Last summer, while attending a course at the William W. Winpisinger Education & Technology Center, I had the great pleasure of meeting our General Secretary Treasurer Robert Roach. While on a tour at Grand Lodge Headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Robert kicked it off by addressing our group. He spoke passionately about the strength, power and influence of the IAM as a leading labour organization, not only in North America, but around the world.
Little did I know that almost a year later I would find myself speaking one on one with him, getting advice for young workers that I could share with our membership. This past June, we sat down for a chat in a quiet dining room at the 125th Canadian Anniversary of the IAMAW. On June 27th, 1890, the Machinists issued a charter to Local Lodge 103 in Stratford, Ontario. It became our first Canadian Local and with that charter we became an International Union.
As a youth Robert loved to play basketball and participate in track and field events. He started his working life in a fun job at a garment factory that was located in Manhattan, only a short train ride from his home in the Bronx. 5 years later he started working for TWA as a baggage handler in JFK and that’s when he became a union member. Shortly afterwards, he transferred to EWR, which is where he would end up started his union career.
Robert found his inspiration to become active from his co-workers. “The people said to me, your the guy.” they told him, “We want you to represent us, we want to be represented by you!” He became a Grievance Committeeman and ended up serving his membership there for 17 years. He didn’t think he was anything special, he said it all started because he had read his Contract and learned his CBA.
A General Chairperson that worked with Robert was a positive role model in his life and his mentor. “I aspired to be like Bill O’Driscoll” He wanted to be just like him, and to become a General Chairperson too. “The things, tricks, and tools that he taught me and many of us back in the 80’s we had to use in 2005/2006 to protect the pensions of airline workers through bankruptcy.”
We talked more about pensions and why it’s important for young workers to pay attention. He spoke about the issues facing our youth today and that it is difficult to think about the future when faced with so many hurdles in the present. Robert has been working hard to protect the pensions of our members and to push for legislation that will protect and make gains to the pensions of all workers. “Nobody that worked 35/40 years wants to be a burden. It’s a matter of the nation protecting the people that built the nation.”
Robert’s advice for young workers is to read your contract, and get to know your CBA. That way you can earn respect from you coworkers and the mangers you deal with too. “Once you do that as a young leader, management will respect you, and won’t try to trick you.” He also said that everyone has different skills and strengths. “You have to find your niche that makes you happy and work towards that goal. The overall goal is to represent our workers.” I want to encourage you to think about your skills and how they could be used to better the lives of those around you. Getting involved in the union will allow you to use the skills your passionate about for the good of many others.
When Robert was young he took the advice of his mentor and pursued an education. He received a certificate at Cornell University and a degree at the State University of New York. He wants young workers to be prepared to step up and further their education. “There will be a time when the opportunity will be there, you have to be ready.” And the opportunities came his way, he followed in Bill O’Driscoll’s footsteps and became a GC. Later he became a Grand lodge Representative, and was surprised when he was asked by the Executive Council in 1999 to be the General Vice President of the Transportation Dept. 11 later he was asked again to step up, being given the opportunity to become the General Secretary Treasurer. He didn’t think of himself as the money man, but he accepted the new responsibility and didn’t look back.
At the 125th anniversary celebration, I was honoured to speak on behalf of the Young Machinists. The IAM’s youth program will make some serious change in our union, it’s only a matter of time till we start to notice. I hope that if your interested in getting involved you will ask you local lodge to send you to the IAM’s Women’s, Young Workers and Human Rights Conference from October 7-11, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We will be discussing the labour movement and the opportunity young workers have before them today.
Robert is retiring at the end of this week after a long and successful career. Thank you for your many years of service to this membership and to the labour movement. I know that you will be missed by the IAM, but I have a feeling that you continue to be a champion for workers rights in the labour movement. I hope that you’ll join me in wishing Robert a warm farewell and a happy and healthy retirement.
At the 2012 convention in Toronto, GST Robert Roach finished his address with quote from the Philosopher Cicero. ”We are all angels with only one wing, and we must join together to fly.” He added to the quote telling the convention delegates; “It will be the Young Machinists that will be the wind beneath our wings.”
Have a listen to our chat here. (opens in a new window)
You can skip to the part about Robert’s mentors (3:08), pensions (4:12 and 15:30), his advice for young workers (11:15), or his thoughts on the future of our organization (23:12).