Founded in 1944 the International Chemical Workers Union Council is still one of the youngest unions in the House of Labor in the United States.
But that should not be a surprise because the US chemical industry, itself, is of fairly recent origin in this country as the important growth of the industry only dates back to the time of the first World War.
Prior to the war’s beginning in 1914, most of the important chemicals used in the United States and Canada were imported from Germany, where a huge and long-established chemical industry flourished. But with the effective British blockade of German ports during the war, the United States and Canada were forced to develop both their own sources of supply and manufacturing facilities.
Some 30 years later, then, at the height of still another war involving Germany, Britain, Canada, and the United States, as well as nearly all other countries on the planet, the ICWU was born in Cleveland, Ohio in September 1944.
Even though Germany controlled most of the world’s chemical industry, unionism of workers in the small, struggling chemical industry in the United States dated back to as early as 1836 when a union of Soap Boilers and Tallow Chandlers existed in Philadelphia, PA. Also, a union of salt workers was functioning in the Saginaw Valley of Michigan for a short time around 1885, but this union was broken during a violent strike carried out in conjunction with lumber workers in the area in the mid-1880’s.
By 1902, there was a 400-member union known as the Explosive Powder Workers that was chartered directly by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and in 1910 the AFL organized the Asbestos Workers Union, which included workers in soap factories and gas works, as well as in asbestos plants.
Other minor organizing drives were successful throughout the 1910-1920 decade as the fledgling chemical industry was getting started, but the 1920’s proved to be difficult years for organized labor and chemical unions found the going extremely difficult as a combination of strong employer opposition, combined with company unions, proved impossible to overcome.
The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President and the advent of the New Deal in the 1930’s a number of AFL Federal Labor Unions (what directly chartered unions were called) in the chemical industry were formed. Many of these same federal labor unions later were instrumental in forming the ICWU and today remain among the more than 200 bargaining units which make up the International Chemical Workers Union Council in 2022.
For instance, successful AFL organizing in the Midwest in 1937 led to the establishment of a Chemical Workers Council composed of what are today ICWUC Locals 4 (now merged with Local 763), (Joliet, Ill.), 5 (Chicago, Ill.), 12 and 68 (East St. Louis, Ill.), and 73 (Elyria, Ohio). The purpose of the Council, established at a meeting in Chicago, was to coordinate the activities of the various federal labor unions in the nation’s chemical industry and to make plans for massive organizing efforts at unorganized chemical plants throughout the country.
Our Union is Born
The first national organizational drive for workers in the chemical industry began in April 1940 when the AFL assigned one of its staff organizers, H.A. Bradley, the task of signing up the nation’s chemical industry workers, with his initial job being to establish a workable Council of Chemical Worker Unions throughout the country.
In September 1940, the International Council of Chemical and Allied Industries Union was formed in Akron, Ohio, with Bradley becoming its president.
That 1940 Council meeting was attended by 54 delegates from 42 federal labor unions in 19 states who represented some 10,000 workers in the industry. By the middle of 1944 the Council was made up of 161 locals with a membership of nearly 29,000. Part of the growth could be attributed directly to the fact that 12 locals in Canada, which had been part of another international union, voted to become members of the Council.
On September 11, 1944, then, the American Federation of Labor President William Green formally chartered the Council of Chemical and Allied Industries Union as the International Chemical Workers Union Council, AFL, with Bradley being elected President of the new union at the Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio.
Even though the new ICWU won its charter from the AFL, the Union’s birth was not without difficulties as the United Mine Workers, through its District 50, claimed jurisdiction over the chemical industry and its workers. Also, the UMW was applying at the same time for reaffiliation with the AFL after having left the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations. Even though the AFL ignored the UMW’s claim, District 50 did not relinquish its jurisdictional claims to the chemical workers and for years fierce organizing battles between the two unions were fought.
The ICWU, nontheless, continued to grow slowly and steadily and in 1948, the Union acquired its own Headquarters Building in Akron, Ohio. By the time of the move to the new building, the International Union staff included 38 organizers, a research director, and a legal counsel.
By now, the Union was well on its way toward representing the workers in the chemical industry in both the United States and Canada as more and more workers voted to join the ICWU.
In addition to the ICWU and District 50 (which merged with the United Steelworkers Union in 1972), there was still another union which claimed primary jurisdiction in the chemical industry. This was the United Gas, Coke, and Chemical Workers, chartered by the CIO about the same time the ICWU was chartered by the AFL.
As a result of this three-way division of organization, unionism in the industry has never exerted the influence that is possible in other industries where a single union predominates. Frequently, in the chemical industry, different plants of a multi-plant company are not organized by the same union.
Because of and contrary to other mass-production industries, company-wide negotiations in the chemical industry have been the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, company-wide negotiations have been the objective of the ICWU, and some notable accomplishments in that direction have been realized over the years.
