UE "Non-Majority" Union Organizes The Old-Fashioned Way

Workers at two plants in North Carolina are struggling with a range of creative tactics and new methods of organizing to get their voices heard as a union. They are winning improvements and enforcing union rights--despite the fact that neither their employers nor the NLRB have ever recognized the union as the sole bargaining agent.

Consolidated Diesel Company (CDC), a joint venture of Cummins Inc., in Whitakers, North Carolina employs about 1,000 hourly workers who manufacture and assemble diesel engines. Vermont American (VA) in nearby Greenville employs about 300 workers who make drills, routers, and other machine tools. Both plants are located in the eastern North Carolina "Black Belt" and have an African American majority workforce.

THE FIGHT FOR RECOGNITION

The CDC Workers Unity Committee (WUC) was formed in 1990 by workers who organized a successful eight-month petition campaign for a paid Martin Luther King Day holiday. The WUC affiliated with the United Electrical Workers (UE) in 1994. The UE committee at Vermont American organized as a non-majority union in May 2000 and wrote to company officials informing them of the union's elected officers and asking for recognition. In January 2001, the Consolidated Diesel Co. Workers Unity Committee, joined with the UE non-majority union at the Vermont American machine tool plant to form the Carolina Auto, Aerospace & Machine Workers Union/UE (CAAMWU-UE), a section of statewide UE Local 150.

Vermont American refused official recognition of the union, but soon faced an unfair labor practice charge for violating a union member's Weingarten rights (rights that guarantee a worker representation by a co-worker in disciplinary matters). The member was denied his request for a representative in a disciplinary investigation meeting. The charge led to a settlement agreement on September 28, 2001, which resulted in an NLRB-ordered notice being posted at the work site. The notice stated that the company would not interfere with the rights of workers to be represented in disciplinary matters.

Following this victory, CAAMWU-UE began distributing laminated Weingarten rights cards provided by the UE to union members at both CDC and VA. The cards say, "If this discussion could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated, or affect my personal working conditions, I request that a co-worker be present at the meeting. Without a co-worker, I choose not to answer any questions."

This reflects the NLRB's latest ruling on Weingarten rights, which was upheld by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. The ruling views these rights as falling under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act--rights to concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. To have such rights, workers do not have to be represented by a union that has been recognized by the employer with a collective bargaining agreement. Workers in a non-majority union such as CAAMWU-UE can request their union steward as their co-worker representative in such investigative meetings.

In this way, CAAMWU-UE has begun to assert its existence through its shop stewards in spite of having no official recognition. In many cases, when a grievance arises, the union steward organizes a petition to management from the work team members. This becomes the first step of the "grievance procedure."

THE PETITION TRADITION

At both CDC and VA, CAAMWU-UE uses a "petition tradition" to address grievances to management. Petition campaigns are often accompanied with wearing buttons and wearing black on "Workers Want Fairness Days." Petition campaigns also include rallies and press conferences with community allies and letters to corporate headquarters. In many cases, such petitions have resulted in responses by management to address the grievance in some form. This has often lead to victories: an MLK paid holiday; a 10-hour holiday for machining workers on a 10-hour/day alternative work schedule; doubling the quarterly bonus pay; the reinstatement with back pay of two workers unjustly fired and improvements in bereavement leave and severe weather policy. With each petition campaign, new members join the union.

In a recent campaign, 208 CDC workers signed a petition to Cummins CEO Tim Solso requesting a $1 /hour across the board raise and a repeal of the "High Performance Work Team" merit pay plan. The union contends that Cummins is discriminating against the CDC workers, over 60% African American, because workers at other Cummins plants in southern Indiana (union) and Jamestown, New York (non-union) are 90% white and have received across the board raises and have set pay scales not subject to the team-based merit pay system. CDC workers have not received an across the board raise since 1995.

OTHER AVENUES

In the absence of a union contract, CAAMWU-UE also uses available federal and state laws and agencies such as the NLRB, EEOC, OSHA, Wage & Hour, Employment Security Commission, Workers Compensation, Family Medical Leave Act, American with Disabilities Act, and other legal avenues to fight for workers rights and address grievances. The union also holds the company to consistent application of its Employee Handbook policies

A major legal struggle has been waged over WUC’s newsletter Unity News. In 1994 CDC entertained "harassment" charges against two union members and threatened them with termination for distributing the Unity News in team rooms during lunch break. The union filed unfair labor practice charges for this and two other incidents of company interference with workers’ rights to solicit and distribute the Unity News. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, where a 3-0 decision cited CDC for violating workers’ Section 7 rights to distribute the Unity News in non-work areas in non-work times.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

At both CDC and VA, the CAAMWU-UE relies on community support. When the CDC Workers Unity Committee won its initial campaign for a paid Martin Luther King Holiday in 1990, it joined with the adjacent African American community of Bloomer Hill to sponsor an annual MLK Day Celebration. The 1993 MLK Celebration raised the issue of the black majority town of Whitakers still being under an all-white town government after 100 years. The WUC sponsored a workshop for black residents of Whitakers, who organized a slate and elected a black majority to the town board.

In 1996, the WUC campaigned for the reinstatement of a young couple fired by CDC. The black Whitakers town commissioners signed letters to the company, along with other community leaders and union members at the Cummins plant in Indiana. The two workers won reinstatement with back pay. A similar campaign won reinstatement for another unjustly fired worker in 1999. In 1995, with help from UE staff, the CDC Workers Unity Committee initiated the formation of the Community Empowerment Alliance (CEA), which now includes about a dozen community and labor organizations in the Nash-Edgecombe-Halifax County (N.C.) area. The CEA has continued to be a vehicle of mutual support for struggles both in the plant and in the community.

