Steve Yurista spends a lot of his time training and participating in long-distance canoe races. It’s all about stamina, preserving his energy for the long haul, he says.
Talk to Yurista, a retired Minneapolis Local 292 journeyman inside wireman, about his experience in the union and he’ll fill you with stories about a different kind of stamina, the long distance traveled by his local’s predecessors and other trade unionists in his city and region. For several years, he worked to convince others in his local to help pass the history on to the next generation of union members.
|The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, which helped usher in the National Labor Relations Act, has been a subject of discussion by members and guests of Local 292’s History Committee.
Four years ago, Yurista won the support of the local to establish a history committee, bringing together members to honor and learn the lessons from the yesterday’s pivotal struggles.
“I was once a student of well-known labor historian Peter Rachleff, who taught at Macalester College, and I wanted to pass on some of the history Peter talked about to my younger co-workers,” says Yurista.
Rachleff, Yurista says, had marshaled grant money to convert a branch of the Carnegie Library in Minneapolis to a labor history center. And the educator often lectured on the significance of the city’s Teamsters strike of 1934, a bloody conflict between unions and a group representing business that helped usher in the National Labor Relations Act and turned the city into a union stronghold.
The city’s and local’s rich and militant history motivated Yurista and hiring hall administrator Carl Madsen to launch a movie club, starting with a small group of four members, to air monthly films on labor themes.
The history committee grew out of the movie club. Participation picked up as films were co-sponsored by other local union groups on themes that resonated with their constituencies.
“What always interests me is the role electricians had in forming Minneapolis and the community,” says Local 292 journeyman wireman Justin Gau, who encourages other young workers to attend film showings. “We walked the same streets with the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strikers; the same buildings. The streets look the same today, which really brings history alive.”
The committee has brought back some of Local 292’s own history makers, folks like retired inside journeyman wireman Mike Priem. “Most of the younger workers never heard about him,” says Yurista, “But he and other IBEW organizers became known throughout the country.”
A former assistant business manager, Priem had spent most of his union career as an organizer serving locals across Wisconsin and Minnesota. He and some fellow IBEW members carved their legacies into the law books after an organizing drive sent their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Town and Country Electric, a nonunion electrical contractor, had advertised for electricians for a paper mill job in International Falls, Minn. Priem helped mobilize 13 fellow members to apply for jobs as “salts,” men who would work the project and simultaneously organize their co-workers.
The members didn’t hide their union identification on their application forms. Only one was hired. None of the others were offered an interview. After the one member hired was fired two days later, the union filed a suit contending that Town and Country had discriminated against the salts, refusing to hire them solely based upon on their union activity. Town and Country argued that salts could not “serve two masters,” (the union and the company) at the same time and were legitimately not considered for employment.
In 1995, in a 9 to 0 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in NLRB vs. Town and Country Electric that “salts,” who were employed by a union to organize were still entitled to be treated as potential employees by companies where they apply for work.
Priem, who attended a history club movie showing, says his own appreciation of labor history is deeply rooted. His father, a Teamster driver for Holsum Bread, was an active participant in the famous 1934 strike.
“The history committee is so important,” Priem says. “Once you join a union and read and understand your contract, it’s important to know how the people who preceded you fought for what you have.”
The situation facing the labor movement has changed since he first entered the union. But, Priem says, “It’s important to ask, ‘What happened between the time when the IBEW construction branch had such high market share and today?
Madsen and Yurista keep looking for ways to expand the base of the committee and ensure its place in Local 292.That means linking up with other groups.
The history committee, for instance, united with the local’s Sisters in Solidarity women’s group to show the movie “Rosie the Riveter.”
Another viewing was co-sponsored with the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus, screening Paul Robeson’s “Proud Valley” and “10,000 Black Men Named George.”
Madsen and Yurista often turn to Rachleff to make powerful links between yesterday’s struggles of farmers and workers and contemporary challenges. He compares today’s outsourcing of corn production, for instance, to the situation 100 years ago when the Minneapolis provided cheap flour to the world, displacing foreign farmers with cheap imported grains, making them look for work, some migrating to the U.S.
“We need to learn the truth of history or we’ll believe the propaganda. We are often told that unions were important 100 years ago, and less so now. History shows us that we are having the same issues now that they did then. The history committee allows us to open our minds,” says Madsen.
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user WBUR photostream.