The first major company-wide agreement in the chemical industry was negotiated in 1946 with Lever Brothers Company covering all five ICWU locals at plants of that company in various parts of the country. Also in that year, three ICWU locals at plants of Monsanto Chemical Company engaged in concerted activity by simultaneously striking at E. St. Louis, Ill., Everett, Mass. and St. Louis, Mo.
Although the strike did not end in a master agreement, a uniform settlement was negotiated for all locals involved. In 1947 the master agreement negotiated the previous year with Lever Brothers was renewed and, for the first time in the chemical industry, the principle of equal pay for equal work, regardless of plant locations, was established. This master agreement has been renegotiated in subsequent years and is today the major company-wide agreement in the industry.
Further gains were made in 1950 in the field of company-wide activities when the first company-wide negotiations for pension and health plans were held with Monsanto. Similar developments have since occurred with American Cyanamid, W.R. Grace, and Sterling Drug.
Additionally, still other company-wide groups of local unions began to coordinate their activities and, as a result, the 1955 Convention amended the Constitution to provide for the establishment and supervision of the councils, a significant step since the Constitution had been silent in this area.
Since 1957 other ICWU groups have achieved master agreements including ICWU locals representing employees of the Southern California Gas Company, as well as American Home Products, Merck & Company, Colgate-Palmolive, and W.R. Grace.
In late 1965 in Washington D.C., the Union convened its first Collective Bargaining Conference which directly led the delegates of the 1966 Convention in Montreal to establish more effective procedures for coordinated collective bargaining.
To date, the ICWUC has many locals participating in some 25 company-wide councils.
Like any union, the ICWUC is only as effective as its members want it to be. Made up of the thousands of men and women, the ICWUC could not exist without their devotion and loyalty, for they are the ones who make the local unions function. They are the ones who have not only provided the funds with which the Union has operated but also, they are the ones who have established the progressive policies upon which the Union continues to build.
So, by 1966, ICWU members, fed up with huge, recalcitrant companies with whom they were unable to bargain on equal footing, created a new role for the International Union. The International was given greater authority and responsibility in collective bargaining activities. The “Crisis Strike Plan” gave added weight to the Union’s ideas regarding coordinated bargaining and per capita tax was increased to $2.80 per month, with 50 cents to be devoted exclusively to the Strike Fund.
In 1968, convention delegates, in response to inflationary demands on the resources of the International Union again increased per capita tax to $3.30 per month and endorsed four-year terms for international officers. The Convention also voted to align the ICWU with the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA), an organization spearheaded by Walter Reuther, President of the United Automobile Workers, who promised a chance for more intensive activity on the organizing front.
(Because the leadership of the AFL-CIO believed that the ALA was a rival labor organization bent on diluting the power of the federation as the nation’s main umbrella group for unions, the ICWU was expelled from the AFL-CIO during its Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. in late 1969.
Our Fourth Decade
In January 1974 the Executive Board created two new International Union Departments – Health and Safety, and Community and Social Action. These actions were taken in order to investigate fully and protect adequately the health and safety of ICWU members, as well as to ensure their human rights.
On May 29, 1975, President Boyle, who had been continually plagued by various illnesses, retired prior to the completion of his term. The Executive Board then selected Secretary-Treasurer Frank D. Martino as President. Vice President J.A. “Tommy” Thomas was then appointed as Secretary-Treasurer and International Representative Angelo Russo was appointed Vice President.
Almost immediately President Martino emphasized the need for new ICWUC organizing programs. “BOOM” – Boost Our Own Membership – was re-instituted to sign up the “free riders” in our “Open Shop” locals and “GLO” – Get Locals Organizing – assisted existing local unions in organizing new plants and workers into the ICWU.
In 1976, Martino was elected by acclamation to a full term of office and has been re-elected without opposition every convention since the Union’s First Regular Convention of the International Chemical Workers Union Council/UFCW in Las Vegas, NV. In April 1999.
In November 1977, recognizing the complexities of retirement income plans and the passage of the new Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Pension and Insurance Department was created.
In early 1978, the Union hired its first Industrial Hygienist reflecting the ICWU’s longtime commitment to health and safety. Beginning in October 1978 and continuing through October 1983, the Union received a federal grant totaling $840,000 from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The grant has enabled the ICWUC to reopen the Washington, D.C. office (closed since 1970), to hire additional health and safety specialists, to build a greater library, and most importantly, to educate our members about health and safety through continuing special training sessions.
To insure continued financial support for the program, the 1982 Convention delegates voted to establish a Health and Safety Fund out of the per capita tax and beginning in July 1983, ten cents went to this special fund.
The entire labor movement found the first half of the 1980’s a turbulent and difficult time. The decade began with a Republican President and Senate who felt it was time for confrontations with labor. The anti-labor Ronald Reagan set the tone in his first months in office by firing members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers. This was read as a signal to the private sector that business owners could once again ignore workers’ needs and their organizations. Reagan’s appointments to various regulatory agencies, such as the NLRB and OSHA, reflected this same anti-union thinking.
