Ullico Tackles Old Problem: Teaching Union-Unfamiliar Workers About Unions

By Mark Gruenberg

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Moving in a new direction from, but also strengthening, its financial concentration, the Union Labor Life Insurance Company (ULLICO) is tackling a familiar problem that bedevils many unions: Teaching union-unfamiliar workers who wind up in unions about what -- and whom -- they’re working for and with.

At the behest of ULLICO Chairman Ed McElroy and President Ed Smith, the National Labor College developed a curriculum to do that. It got a tryout on April 1 before 24 employees, and ULLICO wants to extend it to all 325 workers.

Smith, a Laborers Union member and Labor College graduate, and McElroy, the former Teachers president, figured workers at ULLICO would be more productive if they knew more about their clients. ULLICO provides insurance, bonding and other coverage to union workers and leaders -- and invests workers’ pension dollars in its J for Jobs projects: Housing, commercial and other construction built by union labor.

ULLICO workers at the session ranged from veterans with more than 15 years with the company down to one who joined just months ago. But they all shared one thing in common: Even those with personal union ties still had gaps in their knowledge of the labor movement, its history, its accomplishments and its goals.

That’s a movement-wide problem. In a recent speech, new AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, daughter of two unionists and an IBEW member herself, said most unionists these days learn about unions “from their fathers…or, more likely, their grandfathers.” That’s how they enter the labor movement. Others have no background.

After an opening welcome from Smith, the session started on a light note, with “Labor Jeopardy,” complete with the familiar jingle. There were no cash prizes, though, and no Alex Trebek. Instead, the Jeopardy board had questions about labor history, major strikes and achievements, and social benefits, such as the weekend, brought to you by the labor movement. The game, with links to details, is on the college’s website.

Professors Pat Greenfield and Jean Darden, and NLC Vice President Robert Molofsky -- a former Amalgamated Transit Union general counsel -- then went through labor history and labor law, starting with the craft unions of the 1700s and 1800s.

After all, Greenfield said, “The union is very much a part of who you are and what you do” regardless of whether the new member works at ULLICO, or anywhere else.

Quickly succeeding the early history were attempts at forming a nationwide labor organization, in 1860, then after the Civil War (the Knights of Labor) and formation of the craft-oriented American Federation of Labor and the mass-oriented, more political Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) and the American Railway Union.

The three professors didn’t pull punches, pointing out the AFL stuck with craft unions, while the other groups backed mass organizing of industrial workers of all races. And the AFL first shunned politics, since in the 1890s, “The government came in on the side of management, from destroying our structure to having the militia shoot our workers,” Greenfield added. By the 1920s, the AFL’s anti-politics attitude had changed.

Interspersed were films about three turning points in labor history: One was the first successful mass industrial strike, the “Bread and Roses” struggle of 50,000 female garment workers in Lawrence, Mass., in 1912. Afterwards came the UAW’s fabled, and successful, 44-day sit-down strike within GM’s Fisher Body plants in 1937, and Cesar Chavez’s decision to take the grape boycott national for his United Farm Workers.

All three illustrated points about labor law, bargaining, organizing and structure which are all in the curriculum. The Lawrence strike brought no lasting gains because the anarchist Wobblies didn’t follow a win with structure. UAW’s win at GM, plus formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), galvanized industrial organizing, using the then-new National Labor Relations Act. And since labor law now bans secondary boycotts, Chavez turned to a mass movement enlisting consumers.

That in turn led to another part of the curriculum: The differing labor laws that cover different groups of workers -- and labor law obstacles union organizers encounter. They include everything from small penalties to illegal firings to plant closing threats. They also cover all sorts of bargaining situations, which the NLRB often rules on.

Molofsky pointed out the power of money -- in ULLICO’s case, union pension funds invested in shares of the union-owned, union-run firms -- to make a difference. Instead of having unions put pension funds with a regular investment house, which might then use the money to build non-union projects, ULLICO invests union money in projects that are union labor-built, and that draw comparable rates of return.

That was the tie, the three professors said, between the ULLICO workers’ jobs and the unionists who, ultimately, paid their salaries. It’s also an important tie to the middle class, said ULLICO Chairman McElroy who briefly addressed the group.

“A solid middle class was built by unions. When unions declined, the middle class declined,” McElroy pointed out.


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