The Union’s Path to the Future Necessarily Includes Education

In preparation for 2009 negotiations, United Steelworkers Local 227 sent me to National Labor College (NLC) in Silver Spring, Maryland, to take the course, “Negotiating and Writing Contract Language.” It was the first time I had ever heard of a “labor college” or had any knowledge that a formal accredited education geared for organized labor was available. My father was a union employee at Phillips Petroleum from 1944 until 1985, walked a picket line during several strikes as a member of OCAW, and served at least some time as a representative for his group. We lived near the Houston ship channel where the oil industry was booming in the 1950s and 60s and thousands of workers crowded union halls in support of union jobs. At 44 years of age, I was hired into my first career union job at the same plant where my dad retired, signed up to be a union member immediately, and within a year began serving as an appointed joint safety committee chair. I have served our union ever since as an elected representative in one or more capacities through the mergers of OCAW with PACE and of PACE with the Steelworkers, and currently continue to serve as Secretary Treasurer.

While taking a 40 hour course on the George Meany Campus, I found that just another 30 credit hours of courses at NLC coupled with previous education from two other colleges would earn me a BA in Labor Education. Four years later, I embarked on getting this degree and graduated on June 22, 2013. I have learned more about unions during this past year taking online courses at NLC than I have known for the previous 65 years after being raised in a union home and working for the past 21 years as a union craftsman and representative. I received very good training from our international union and a union brother, my mentor, where safety is concerned, but lacked a foundation as a union member for understanding the rights of workers, the laws that give us rights, and the people and fights that gained us those rights. In fairness, I have to give credit to the company for paying for much of the training I received, which was a negotiated privilege requiring 40 hours per year at least two years of each contract.  However, I struggled often with the job of representing the membership, frustrated with the weakening support for unions, and missed out on training that included the incredible and inspirational histories of the women and men who stood up to give workers in the United States the rights they have today.

We have very powerful enemies but we have a very powerful friend in our international union and through education at National Labor College. The students I have enjoyed knowing as classmates have found stronger reason to continue with organized labor, they have learned methods to be better teachers and instructors when teaching craft skills and when teaching union leaders how to more effectively represent their membership. We have found a solidarity among one another that has crossed our lines of affiliation and have studied how the lack of such solidarity has adversely affected unions in past years.

My experience over the past year at National Labor College has been one that has given me the foundation I wish I would have had when I began. My ignorance was greater than many I worked with and there are those without formal education who are great teachers for us, but the value of our membership having leaders who gain formal education is invaluable in these times. My instructors and NLC staff were all union members who were very responsive, helpful, and interested in seeing union labor get a “leg up” in fighting for worker rights. I was proud to walk across the stage and receive my BA in Labor Education from National Labor College, shake the hand of NLC President Paula Peinovich, and receive a congratulations from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka who commented to me, “aaww those Steelworkers.” I am proud to be a Steelworker and plan on working to build better communications and education for our Local.

Jimmy Easter, USW with Representative John Lewis, honorary degree recipient at the 2013 NLC Commencement

Jimmy Easter, USW with Representative John Lewis, honorary degree recipient at the 2013 NLC Commencement

Jimmy Easter, USW and Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO President and Chair, NLC Board of Trustees

Jimmy Easter, USW and Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO President and Chair, NLC Board of Trustees

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