By Gerard Di Trolio
The history contained in the pages of Union Power: The United Electrical Workers in Erie, Pennsylvania by James Young is an invaluable lesson for those looking to reinvigorate the labour movement today, especially in former industrial areas facing decline.
Union Power tells the history of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Locals 506 and 618 at the General Electric (GE) plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. 506 was the larger local that represents blue collar workers on the factory shop floor. 618 represents white collar workers in the GE offices in Erie.
Young focuses on UE’s origins in Erie and the attempts to build the union from the late 1930s onward, focusing on the postwar Red Scare and McCarthyism and how it affected UE 506 and 618 at the local level.
This is one of the book’s strengths. It gives a perspective of how McCarthy era witch hunts operated on a local level. While there was government harassment, arrests, and subpoenas of UE members, McCarthyism took on other forms in a local setting like red baiting rhetoric from clergy who many members saw every Sunday. This proximity to anti-union rhetoric would have an effect on GM workers and put the UE in a perilous position.
That these locals exist to this day is incredible given the UE’s postwar history. UE withdrew from the CIO in 1949 after the Taft-Hartley Bill demanded anti-Communist loyalty oaths and major CIO unions like the UAW decided to go along with the law. Of the11 left-wing led unions that were expelled or withdrew from the CIO at the end of the 1940s, only UE and ILWU exist today.
The UE survived in Erie despite raiding attempts from rival unions and intransigent GE management by constantly being there for its members, producing its own lively newsletter, hosting social events for members, fighting racial discrimination and demanding equal pay for equal work at a time before other unions in the U.S. embraced these principles. UE managed to survive in part by being ahead of its time.
Though the number of GE jobs in Erie and in the United States as a whole declined after the 1960s, UE 506 & 618 continued to be innovative. After a collective agreement signed in 1997, UE managed to win the creation of a “Job Preservation Steering Committee” which forced GE to reveal long term plans to the union. As Young notes, many of GE’s modern corporate planners had little knowledge of, or had ever seen the inside of plants like in Erie. As a result of this committee, GE came to see the value of the Erie plant’s production knowledge and expertise and realized that this would be lost with further outsourcing. This steering committee credited with saving hundreds of jobs at GE in Erie and a demonstration of the power of winning small but meaningful victories at the shop floor level.
Erie, is just across its namesake lake from Southwestern Ontario, which has seen a similar industrial decline. Many communities are hurting or facing uncertain futures as more and more plant closures make the news. The lessons contained in Union Power are an important demonstration of how to build a culture of solidarity even in adverse conditions. For these communities to survive and eventually regenerate themselves, there will need to be an organized working class to look out for one another and demand change.