In 1991, 74 locals of the Independent Workers of North America (IWNA) voted to affiliate with the UPIU. After seven turbulent years of reorganization, including four years of disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, the cement-industry union found a workable structure and a similar striving for union democracy in the UPIU.
The IWNA affiliation was a large step with a variety of risks. The over 7,500 workers had seen their leaders’ trust violated by another AFL-CIO union, one with a top-down style of leadership. They had seen promises broken and coordinated bargaining fall victim to internal union politics. The UPIU, in turn, would have to broaden its identity from that of a single-industry union to make the move a success.
When 130 delegates gathered for what would be the final IWNA convention in February 1991, they brought along the memories of their struggle for accountable leadership. They also brought the results of balloting and discussions on affiliation around the country by each of their locals.
Taking the extra time to emphasize the drama of the decision, and the fact it was rooted in these rank-and-file discussions, delegates chose to conduct a roll-call vote. When all the votes were recorded, the IWNA chose representation with the UPIU by a 92 percent margin. Seventy locals became part of the UPIU, and four major locals at Lehigh-Portland Cement Company voted to affiliate several months later in Board-conducted elections.
The IWNA unions primarily represented workers involved in the manufacture of building materials and mining. The majority of IWNA unions had roots in the United Cement, Lime, Gypsum, and Allied Workers (CLGAW), which was reorganized as a division of the Boilermakers in April 1984. The IWNA was formed when cement, lime, mining, and gypsum locals began to leave the Boilermakers after that union’s August 1986 convention when dissention occurred within the Boilermakers’ leadership.
Setting up offices in Chicago, the Independent Workers adopted the eagle as a symbol and convinced most cement locals to abandon the Boilermakers. Regional offices were set up in eastern Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, and southern California.
Despite the problems, the cement workers short-lived marriage to the Boilermakers had its successes. An in-plant strategy known as the Solidarity and Unity Program was developed and played a role in reviving locals which were decimated by the recession of 1981-82. The program was generally credited with helping the unions “hold the line” in the summer of 1984, when 70 percent of cement workers nationally were without a contract or under company-implemented contracts.
There were numerous threads of similarity in the cement unions and the UPIU. Both unions grew rapidly during the Great Depression. Both placed a strong emphasis on open decision-making, and both traditionally had high-wage bases, developed through pattern agreements within respective industries.
Both unions began the use of in-plant strategies as a response to company-imposed concessionary bargaining in the 1980s. The cement unions found the limits of in-plant strategy in the 1984-87 contract struggles, attempting to use it as a blunt, industry-wide instrument. The industry, in turn, refused to give an inch because that would acknowledge the power of the production slowdown as a virtual strike.
The affiliation agreement signed by the IWNA and the UPIU leadership in 1991 specified that IWNA locals would remain as formerly constituted.