From Discord to Harmony
By Mark Martin
May 1975, The Local News, monthly newsletter of Local 965, AFSCME, AFL-CIO
U of A employees have the infamous reputation of being among the lowest paid public employees in the state of Arkansas. Pay raises are awarded indiscriminately and are pathetic, at best. Administrators and foremen have the misguided belief that the most productive means of managing the workers is through oppression and intimidation. One foreman in particular is proud to declare (and demonstrate) that if you fire a man or two a month — you have better employees. The administration repeatedly insists that only they are worthy of “coffee breaks” and not the workers. It is no wonder that worker morale and consequently job efficiency, here at the Physical Plant, are low. (So was the condition of the U of A in 1958.)
In 1958 a small group of workers at the Physical Plant were constantly working on ways to create some form of communication between themselves and their employer. Grievances were presented to the administration through letters and petitions, but were continually ignored. Although a Carpenters and Painters Local existed at the time, they were severely limited by the fact that the majority of the Physical Plant was unorganized and divided.
In the early 1960s discontent among the workers had grown to an all-time high. Every attempt to present problems to the administration, and to attain decent wages and conditions, was frustrated. One particular encounter by a delegation of workers with an administrator lingered bitterly in the minds of the workers. When the workers approached the Superintendent in a spirit of reconciliation they were turned back by words to the effect: This is an institution of higher education where our only concerns are with academic endeavors — nonacademic personnel are worth a dime a dozen.
It was during this turbulent period that contracts were distributed to employees. Physical Plant workers refused to sign their contracts and accept the meager raises offered by the Administration. However, support for the “contract holdout” eroded until the last eight supporters were forced to sign their contracts in defeat. Those determined workers were Rex Rice, James Hill, Luther Rogers, Fount Frederick, Raymond Rogers, Ed Bachman, Fred Watson, and Dave Lane.
After this setback Rex Rice contacted Lloyd Brammer (Laborers Union) in an attempt to unionize all the separate crafts in the Physical Plant. Together they organized a meeting between union representatives of craft unions and Physical Plant employees. Upon completion of this extraordinary organizing drive, the craft unions dropped their new Public Employee members, possibly because they felt they could not effectively represent workers not covered under the NLRA.
Arthur Whaley, an international representative for AFSCME, contacted Rex Rice after learning of the attempts to organize U of A workers. It was through the persistent and effective organizing ability of Rex Rice that Local 965 got its first ten members and soon afterwards its charter on April 1, 1962. Once established, Rex Rice became the first president of Local 965, and Rachael Harris Cambell was the union’s first Recording Secretary. With the formation of Local 965, Physical Plant workers had taken two very important steps: first, in realizing that goals could only be attained if workers strived together as a Union and, second, in believing that only as one United Public Employees’ Union, and not a number of small and separate craft unions, could workers have the strength necessary to achieve constructive results.
Local 965 struggled to survive despite tremendous odds during the early years of its existence. The small Public Employees Union was the laughingstock of the Physical Plant and the University. Collecting delinquent union dues was a full-time endeavor for the weak local. Convincing fellow workers that deplorable conditions could actually be changed through a united effort was the seemingly unattainable goal of Local 965’s first union members. Workers would wonder: Should I dare hope for decent wages and conditions, fairness, a legitimate grievance procedure, dignity on the job, and job security? Union members would reply: Only as a Union can we change those dreams into reality!
The local grew slowly, but steadily. In 1962 they presented a list of demands to the administration. Among those demands were “unrealistic” requests such as better hospitalization insurance, overtime pay and sick leave. The administration responded with a like-it-or-leave attitude in what union members later facetiously dubbed the “Utopia letter”:
“If there be among you those who know of a Utopian place of employment , my advice to you is to rush to this place and get yourselves employed. We will be pleased to process your Termination of Service through channels for our record file.”
