Union Organizing in the Trenches

Thirty-five years ago, my Dad told me a story that I recall from time to time. It was about my mother’s father, Grandpa John Kelley. Grandpa lost his small Chicago moving business during the Great Depression. Soon after losing his business, he was lucky enough to land a job at the massive Electromotive train engine building plant at LaGrange, Illinois, twenty miles outside of Chicago. I like to imagine what it must have been like for him at the plant. The main building was a mile long — 15,000 skilled and semiskilled workers under one roof together. Grandpa and the twelve men who worked in his shop with him were pattern makers. They were responsible for making the wooden models that would have molten steel poured into them to make the tools and parts necessary to assemble the engines. Grandpa’s job was a high-skill, high-pay deal — something most people would give a lot for in those days. My Dad told me that Grandpa Kelley organized his tiny pattern-maker shop into the CIO in 1936, when the rest of Electromotive was AFL. The remaining 15,000 GM Electromotive workers at LaGrange quickly followed Grandpa’s pattern makers, forming UAW #719.

I’m sure most will agree that this is a great story. It’s very special for me because it adds so much to the legend of a decent, affectionate man with a wonderful Irish sense of humor. It is a big part of why union organizing is in my blood. Nine years ago, in 1996, I attended the founding convention of the Labor Party in Cleveland, Ohio. I was dazzled by that large, high-energy gathering of working people. Unions representing a million organized US workers met that summer and agreed to a program that, if successful, would result in a far more decent and secure America than the one we live in today. Besides looking forward to organizing around the Labor Party program when I came back to Seattle, I also had a strong desire to become a union member.

It was easy to see in Cleveland that union workers had made the convention and the LP program possible. Naturally, union leaders had the most influence over how things went in the Labor Party. I wanted to be a full member! I figured that simply getting a job in a union hospital wouldn’t be adding as much to the labor movement as organizing a new group of workers into a union. So I decided to follow in Grandpa Kelley’s footsteps and start “talking union” to my co-workers at the Seattle hospital where I had worked as a Respiratory Therapist for the previouseight years.

Glen, the organizing director for a major SEIU local in Washington State, was a big, pleasantly disheveled sort of guy. He had a loose mop of black hair perched on top of an open, honest face with clear attentive eyes and a ready smile. He sat hunched over a bagel and coffee across from my friend Ray and me. We had called and told him we wanted to talk about organizing unions at the hospitals where we had our jobs. “You guys want to organize the bargaining units where you work, huh?” Glen took a bite of his bagel and cream cheese and looked from one to the other of us. He seemed to be trying to gauge our reactions. “Yes,” I answered, “people at my hospital need a union as much as anyone else and that means they need a union a lot.” Glen looked at me intently as he wiped crumbs and cream cheese from his mouth. He waited for me to finish.  “Besides,” I continued, “it would be a great way to give the Labor Party a boost around here, don’t you think?” Glen smiled, put his bagel down, and gestured toward us. “I’d love to help you guys organize, and here’s a thought I want you to take away from our  meeting.” He paused for a second to heighten the effect of what he was about to say. “Organizing a  large group of workers at a hospital is a daunting task. It’s going to take a long time, and you’re going to need a lot of help from your co-workers. Get yourselves ready for something at least as hard as anything you’ve ever tried.”

I became a volunteer, member-organizer at my hospital in Seattle. One afternoon (a couple of years after I talked to Glen at the bagel place), when I was headed back to the Respiratory Department, a friend of mine, a unit secretary named Sheila, stopped me in the hall. “Hey, Brian. How’re things going with the union?” “Doing ok, Sheila.” I gave her a friendly nod. “You get all your guys signed up yet?” “Not just yet,” she chuckled. “By the way,  I’ve been wanting to mention something to you.” “What’s that?” She gave me one of those ‘listen-now” looks. “Since you’ve been working on this union thing, you seem like a much more upbeat person.” I raised my eyebrows and waited for her to finish. “Really, a lot of us have noticed. You’re definitely feeling pretty good about life these days.”

Sheila was right about the effect that being a member-organizer had on me. It gave me a whole new way to relate to my sisters and brothers at work. My work life was totally different from the dog-eat-dog relations everybody is constantly forced to have with each other. It gave me a voice for the kind of decency and fairness people always crave, but seldom find. It was fun!

There were disappointments, too. There were times I was ready to give up, for sure. We had two unions basically walk out on us. Later, I was to find out that the Organizing Institute-trained hotshot from one of them had reported to her boss that my group didn’t stand a chance of coming together enough to win a union election. When I was about four years into the union effort at my hospital and going through one of my periods of skepticism, a Bio-Med Technician named David stopped me in the hallway. We were just outside the Respiratory Department door. “Hey, Brian, come over here a minute.” He gave me a nod, calling me over to where he stood. What does this guy want? I wondered. David is a little scary-looking when he’s serious about something. He’s six feet tall and has a shaved head with prominent, expressive eyebrows. He pumps iron a lot, and his muscled arms are covered with tattoos. I politely complied with his suggestion. “There’s going to be a union meeting, a week from Saturday.” He worked his eyebrows a little. “Wanna come?” “Sure, man.” I was elated to see David’s initiative. “Just say when and where.” David had first called somebody at the Washington State Labor Department, who recommended that he contact the UFCW. The guy at the Labor Department told him that union looked to him to be serious about organizing. And so we hooked up with  our third union.

