Turnout big for union school; Labor lessons draw diverse union reps

2013-07-25T00:00:00Z 2013-07-25T09:58:51Z Turnout big for union school; Labor lessons draw diverse union repsBy Renata Birkenbuel of The Montana Standard Montana Standard

For once, union rep Bob Brock of Butte stayed home to attend a major labor event.

The 30-year-old homegrown leader slowed down this week to teach the fundamentals of organizing at the one-of-a-kind national labor school under way at Montana Tech.

Normally, Brock travels 200 days a year, from Guam to Colorado, as the internal representative and western United States organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“Butte was such a fundamental touchstone of what we learned in organized labor,” he said between classes on Wednesday at the HPER building. “It’s fitting that this school is being held in Butte.”

He pointed to a “new divide” that exists between the public sector and private sector worlds of work. But he also reminded his students that the key 1934 strike against the Anaconda Co. in Butte finally successfully organized labor after management tried hard to conquer and divide various unions.

In earlier 1911, 1914 and 1917, tussles with workers, management had succeeded in bringing in the National Guard in a show of force. Brock said that new generations of workers must not forget that the unrest reached the point of martial law.

Remembering such labor history is crucial to organizing for workers’ rights today, he added.

“When people in Butte decided in 1934 not to be divided, to instead work together and not allow martial law, then we succeeded,” he said.

A total of 220 students and 15 instructors from mostly western states are in Butte to learn more about organizing, leadership, union communications and union history.

Impressed with the student turnout, Brock’s hometown pride was evident.

“I love Butte,” said Brock, “and my class is my way of sharing with students what matters: the labor union in terms of what’s right.”

Valerie McMurtry, 63, a MEA-MFT representative from Billings who came with four other teachers, said she’s inspired by renowned conservative states like Utah and Idaho, who sent a slew of representatives.

“As union members, we don’t usually mingle with other members,” said McMurtry, a former physical education instructor who now teaches special education. “It’s been really inspiring, stimulating and engaging.”

She said it’s important to educate the younger generation, as well as a growing number of apathetic older citizens, via grassroots sharing of films and workshops. Start by learning the lessons of labor history and studying a political candidate’s voting record to see it would personally affect you, she added.

Among other issues that concern McMurtry: pension reform, disturbing legislative trends to transfer public school funds to private charter schools and corporate exploitation of employees in terms of pay, the number of vacation days and insurance security.

“It was the unions that got 8-year-olds out of the factories,” McMurtry said, adding that laws encompassing the eight-hour work day and weekends off — which many employees take for granted — exist thanks to strong union work.

“Let’s not turn back the clock,” she said. “Unions aren’t just for union people; they’re for the working class.”

On Wednesday both Brock and McMurtry took in a communications class taught by Leslie Simmons, assistant national director of communications for the Los Angeles-based SAG-AFTRA union, which consolidated in 2012.

Simmons told about 25 students that while it was once typical for many newspapers to staff a labor reporter, only a few publications have such a priority these days. Instead, newspapers tend to cover big business, missing children, celebrities and high-profile crime, she said.

But that’s where the unions come in.

“It’s caused by a lack of communication, but that’s our role,” she said. “Unions must tell our own story.”

— Reporter Renata Birkenbuel may be reached via email at Renata.birkenbuel@mtstandard.com

Copyright 2015 Montana Standard. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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