Consequently, we found ourselves confronted daily with the older and perhaps simpler issue of dignity. The employers’ increasing use of “union-buster” consultants has reduced organizing drives and even long-time bargaining relationships into frustrating confrontations.
Our union, like the rest of the American labor movement, utilized strong resourceful tactics on many fronts. For instance, nearly 800 Chemical Workers were among the 800,000 marchers who demonstrated in Washington at Solidarity Day for justice for workers in 1981.
Internally, the union continued to adjust its programs to help deal with the changing bargaining climate. At the 1982 Convention, delegates increased the Strike Fund benefit level to $8 a day or $40 a week. The Defense Fund contribution was raised to 30 cents. Combining two regions eliminated some administrative express without harming local union service. Presently, the ICWUC has five geographical regions across the country.
In yet another show of concern for the Union’s membership who were suffering through difficult economic times, the Executive Board in 1983 chose not to accept the full 75 cents per capita tax increase due in July under the automatic formula. Instead, the per capita tax was increased by only 30 cents.
The mid-1980’s proved to be a time when the Union confronted the realities of the continuing negative political and economic world in which the ICWU was forced to survive. Due to the shifting membership, the number of regions was reduced to seven and several staff positions were not filled when they became vacant, and an early retirement package was offered to officers and staff who were within five years of retirement in 1987.
The 1986 Convention took steps to further prepare our union for the future by establishing an Organizing Fund. Money from the Fund is used to train local union members in organizing and employer anti-union tactics. The same Convention increased strike benefits in two steps to $10 a day or $50 a week.
During this period, also, the ICWU joined the AFL-CIO Union Privilege Program which extends to union members only benefits such as credit cards, mortgage help, life insurance, travel assistance programs and legal assistance.
While the Union saw traditional collective bargaining situations devastated throughout the 1980’s through anti-union government policies, plant closures, cutbacks and layoffs, and permanent replacement of workers by cruel employers, the ICWU nonetheless developed bargaining relationships in non-industrial settings such as health care, public school districts and civil government.
Further recognizing that not all the Union’s problems could be solved exclusively through contract negotiations, under the leadership of President Martino the Union also developed an alliance of several similarly sized unions and called the First Coalition for Legislative Action Conference in Washington, D.C. in 1987.
Evidence of how well this annual event remains is shown through the nearly 500 delegates who have attended each year since the initial Conference.
The Health and Safety function of the Union also continued during this time to be a source of pride and service to our members.
Grants for health and safety training and cancer prevention were obtained from the National Cancer Institute, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency and the State of New York.
A more permanent training program came about when the ICWUC Center for Worker Health and Safety Education in Cincinnati, Ohio was opened in August 1998.
Week-long programs at the Center use hands-on training for workers from many unions in handling hazardous waste and emergency response to job site disasters. Several companies have also sent supervisory personnel to the training site for special classes and the ICWUC has signed contracts with several companies to train their workers on site with the companies picking up the vast majority of the costs involved.
The 1990’s and Beyond
With the strength of our Union and our membership both declining due to companies outsourcing work, shipping work overseas, merging with other companies, plant shutdowns, and layoffs, President Martino and the Executive Board thought it was in our best interest to explore the possibility of merging with another union. After many discussions of merging with other unions, they decided that the best fit for us was the United Food & Commercial Workers.
After many meetings with the UFCW, a special convention was held in Las Vegas on April 29-30, 1996. At that convention President Martino stated that, “They, too, were able to do what we are trying to do: put together a merger where we maintain our dignity, we maintain our identify and the local unions that we represent will still get the same fine service you always got with the Chemical Workers. We need a big brother.” With the Executive Board’s recommendation and the promise of President Martino that the autonomy of the Chemical Workers would be preserved, a vote was taken. By a vote of “527” yes votes and 50 “no” votes the International Chemical Workers became part of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. The International Chemical Workers Union became known as the International Chemical Workers Union Council of the UFCW.
It has been 26 years since the merger, and the International Chemical Workers Union Council and the United Food & Commercial Workers are still work together. This merger has not only given us the opportunity to maintain our identity, provide the same service to our locals and work on growing our Union, it has given us the strength to battle the Companies that are trying to take away the protection that our members deserve.
The future shows a tough road in front of us, but through the hard work and determination of our members and staff we will stand in solidarity and unity and above all, we will grow this Union.
Presidents of the ICWU/ICWUC
- H. A. Bradley 1944-1954
- Edward R. Moffett 1954-1956
- Walter L. Mitchell 1956-1968
- Thomas E. Boyle 1968-1975
- Frank D. Martino 1975-2001
- Larry V. Gregoire 2001-2007
- Frank S. Cyphers 2007-2021
- Lance E. Heasley 2021-