We got cooking with the UFCW, and our bosses at the hospital noticed. Every weekly meeting of the union organizing committee turned into a celebration at the local burger joint where we liked to meet. Member-organizers would proudly hand in stacks of signed authorization cards from their work groups, and the rest of us would heap praise on them. We were getting close.

Then, we were called to a meeting. The meeting room in the hospital cafeteria was packed tight with me and my co-workers. Pat, one of our hospital’s top managers, stood in front of the assembled workers and looked uncomfortable. “We’re having this meeting,” he said, “to give all members of  the team here a chance to speak up about whatever might be on your minds.” There were about thirty of us present in the room with Pat. One person after another stood up and spoke about their frustration with how the hospital ran and treated its workers. Nobody brought up the union organizing that was going on, but everyone realized that the success of the organizing drive was why we were there. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend Nancy stand to speak. Nancy is an experienced Intensive Care Respiratory Therapist with long black hair, a strong contralto speaking voice, and quite a sharp tongue. She was known around the department as a quick-witted person, with a dry sense of humor. This should be good, I thought. “Pat,” Nancy began, “I try to listen to you guys when you tell us things about how the hospital runs. I figure maybe I’ll pick up something useful.” She had a gleam in her eye as she continued, “But lately I’ve been thinking, you know — fool me once, shame on you, but fool me a thousand times.” The room broke up in raucous laughter.

In fall 2000, a moment of truth came. I was a wreck, so my wife, Paula, drove as we headed to my hospital for the National Labor Relations Board union election. God Almighty, I was pretty sure of the head counts we had gone over and over at our organizing meetings, but you never know. As I got out of the car, Pete came up to me. “C’mon, Brian, let’s take a walk.” Pete was the UFCW organizer I had been working with for almost a year. He could sense that I was wound pretty tight. “They’re not going to be ready for a while in there.” After walking around for a few minutes, we arrived at the conference room where the votes were to be counted. I counted a dozen managers from the hospital already there, seated on one side of the large table that occupied most of the room. Paula and I sat down in chairs on the other side of the table, together with some of our union buddies.

Pete sat at the head of the table, next to the NLRB referee. The management group was dressed for the occasion. Dark suits, ties, etc, they definitely had us out-classed again! They were smiling and joking across the table, having a little too much fun. I leaned over and whispered in Paula’s ear. “They think they’re going to win, don’t they?” Paula was, at the time, a union steward at the HMO where she worked. She’d already been part of scenes like the one we found ourselves in that night. “We’ll see when she counts the votes,” Paula sensibly answered.

“No!” the NLRB judge called out as she pulled the first vote from the box. Oh shit, I thought. “Yes, yes, no, yes, yes, yes,” the NLRB woman called out, as she unfolded the paper ballots. The jokes on the other side of the table slowed, then stopped, and the faces of the bosses lengthened. They looked like they thought they had been going to a party and wound up at a funeral. I formed my fingers into a signal to Paula; “3:1” The manager sitting across from me saw my ratio of votes, got my attention, and shook her head. “N0; even more,” she formed with her lips. Final tally for the technical workers bargaining unit: 80 to 24, in favor of the union!

Friends of mine in the Labor Party were impressed. Most elections, I was told, end up with the union losing. How, they asked, did you get such a strong win? In the years since our election, I’ve given a lot of thought to that very question. Here are some of my ideas, for what they’re worth.

1.The main issue was that we, a group of experienced and well paid workers with good benefits, wanted more of a voice where we worked. We knew in our bones that forming a union would help us gain respect from our managers. And believe me, that’s the way it  turned out. They listened to us more after we went union.

2. That still doesn’t explain me. In order to account for our success, I  have to describe my role. Forgive me, please, for blowing my own horn a little, but I believe I must. I shepherded the union drive at my hospital from start to finish — more than four years. We could never have done it without Pete and the UFCW, but we never could have done it without me, either. I had the incredible honor of having co-workers come up to me and say, “You did it, Brian. It’s your union,” more than once.

So what kept me going? Vision. A vision of a better country and a better world that we could bring closer by joining together in a union at our hospital. I believed that things like a Right to a Job, a Right to Health Care, and a Right to Education were possible if the  unions and the Labor Party could become strong enough. We really could contribute to America being a more decent, fair and equal place. That’s what kept me going. And it kept my friends in the bargaining unit going, too. No, they didn’t all run out and join the Labor Party. But we had worked together for a long time, and they fed off my commitment. Maybe everybody didn’t share my vision completely, but they did share my desire for a voice at work, and they relied on me, along with David and others, to keep on keepin’ on.

That’s what I was thinking about as my plane rose from Chicago’s Midway airport, after I attended the big AFL-CIO meeting this July. We flew uplake a little, over the “Miracle Mile,” and then turned west. I was listening to the great old Sinatra tune about Chicago, “My Kind of Town,” when I looked out my window and saw Navy Pier and Lake Michigan disappearing behind us. Both sides in the AFL-CIO split were talking about putting more money into organizing. I’d like to remind them that there is something more important than money. If we could get an army of volunteer member-organizers like me together with leaders that have a real vision for the labor movement and the country, man, could we ever get the labor movement going again!

Brian King is a long-time friend of Monthly Review.