A parable: Jim Matles and the GE pastry tray

“None of the idealistic or ideological debates will make sense, or alternatively, be revealed to be nonsense, outside the framework of real occupations, jobs, lives and communities of working people. Every contract and organizing struggle is a place in the road of life where all aspirations, including the miracles of which the roused multitudes of millions are capable, have their costs measured: in treasure, in soul, in blood. If you don’t have skin in the game, your attention on real, vs. illusory, choices can fail. Keep your hand on that wheel. Hold on!”

– Union leader Jim Matles, at dinner in New York, 1971

That was the first lesson I learned from James J. Matles, a legendary CIO organizer and founder of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), although it took a bit to sink in. I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Jim, as it altered my life course and opened the many and rich rewards, wisdom and jewels of the labor movement to my soul.

A good chalkboard artist could draw Jim in a few sharp, black and white, angular strokes. But there is a part you can’t draw: I rate him among the top three listeners in history! Three words into your sentence you felt the rest was redundant since he clearly already understood what you were saying, and likely what you were going to say. And those eyes – he had the sharpest, most penetrating gaze of anyone I ever met.

I’ve been hooked on “the many ways and faces of working class living” ever since that evening.

Not long after that, fellow members and officers participating in the 1972 national General Electric negotiations recalled a Matles story which captures his character and leadership philosophy perfectly. He was a clever man, and likely arranged this version for wide circulation.

The pastry tray

Jim had led national negotiations for the UE on many occasions since the days of the first GE national agreement in 1938. He took his responsibility to the membership that elected him as a sacred matter, and was quite severe on the importance of avoiding the slightest appearance of impropriety, especially financial impropriety, in local and national officers. He discouraged “small talk” at bargaining tables as a distraction from the life and death matters at stake in protecting and advancing members’ working conditions and living standards. There should not be the smallest hint of blandishment or bribe, small or large, he believed. He was famous in the UE, and throughout labor, for declining emoluments direct or indirect from management, and accepting a salary no higher than the highest classified union job in the GE agreement.

So, there should be no surprise at his reaction to the stunning and sumptuous cornucopia of pastry and diverse breakfast delights the company rolled out to welcome the national union bargaining committees in 1972. The previous contract had been concluded only after a 109-day national strike that deeply scarred relations. Jim’s look of disdain at the breakfast array was reported to be “palpable as sandpaper.” But his stubbornness on finances and uncompromised relations with management were exceeded by an even greater gift: his ability to read the members and their capacity for battle at a given moment. The drooling attention of several, if not most, committee members at the pastry tray was a sure “tell” that this was a battle that would divide, not unite.

He declared, with a broad grin: “I see. We have decided to go to hell! But!! I am your leader. You elected me to lead. So I will go first!”

Later, when some officers asked him about the flipflop, he replied: “Propriety in relations with the company is a mark of integrity. It is an important question. Unity is more important.”

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book, “Parables of the Working Class Movement.”

A note on parables: A parable is  a story that has a double meaning. It contains a trick question. A good one captures the spirit of paradox in every moment yet does not stand still. Be careful of parables that appear to have a clearly stated moral. The real moral is at a right angle to the stated one.

Photo: Jim Matles, left, speaks with West Coast longshore workers leader Harry Bridges, undated. Courtesy of UE Archives.



John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.