The Utility Workers Union of America is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding in 1946.
Throughout its 75-year history, the union’s constitution has provided the structure to empower members and their union, and, in so doing, protect families, communities, and the nation. It is as valuable now as it was when it was first written.
Today, UWUA members are being called on in ways that the founders could never have imagined. From working safely through the COVID-19 pandemic, to combating unprecedented wildfires on the west coast, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard, and extreme heat, tornadoes and floods in the heartland, utility workers are on the front lines, making sure people have gas, water, electricity and steam.
Learning from history
In 1955, the UWUA, which was an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), became an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) when the CIO rejoined the AFL to become the AFL-CIO.
At that time, the power of organized labor was growing, reaching its zenith, with some 35% of U.S. workers belonging to unions. As workers’ strength grew, profit-hungry corporations teamed up with politicians to knock the labor movement off course.
By 1955, the effects of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act were setting in, making it more difficult for unions to win NLRB elections.
The 1959 Landrum-Griffith Act made it even tougher for workers to wield their power as it tightened secondary boycotts and outlawed “hot cargo” provisions in labor contracts. Such clauses stipulated that an employer could not handle or use goods which are not union made or which are manufactured by a company considered to be unfair by the union. This struck at the heart of labor’s ability to exercise power because it made it harder for workers to act in solidarity with each other.
Despite this, the UWUA continued to organize and secure good contracts for its members. This period was marked by real gains in wages, health and pension benefits, paid time off and other advances for UWUA members.
Victory often came through protracted battles, many resulting in members striking for what they were rightfully entitled to. More often then not, UWUA members prevailed, and the union grew in strength.
True to the UWUA constitution’s preamble, the union continued its fight for equality. This included the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the women’s movement for equal treatment and pay, and, though the National Labor Relations Act does not cover them, collective bargaining for farmworkers.
Deregulation used to weaken unions
The corporate bosses pushed back on progress every step of the way. They believed then, as they do now, that increasing profits required weakening workers and their unions. If they couldn’t beat back worker power on the shop floor or at the bargaining table, they sought to change the rules through legislation and policy. When it came to utilities, deregulation was their favored tool to weaken organized labor.
In 1969, President Nixon began the long process of deregulating the utility industries, starting with natural gas. In 1978, President Carter signed the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, beginning the deregulation of electric utilities. And in 1992, President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act, opening the floodgates to deregulation.
The importance of participating in the political arena was embraced by the UWUA, and in 1979, the union established the Committee On Political Education (COPE) Fund to allow members to voluntarily make political donations. COPE contributions are separate from dues payments, which are not, and cannot be used for political contributions.
The 1980s and 90s was a period when the UWUA fiercely contested deregulation at the state and federal levels. Meanwhile, because of its strength, numerous independent unions affiliated with the UWUA.
At the dawn of the 2000s, this trend continued. In 2003, the leadership of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) agreed with the UWUA leadership that the UWUA would better represent SEIU’s gas workers. As a result, five SEIU locals — 69, 80, G555, 686, and 18007 — joined the UWUA, adding thousands of workers to the union’s ranks.
With employers continuing their relentless assault on workers pay, benefits and working conditions, the National Union set up the UWUA Health and Welfare Fund in 2003. This supported members facing increased costs and/or cuts to their health care benefits. Today, some 8,200 members are covered by the fund, which has more than $150 million in assets. This is another example of how the union continues to change and adapt to meet the needs of its membership.
The next issue of The Utility Worker will cover historic events up to the present, with an eye toward the future.
UWUA Constitution Preamble:
We are an organization of men and women of every race, religion, age, and ethnicity, who are committed to a society where all workers and their families live and work with dignity; where there is an economic and political mandate for a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth for all those performing useful service to society; where workers have a collective voice and power at the workplace; where economic well being is achieved for our members and all workers; where work is satisfying and fairly rewarded.