“Honorable and effective service to the membership is the highest objective which any labor organization can seek. The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union will ever be faithful and devoted to this aspiration and trust.” -Declaration of Principles, BCTGM Constitution
As I prepared this, my last column as International Union President, I decided to look back at my first column twenty years ago. At the time, I wrote, “The one thing I want you to know is this – your new International Executive Officers are dedicated to continuing the traditions of this great International Union. The top priorities of this union have always been service to our membership and organizing the unorganized. That will remain true.”
Throughout my tenure as President, I have worked as hard as I can every day to live up to that pledge. On every matter that came across my desk, my decisions were always based on what is best for the membership and this Union.
Looking at that October 1992 edition of the News also brought to mind the many changes that have taken place in our Union and in our industries over the last two decades. A number of employers have gone out of business. Others have merged with or been bought and sold by other companies, in some cases numerous times. New employers have come onto the scene. And in recent years, the BCTGM has successfully organized workers in industries new to our Union such as dairy and yogurt.
But two changes stand out in particular because of the harmful effect they have had on our members and this Union. The first is the greed and insatiable appetite for greater and greater profits that have infected the board rooms of many companies in our industries.
This new corporate mentality has led to the elimination of the jobs of tens of thousands of our members as organized shops are closed and production is moved to Mexico and other cheap labor countries around the world or to non-union facilities in this country where workers have no voice and earn lower wages and benefits, if they have benefits at all.
The desire for more control over workers has led an ever-growing number of companies to bring an uncompromising and hostile attitude to the bargaining table, undermining what had generally been stable labor relations in our industries established over many years. Harsh employer tactics such as the lockout, rarely seen in the past, have now become all too common.
The most recent and egregious example of this malevolent development has been American Crystal Sugar’s lockout of 1,300 BCTGM members beginning in August 2011. Here, a highly profitable local company with a long history of positive relations with its workers and their Union was willing to destroy everything good that had been built over the course of several decades in order to enjoy higher profits and greater control over the workplace at the expense of the rights and well-being of our members. The enormous misery and suffering that resulted have been heartbreaking.
The other highly destructive development is the rise in the number of Wall Street private equity and hedge fund firms taking control of companies with which this Union has had longstanding and productive collective bargaining relationships.
Nowhere has this development resulted in a more tragic and devastating outcome than at Hostess Brands. A decade of gross mismanagement brought down what was once the largest wholesale bread and cake company in this country and with it the livelihoods of more than 10,000 BCTGM members – dedicated, hardworking men and women, many of whom devoted most of their working lives to this company. Throughout this decade-long ordeal, one of the most difficult our Union has ever faced, BCTGM Hostess members have shown remarkable and inspiring courage, determination and solidarity.
Confronting corporate greed and Wall Street capitalists will be the defining challenge for the BCTGM and the labor movement in the years ahead. At risk are the very freedoms we cherish as citizens and the standard of living workers have struggled to achieve for more than a century.
The steady erosion of that standard of living for the middle class is the greatest single threat to the long-term health of our economy and society. There can be no sustainable economic growth without expanding worker purchasing power. And a society without a vibrant middle class cannot prosper.
I have every confidence that the Union’s new leadership will be successful in meeting this challenge through continued dedication to our founding principles, an uncompromising devotion to the membership and an unbreakable solidarity. This is what has sustained us in the toughest times and through the darkest days.
I have been fortunate to serve with outstanding and dedicated Executive Officers, Vice Presidents, General Executive Board members, International Representatives, local union officers and staff. But of course, the heart and soul of our Union has always been the membership – the absolute best in the labor movement.
As I head into retirement, the leadership of our Union is passing to two highly qualified individuals who have devoted much of their adult lives to this Union. Incoming International President David Durkee is one of the finest trade unionists I have ever known. He possesses great character, a keen intellect, broad experience and a steely fortitude to build and strengthen the BCTGM in the years ahead. Brother Durkee will be a highly effective leader who will continue the fight every day for dignity, justice and respect for BCTGM members and all working people.
As an International Representative and then Vice President, incoming International Secretary-Treasurer Steve Bertelli has earned the deep respect and full confidence of the many local officers and members with whom he has worked. That says a lot about the man. I am certain Steve will provide Brother Durkee with the same broad support, wise counsel and unwavering loyalty that David afforded me.
I have always believed that no one has given more to this union than he or she has received. And that goes for me as well. I owe much of what I have in life to the BCTGM.
It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as President of the finest trade union in the world. To the members past and present who afforded me this special privilege I say thank you so very much.
Best wishes to the entire BCTGM family for a joyous holiday season and a happy, healthy, prosperous New Year.