Meanwhile, the workers at Vermont American have the support of the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism (CAR) in Greenville. The CAR has built a strong record of standing behind workers in fighting for justice on the job, including workers at Piggly Wiggly grocery and East Carolina University housekeepers. CAR’s co-chair was recently elected to the Pitt County Board of Commissioners with the help of the union.

The CAAMWU-UE also benefits from the support of the Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ). A number of union members at both plants are also BWFJ members. The BWFJ Workers Center in Rocky Mount serves as headquarters for the CAAMWU-UE, which is now reaching out to workers at other area plants in the auto and metalworking industry. In fact, the development of CAAMWU-UE and non-majority union organizing in North Carolina grew out of the foundation laid by the BWFJ in eastern North Carolina since 1981. Various BWFJ organizations such as workplace committees, Workers School, Justice Speaks newspaper, Fruit of Labor Cultural Ensemble, and the Rocky Mount Workers Unity Council all helped give expression to an indigenous workers movement that now with the support of the UE has grown to a new level.

ORGANIZING THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY

The "non-majority" union organizing strategy emerging in the eastern North Carolina "Black Belt" comes after the experience of numerous close defeats in union elections in the Rocky Mount and Wilson area, primarily in auto-related industry. The UAW, ACTWU and UNITE lost close elections at Genbearco in 1984, Standard Products in 1984, 1988, and 1993, and Safelite Auto Glass in 1995. In May 1993, after losing its third NLRB election in ten years, Standard Products workers formed a non-majority union, elected officers and stewards, set dues, drafted bylaws, and asked the UAW for continued support. The UAW opted to leave town. In September 1994, the UE pledged support to the CDC Workers Unity Committee as a non-majority union organizing to win a majority.

The practice of building the union from the bottom up, organizing the minority to win the majority, is nothing new, but is the very way the UE and other CIO unions of the 1930s organized. When the UAW staged the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan in 1936 that led to its first contract with GM, the UAW members were a minority of the GM workforce. In 1937-38, the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) organized a rank and file union through shop floor actions, many of which led to informal agreements with management that improved working conditions. Some of these lessons of the 1930s are best captured by Rick Halpern in Down On The Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago's Packinghouses, 1904-1954, a history of PWOC, which became the United Packinghouse Workers of America. In 1937-38, PWOC organized a rank and file union through shop floor actions, many of which led to informal agreements with management that improved working conditions.

Unionists regarded these agreements not as substitutes for a contract but as steppingstones along the path to formal recognition. Halpern quotes one worker: "You had to take it slow, a step at a time, to make sure that you was bringing everybody along with you." An incremental process unfolded that drew in other workers and built confidence. Halpern quotes another worker:

"First you get them just to talk with ...your people out on the floor. The other guys see that and they think, 'hey, they got something, this union's gonna get some action and I better get on board so I can get a piece of it.' Then you can start pushing a little harder, asking for a little bit more." (p 135)

At the main Armour plant, only workers on the killing floors, previously organized by the PHWIU (Packinghouse Workers Industrial Union), openly flaunted their membership in the union, although at least a third of the seventy-five hundred workers were dues-paying members of Local 347. (p 139)

As new members were brought into the union, the Armour local developed an unusually large corps of shop-floor representatives...the union relied upon its stewards to complete the task of extending its presence into the far corners of the plant. (p. 142)

Moreover, actions that resulted in improved conditions served simultaneously as potent organizing tools. "This was a big boost to the power of the union...Don't forget, we didn't even have a contract then. Guys said, 'well, if the union can do that maybe I want to join.'" (p. 144)

UE’s experience at CDC and VA addresses strategic organizing questions of building a rank and file infrastructure and building union consciousness in the historically anti-union climate of the Black Belt South. Non-majority unionism begins the process of workers making demands to management to improve working conditions and defend workers rights. In the process it recruits new members to the union, who in turn pay dues and develop resources and allies to carry out the struggle.

BUILDING THE UE IN NORTH CAROLINA

CAAMWU-UE members pay $12 per month dues which pays for newsletter printing, monthly mailings to members (including UE NEWS), a meeting space at Bloomer Hill Community Center and the BWFJ Workers Center. It also goes toward affiliation fees to Wilson Labor Council, CEA, Labor Party, and North Carolina Occupational Safety & Health Project (NCOSH). Recently, NCOSH staff from Durham provided needed assistance to Vermont American workers who were sick from carbide exposure in the router department. The CDC Workers Unity Committee/UE sent 5 delegates to the founding convention of the Labor Party in 1996, and has been affiliated since.

The UE non-majority union in the private sector is organized similarly to the UE Local 150 in the public sector in North Carolina, where public workers are barred by current state law from collective bargaining but have a constitutional right to join the union. UE Local 150 has organized public workers across the state, where its chapters are in most cases non-majority unions building for a majority. The UE Local 150 constitution sets a minimum membership for a chapter as 50 workers or 20% of the unit workforce, whichever is less.

In 1997, the CDC Workers Unity Committee invited Barbara Prear, president of the Housekeepers Association at the University of North Carolina, to speak at its Martin Luther King Day celebration. This was the Housekeepers’ introduction to the UE, and UE began organizing among public workers across the state. There are now UE chapters at close to twenty public institutions in North Carolina. Prear is now president of UE Local 150 and will welcome the UE national convention to Raleigh September 15, 2002.

This is the first time a union has held a national convention in North Carolina. It reflects the UE's commitment both to organizing workers in the South and to UE 150's non-majority strategy of building the union from the ground up.

Jim Wrenn is the president of the CDC Workers Unity Committee/UE.