The Best Education in the Movement

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2017 IAM Journal.

Jessica Morris calls coming to the IAM’s William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center “an eye-opening experience.” In its 35-year history, the center has evolved into a labor institution without parallel. Nestled on the banks of the Patuxent River in southern Maryland, the school has educated and motivated nearly 80,000 men and women from across North America.

“You really have an opportunity to immerse yourself and learn while you’re up here, and just take advantage of this beautiful setting,” said Morris, a newly elected District 142 General Chair. “The school does everything possible to make life comfortable for you and that you’re taken care of, so you have an opportunity to focus on the learning.”

“This is my first time here,” said St. Cloud, MN Local 623 shop steward/co-chair Hamse Yusuf. “I know I am here for a reason and that is to learn something, so that I can help my coworkers and my community out. Many people in my shop don’t speak English and I can explain policies to them, union policies and company policies.

The Machinists Union is the only union in North American that has a full-time in-residence facility dedicated to keeping its members on the cusp of the rapidly changing 21st century political and workplace landscapes. The center, commonly known as W3 or Placid Harbor, embodies the union’s commitment to training current and future IAM leaders by giving them the necessary tools and skills to better serve their membership. With recognition that today’s members might speak in different languages, the center offers programs throughout the year in English, Spanish and French.

“Having classes here in Spanish is very important to me personally, because these programs can help me and other people who cannot speak English find solutions to their problems, and give them all the information they need,” said Laredo, TX Local 166 trustee/steward and office clerk Sylvia Garcia.

“Our work here at the Harbor focuses on building capabilities in the field, so that we develop members and leaders who have the capacity to respond to the turbulent times that we’re in,” said the center’s director Chris Wagoner.

Turbulent times demand adaptability and change. Placid Harbor, since its first programs in 1981, has adapted and grown when other labor training facilities have shrunk or closed their doors. The vision of former IAM International President William W. Winpisinger has taken root at the center that now bears his name.

To remain effective in organizing, negotiating contracts and daily representation of shop floor members, local leaders are given practical tools, allowing them to anticipate and match the tactics of management.

“This is the first time our local has taken the negotiation preparation class,” said Chicago Local 701 Extended Bargaining Committee Member Chris Becktel. “It has definitely given me a ton of information and it really gave me some confidence. Everyone there agreed that it was a great class and they wish they had done it before.”

The Negotiation Preparation for Bargaining Committees program has proven so successful that the IAM has expanded it to include in-the-field services for committees unable to travel to Maryland.

The diversity of the IAM is represented through the center’s programs, as multiple generations of labor activists engage in honest discussions about their differences and similarities. Young perspectives on how to approach the union’s challenges are given just as much weight as perspectives brought by seasoned activists.

“It’s really relevant that we emphasize amongst our membership as women and as minorities, that a union contract guarantees equal pay for equal work,” said Morris, who comes from Southwest Airlines. “And you have those same benefits regardless of your gender, your sexual orientation, your nationality or your religious background. Here, people welcome your participation. I’ve never felt that that I couldn’t speak up or was ever diminished because of my gender.”

Throughout the week of instruction, a diverse array of IAM women and men participate in healthy dialogue about their individual struggles or issues unique to their situation. By the time their week at the Harbor comes to an end, participants reflect on what they’ve learned in class and what they’ve learned from each other. They depart for home, taking with them valuable experience and knowledge not obtainable elsewhere.

“This school has good instructors who really know what they are talking about,” said Yusuf, an Electrolux employee. “They teach us the real instructions that we can take to our shop floors, when it comes to how we can deal with managers, how we deal with team members, how we organize companies that don’t have unions and also how to be good union stewards. All of this comes from this school and that’s why it is so important.”

The IAM has long valued the education of its members so they may tackle the challenges faced in the work environment. In partnership with Empire State College of the State University of New York, the Winpisinger Center also provides opportunities for members to continue their personal educational growth with associate, baccalaureate and masters degree programs.

“The Winpisinger Center is unique in the labor movement,” said Wagoner. “You don’t find any other labor organizations with residential education institutions that have full and broad curricula to address leadership development for activists and staff, and that engage the membership in such a broad range of topics.”