[Eds. note: Because of the relevance to the topic of how minority unions can function in the South, Talking Union is departing from its usual practice of not reposting organizational press releases. We applaud the patience and persistence of the UE’s long term organizing strategy, and hope that other unions will emulate it.]
A year-long campaign of rank-and-file worker action, organized by UE members at the big Rocky Mount Engine Plant (RMEP) owned by Cummins Engine, has resulted in a big wage increase for all workers. Technicians (production and operations workers) will receive an 80 cent across-the-board hourly raise and skilled trades will get 75 cents, even though they don’t have a contract or a certified majority union.
The struggle was led by the non-majority UE union in the plant, the CDC Workers Unity Committee, part of the Carolina Auto, Aerospace and Machine Workers Union (CAAAMWU), which is the manufacturing section of UE Local 150. The union has been active in the plant for more than 20 years, although it does not have majority membership among the approximately 1,000 employees, who manufacture diesel engines. The union organizes and agitates over workers’ issues and has won some major victories prior to the recent win on wages.
The wage campaign began last year after Cummins gave skilled trades workers a 75 cent raise, but technicians got zero, making employees very upset. The union called the campaign “75 cents plus more.” Petitions to the company’s top executives were signed by 330 workers. Workers also wore stickers saying “RMEP Workers Want Fairness,” and displayed the Unity News, the union’s shop newsletter. Workers made their concerns visible to the company last October when Cummins CEO Tom Linebarger and the corporate board of directors visited the plant. Hundreds of workers wore protest stickers and several of them spoke up directly to Linebarger on the pay issue. These included skilled trades workers who had received raises in 2013, but let the CEO know that it was wrong to deny raises to technicians.
“Everybody was excited and pleased, and everyone knew why they were getting the raise, even though the plan manager made the point that the union had nothing to do with it,” says Jim Wrenn, a leader of the union. “We’ve been here many years, and the union makes a difference at that plant, even though the company wants to deny that the union exists.”
BUILDING ON PAST WINS
The union has published the Unity News since 1992. More than 10 years ago the union won cases before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and in federal appeals court over managers confiscating the newsletters. The union said this violated workers’ rights under federal labor to organize and engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. As a result of the union win in the second NLRB case, the company agreed to provide distribution bins for the union newsletter. The addition of the bins did not restrict workers’ rights to hand-distribute the newsletter, and engage in other union activity, in non-work areas on non-work time. This was a major victory for the union and established the Unity News as a regular part of life in the plant.
Workers at RMEP generally receive merit raises of 50 cents, from the entry rate to top rate. After they reach top rate, merit raises take the form of lump sum payments. With the new raises won by the union, the entry rate for technicians is $13.16 and the top rate is $20.91. For skill trades the entry rate is $18.51 and the top rate is $28.51.
In 2006 the union conducted another petition drive, signed by 355 workers, for an across-the-board raise. This union action pushed the company to begin giving annual general raises. The union also won the fight to get cents-per-hour raises instead of percentage raises. For several years the company gave bigger raises to skilled trades than technicians, leading up to last year’s zero raise for technicians. The anger over that injustice, and the petition drive and other worker protests, resulted in technicians this year getting a larger raise than skilled trades.