February 11, 2009

Revolt on Goose Island: Nervous in Erie


Kari Lydersen checks in on the situation in Cleveland, where anoter UE local finds inspiration in the direct action of the Republic Windows & Doors factory workers, in today’s installment of her ongoing Melville House “Live Book” project

Chicago, february 10, 2009 — On Wednesday the Republic Windows workers will visit one of UE’s flagship worksites: Local 506 at the General Electric locomotive factory in Erie, Pa., which won UE recognition in 1940.

A campaign at the plant had started in 1937, just after the UE’s founding in 1936. (Two other area GE factories were also organized by the UE in the 1930s). The ensuing years of gaining members and support at the Erie factory were surrounded in the anti-Communist rhetoric that was sweeping the country and especially aimed at the UE.

At the time workers, white collar managers and executives lived in a company town called Lawrence Park with three different strata of housing and amenities based on their rank. (Read more in Ronald Schatz’s 1983 book, “The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse 1923-60.”)

Over more than half a century Local 506 is proud of staying true to its rank-and-file unionism and its grounding in a worldview acknowledging the existence of a fundamental difference in the interests of workers and owners -– often described as “class warfare.”

Andrew Dinkelaker, the UE eastern region president, said the Republic Windows factory occupation may have been a tactic not used much in decades by labor as a whole, but it was not a surprising decision for a UE local.

“It’s unusual that this tactic hasn’t been tried in quite a number of years, but it’s not unusual that within an organization like UE something like this emerged,” he said. “With the UE there’s no distinguishing between workers on the shop floor and representatives of union –- the workers are the union. What’s going on in this country is workers are at the breaking point where they are willing to take more drastic action. The question becomes if they take drastic action are they with an organization that will support them internally.”

Dinkelaker thinks most media coverage of the Republic Windows factory occupation failed to highlight this significant difference between the UE and most unions, a difference that basically allowed the factory occupation to happen when such a suggestion would likely have been squelched at other workplaces.

“Most unions are top down -– you have union bosses who can nix it if workers want to do a strike,” said Dinkelaker. “The UE is set up democratically, so if its membership is interested and willing to take on a fight, the whole organization backs them and consults about the best way to achieve victory. It’s not seen as the workers needing approval from the national organization. You hear these reports (at other workplaces) of members wanting to do something revolutionary but leadership stopping them. That’s not the case within our organizational structure. We don’t have union bosses who have the power to stop the workers. We try to figure out, if there’s motivation to fight, how do we become successful rather than telling them no.”

The Erie GE workers are no strangers to direct action. In summer 2007 they held a work stoppage during highly contentious contract negotiations with GE, which union leaders knew would also have ripple effects for smaller UE-represented workplaces in the region. Among other things the negotiations centered on the company’s bid to cut benefits to retirees. (Read more here).

On Nov. 7, 2002 the Erie Local 506 workers along with UE workers at another GE plant (Local 618) walked off the job to protest expired grievances (upon which no action had been taken) and an overall job-slashing strategy by the company. That same day UE workers at a GE lighting factory 30 miles away in Ohio went on strike over the company’s alleged harassment of union leaders amidst the company’s outsourcing jobs to Mexico and Hungary.

As just an example of how activist the union tends to be, four days later (Nov. 11, 2002) UE workers at a GE aircraft engine repair facility in southern California went on strike regarding outsourcing; and at another repair facility in Anaheim, Ca. that week UE workers struck over charges of discrimination. That month also saw actions by GE workers in upstate New York. Read more here.

As at other UE locals, local union representatives and workers in the Erie factory are one and the same and top union officials earn no more than the workers they represent.

(In 1986 Local 506 ousted eight of its union officers and stewards from their positions for traveling to Japan with GE managers on the company’s tab. A 1992 New York Times story noted, “G.E. officials decline to be quoted about their relations with the U.E. Some of them, however, privately express admiration for its adherence to principle.”)

This winter the Erie factory laid off or furloughed several hundred workers because of downturns in locomotive orders. The layoffs are supposed to be temporary, though they may become permanent, and Dinkelaker said it’s important to keep the number in perspective given the total 4,000-some workforce. Erie as a whole has lost 2,600 jobs (two percent of its total) in the last nine months, though its economy is actually weathering the storm better than the nation as a whole, thanks in part to the GE factory. (Read more here).

Nonetheless workers at the locomotive factory and elsewhere in Erie feel uncertain times are ahead, and hence Dinkelaker said unconventional actions like the Republic Windows occupation offer a needed example of resistance.

“A lot of people felt very inspired by it and want to see it turn into something bigger in terms of taking action and stepping up and seeing what kind of injustice is going on generally,” Dinkelaker said. “Even though (Republic Windows) was a particular situation, it tapped into a groundswell of people being upset about how the economy’s being handled and who’s benefiting and who’s paying.”