillingness to listen. “We were carrying 10 or 15 or 20 more cases than recommended by the state and federal government,” Bucci said. “From the beginning the issue was: how are they making decisions on this when we are not at the table?”
Kirsis Morillo, a service coordinator and now UE Local 1018 vice president, was motivated by management’s favoritism. “Policies weren’t followed for one individual but then for another they were. I saw what was going on and morally I just couldn’t stand for it,” she said.
Before deciding to form a union, a group of workers wrote a letter to management laying out their concerns. “When we saw the lack of willingness to even meet with us when they saw how low morale was,” said Morillo, “we felt they didn’t care.”
That’s when workers decided to unionize. “When it began,” said Bucci, now local president, “people came together and met—regardless of rank at our company, regardless of what language you speak, how many clients you have, what department you work in, how many years you’ve been working. Kind of like I would imagine the French revolution was organized.
“They met in dark corners. They talked in cubicle desks in hushed tones. They went to coffee shops across the street and laid it all out: ‘How are we going to convince people?’ They literally convinced people by going from one desk to another, one person to another, until we had a majority.” Bucci said he was recruited in one of these conversations.
Workers voted 113-55 to join the UE in March 2018. But it took a 14-month battle—including informational pickets, mass calls to state officials in Sacramento, packing board of directors meetings, and a one-day strike in March 2019—to win a first contract.
Key to sustaining the union were big membership meetings, often attended by over 100 members who heard updates from the five-member rank-and-file bargaining committee.
Those meetings were key to “making sure that all the concerns of the members were heard,” said Morillo. Among the top issues was bilingual pay. “The majority of our clientele speak another language—Spanish, Korean, Armenian, Chinese—so we have staff that were hired to work bilingual and perform verbal and written duties, but weren’t being compensated for it,” said Morillo, who does bilingual work in Spanish herself. The union ultimately won $50 extra per pay period for bilingual workers.
Bucci credits these membership meetings with keeping up the pressure for another big demand: alternative work schedules. Lanterman workers pushed to work 80 hours over nine days and take every other Friday off, allowing them flexibility to meet clients’ schedules as well as a break from L.A.’s harsh commute.
“If those voices weren’t heard,” he said, “then I’m not sure we would have pushed so fervently for things like an alternative work schedule, had we not held these town hall-style information-gathering and information-distribution sessions.”
But it took the one-day strike to get management to budge. Before the strike, “we didn’t feel that the employer was really bargaining in good faith,” Morillo said. “There was a lot of delaying meetings, canceling meetings the day of.” The strike brought management to the table.
Local 1018 won its first contract in May 2019. In addition to bilingual pay, it included the 9/80 schedule, a $25 per month cell phone reimbursement, significant wage increases, and a sick bank that allows workers to donate unused sick time to coworkers facing medical hardship.
In Them and Us Unionism, the UE emphasizes that its “locals are built on self-reliance… UE provides education programming for local officers and stewards so that they have the skills they need to run their local, go toe-to-toe with the boss in grievance meetings and contract negotiations, and advocate for the union in public… High levels of membership participation are encouraged and made possible by the structure of our local unions.”
Even as other unions (the Service Employees paramount among them) have formed multi-state mega-locals, the UE has stuck to the CIO tradition of making each shop its own local. Workers at Lanterman are UE Local 1018.
Since the strike, their local has continued with its big monthly meetings—even during the pandemic, though they’re now on Zoom. And they’ve established committees for a newsletter, their constitution, and research on alternative retirement.
“A lot of people thought that a union was just going to swoop in, have a structure in place, and fight the bosses on our behalf,” said Bucci. “But when they say ‘our members run this union’—it really does mean that. From the very creation of our union local it has been people who work at our center coming together—not some representative from UE International, or some bigtime labor lawyer.”
“When we got introduced to UE nationally, that’s really where we found out what rank and file means: it was really us members running our union in every aspect,” said Morillo. “Forming the contract, having all these committees, managing the finances of the union, making the decisions about what we’re supporting—that’s up to our membership.
“It’s been a learning experience for us—I didn’t have any experience. But it’s really nice to see new members taking initiative and wanting to be involved. We’ve had the support, we’ve had the training from UE, so we definitely are prepared.”