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UE: Virginia Beach Organizing Blitz—An Opportunity to Break Down Barriers

By Lauren Johnson and Lawrence Chillrud, UE Local 1122-NUGW, and David Černý and Joseph Rathke, UE Local 1103-GSU | Photo Courtesy of ueunion.org | UE News Reuse Policy

The Virginia Beach City Workers Union (UE Local 111) hosted an organizing blitz from August 7-11 with a main objective of making their union stronger. Building their numbers and increasing their membership will assist municipal workers in Virginia Beach in gaining collective bargaining rights. In the words of co-chair Pat Thebert, “collective bargaining for the city of Virginia Beach will make a world of difference. It’s going to allow the workers to have a voice that they have not had in 60 years.” Strides towards collective bargaining have already begun, and one massive win is that two union leaders, Terry Green (committee chair and water department worker) and Brad Belton (waste management worker), have already been appointed to the city task force which will help draft the language for collective bargaining. As important as this achievement is, further organizing effort and collective action are needed to prevent politicians from stalling and to secure the right to collective bargaining once and for all.

With assistance from twenty-five community supporters from around the country, organizers had hundreds of conversations and signed up over 70 new workers on union cards. Fellow Virginia workers from UE Local 123 fielded a particularly strong contingent, but they were not alone in coming to support their colleagues, as four UE graduate workers from Northwestern University and University of Chicago also participated.

Volunteers traveled to several job sites including waste management, public works, public utilities, human services, and parks and recreation. There, they talked about the important work the union is doing in Virginia Beach and encouraged workers to sign a union card. City workers were especially interested in discussing their labor rights, including the right to talk about and join a union, which helped drum up energy on the ground. The conversations were incredibly productive and successful, as reflected in hard numbers: the team collected over 70 signed cards, talked to over 1,000 workers, and handed out more than 1,000 informational leaflets and brochures, bringing local membership in some city departments to near supermajorities.

During the middle of the organizing blitz, the union facilitated a political education forum, in which Black Workers for Justice and National Black Liberation Movement Unity Initiative organizer Ashaki Binta presented on the “Centrality of Black Workers in Organizing the South.” Her presentation reinforced that the Black working class has been and will continue to be central to both the Black freedom movement and the labor movement. She also displayed a powerpoint with statistics highlighting the power of the Black labor force particularly concentrated in the South.

At the end of the blitz, Local 111 held a town hall-style meet-and-greet at the Christian Resource Center, which graciously served as the organizing base for the blitz week. This was an opportunity for prospective members to meet current members, voice their grievances, get to know their local leaders, ask any questions they had, as well as learn how to get more involved with their local. The event capped off an electric week of organizing, and helped to underscore the palpable momentum growing behind the Virginia Beach City Workers Union in the community.

As for next steps, Pat Thebert noted that Local 111 will continue to engage the community in discussions on the importance of a union for city workers and sign up more city workers in the union drive. Yet another priority will be efforts to assist workers in neighboring Norfolk and Portsmouth with their organizing objectives. In the best tradition of workers’ solidarity, the blitz proved useful not only to the Virginia Beach city workers, but also to their UE brothers and sisters who had traveled to the city to assist them, including graduate workers from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. For city workers, the increased organizing capacity allowed local organizers to reach many new workers in a short amount of time, and demonstrated that their struggle for the right to collective bargaining is a truly mass effort whose outcome matters to workers all around the country. Meanwhile, folks from outside Virginia Beach had the opportunity to learn tactics and practices from experienced organizers with a deep understanding of the unique local conditions and challenges, and reflect on how to apply this experience in their own workplaces and union halls. It is precisely events like the Virginia Beach blitz that help break down the barriers between different workplaces, regions, and industries, and remind us that regardless of these differences, we are all struggling for the common goals of our class. Let there be more such events in the future!

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