When the workers received this message, an eerie atmosphere of discontent and inevitability pervaded the Physical Plant. The administration’s past disregard for worker suggestions, delegations, grievances, and petitions was topped off by the “Utopia letter.” It was clear to practically every worker that the University was actually inviting some form of worker reprisal.
On October 4, 1963, history was made in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The University woke up to discover that its employees were participating in the first Public Employee strike ever to take place in the South. At 5:00 a.m., 75 workers reported for picket duty. By noon the University found itself encircled by 300 pickets. By the end of the first day, the Northwest Arkansas Times reported, that the strike was 100 percent effective with union members and 75 percent effective with hourly employees.
Local 965 picked an opportune time to take its case to the public. October 4 was the day just before the traditional confrontation between the Arkansas Razorbacks and TCU. That same weekend, Fayetteville was also hosting some important conventions of State Legislators and State Lawyers. With the largest audience assembled in Fayetteville in some time, the union made conditions at the University public knowledge. The public was shocked at the deplorable working conditions at the U of A. The public was also shocked to discover that some employees were paid less than $0.72 an hour and $135 a month.
Bob Parker, President of the North West Arkansas Labor Council, gave the striking University workers his support. Parker believed that if only the public was aware of the University employees’ situation they would side with the striking workers. It was also Parker who drove a carload of union members, dressed in tattered but clean clothes, to the Arkansas State AFL-CIO Executive Board in hopes of gaining the Board’s support. The AFL-CIO Executive Board immediately declared their support for striking U of A workers. George Ellison, President of the Arkansas State AFL-CIO, announced his support for striking U of A workers. Many local unions also supported the strike. Construction at the University came to a standstill as union artisans honored the picket line.
Public support for the strikers grew. Students, faculty, local organizations, churches, and local companies supported the striking workers. On campus, the Young Democrats denounced the administration’s failure to recognize the union. The Young Republicans followed by proclaiming their support of the strikers. Many faculty members and students collected money for the strikers. (One such student group named itself SAD for Student Aid to the Deprived.) A group of faculty members petitioned the University to recognize Local 965 as the sole bargaining agent for striking workers.
On October 8, the fourth day of the strike, the University had obtained a restraining order against the striking workers. Yet no one went back to work except the painters (who returned because of legal implications involving their separate union). Although no one was allowed to strike, all the strikers defiantly stayed out for health reasons. The University and the Union were stalemated. The Union wanted to be recognized as the representative of its members so as to work towards some form of reconciliation. President Mullins continually maintained that he couldn’t negotiate with the Union because he was restricted by State Law.
Finally the deadlock ended when Governor Faubus intervened on October 14. He appointed a commission to investigate the University’s situation and meet with Labor to negotiate an agreement. One of the first endeavors of the commission was to get workers back to work while it negotiated with Union representatives and Local 965’s lawyer, Sam Sexton. On October 17, the commission announced that all workers were to be allowed to return to work “without prejudice.” Local 965 and University employees won the strike.
What the Union won was not just a victory for Local 965, but for the entire University as well. Both the Union and the University have progressed since the late ’50s and early ’60s. With new additions in administrative and staff personnel, the Union has found it increasingly easier to work for the improvement of University workers and the betterment of the University as a whole. As a union, we welcome the relationship which has matured between labor and management. We are committed to the ideal that labor and management can best coexist in an atmosphere not of confrontation, but of cooperation based on mutual respect.
The story of Local 965 would not be complete without mentioning Rex Rice. It would be an understatement to say that there would be no Local 965, AFSCME, had it not been for the persistance, imagination, talent, and faith of Rex Rice. Rex is the man who spent countless hours organizing the Union and spreading the message of unity because he believed in the Union and he believed in his fellow man. Luther Rogers (carpenter) said that Rex Rice is the best organizer he has ever known. “He did more than anyone else to make the Union what it is today. Rex has always been fair and honest. He could always see both sides of an issue and would agree with you if you were right. We were lucky then and are lucky now to have Rex Rice as a part of our Union.”
Researched and written by Mark Martin