Organizers Rock! Union adds New Members

Late last month, Kenny Lewis (X33) was nearly finished with his list of calls to make to shipyard workers who had not joined USW Local 8888. In spite of his friendly approach over the phone, that afternoon the young 8888 organizer had come up empty, unable to persuade any non-member to become a dues-paying Steelworker.

Then Kenny hit the jackpot. Jamaree Good (X32) answered one of his last calls. Kenny, who has been on the local’s Organizing Committee for seven months, was ready to deliver his smooth union pitch. But to his surprise, it didn’t take much persuasion to win Jamaree over. He was ready. He had been in the yard for six years and was searching to be part of something bigger than his own daily work routine. He decided to join Local 8888 because, he said, “I felt like I could be part of the change in the shipyard.”

Kenny and Jamaree’s connection goes to the heart of the union’s eye-popping organizing success in 2019. One-on-one contact, genuine conversations and constant visibility combined to add nearly 1,300 new members to the union’s rolls since January.

Local 8888 President Charles Spivey has made organizing and training the next generation of union activists two of his top priorities. “Folks are really engaged now,” he said. “We’re approaching people at the gates, over the phone, and during home visits. We’ve revamped our message and approach in company orientation for new hires and apprentices. Now, we’re signing up 90-95 percent of them.

President Spivey, who chaired the Organizing Committee before he successfully won election in 2018, said attention to organizing had fallen into “a neglectful state,” jeopardizing the union’s strength and weakening its leverage at the bargaining table. “We had to address that area head-on,” he said. With the company on a hiring binge since 2012-13, the union was representing thousands of employees who did not pay union dues, which was a burden but yet an opportunity, too.

When he put Kenneth “Chan” Lewis (X33) in charge of the Organizing Committee, things started to percolate. Chan, a past 8888 Vice President, brought his vision, his wisdom and his passion for organizing, and he put together teams of organizers who followed his open, direct approach to folks in the yard.

Kenny Lewis (Chan’s son) said his father just told him one day to come with him to the union hall. Kenny, who has been in the union since he came into the yard six years ago, said, “It just all fell into place. It was like it was meant to be for me to be part of this [organizing] that my dad loves so much.”

The organizing drive took a stronger strategic focus in the spring, when International Vice President for Human and Civil Rights, Fred Redmond dispatched a team of talented, experienced staffers from Pittsburgh to help ramp up the local organizing campaign. William Jones, Wilhelmenia Hardy, Latrisa Davis and Jon Britton made an immediate and positive impact.

William, who is based in the International’s headquarters in Pittsburg, where he is a collective bargaining technician, said they worked closely with the Organizing Committee, grievance reps and assistant representatives and other activists to pinpoint where and how to contact non-members and then engage them in a dialogue about joining the union. Week after week, teams of organizers hit the gates in the morning, work the phones in the afternoons and made house visits on Fridays. Their strategy and persistence paid off. The number of new members climbed steadily then dramatically. William said their pitch to non-members was simple but effective: It’s wrong not to belong.”

Jamaree said during his six years in the yard, he was never against the union, but he also wasn’t drawn to the union hall. When he visited the 8888 union hall after joining, he said he experienced a family vibe. “I felt really welcomed and comfortable. People here recognize me and know my name, even though I just joined the union.” He encouraged more non-members to “at least try to come to the union hall to see for themselves.” Jamaree already has his eyes on playing an active role in contract negotiations and, ultimately, earning a spot on the executive board.

President Spivey said he welcomes the big ambitions of next generation activists like Jamaree and Kenny. “The shipyard of the future is being shaped every day. We only have a short window to get our newer members up to speed on how to protect the gains we have fought so hard to win – taking strikes 4o years ago and 20 years ago.”

President Spivey said the organizing campaign “has put 8888 back in the game.” He cited some tangible gains: “We’ve got more dues-paying members and fewer freeloaders. We have better morale and less negativity. We’re keeping the union spirit alive with new energy. Most of all, we have sent a powerful message to the company: we’re not going to crawl for crumbs at the bargaining table. We’re coming bigger and with more support for our negotiating proposals.”

President Spivey quickly added that the Organizing Committee will continue to recruit new members. He believes the union can cross the threshold of 10,000 members by the end of 2019. He finds inspiration in stories like that of the hourly worker who had put 20 years into the yard but had never been asked – not once – to join the union. Well, recently, when he was asked, finally, to sign a union card, he did – without hesitation.

The lesson, President Spivey said, is that “it’s never too late to do the right thing.”