An Unusual Hero: Warren Pepicelli and the Challenge of Union Transformation
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Atomazul
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What I call the “Pepicelli Dilemma” confronts all union leaders who consciously recognize the limitations of existing trade unionism and want to break out of the paradigm, yet feel—and frequently are—constrained by major forces ranging from the existing base of the union, expectations of the current members, the challenge of new organizing, to the chasm that seems to exist between the union movement on the one hand, and the millions of non-union workers desperately seeking economic justice, on the other.
To the credit of Warren Pepicelli, manager of the New England Joint Board of the labor union UNITE HERE, he and his team do not fear looking into the face of the Gorgon. The New England Joint Board (NEJB) of the merged International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and Connecticut Textile Council (the three of which having been components of the union known as UNITE) found itself in a very unusual setting when their parent union—UNITE—merged with the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Employees (HERE). Over the years Pepicelli has successfully navigated stormy seas in a union essentially from another era into a position where it is directly taking on the challenges associated with the building of a new labor movement in the 21 st century USA. He and his team have been trying to come to grips with tough questions such as the relationship between building a labor union and building a workers’ movement; what is his role as the leader of the New England Joint Board; how should he, as a result, utilize his time; and, what are the actual steps that need to be identified in order to conclude that one is actually engaged in a process of internal transformation, or as my late friend and the great labor leader Jerry Tucker would say, a process of “labor reformation”?
The first thing that struck me when I met UNITE HERE New England Joint Board Manager Warren Pepicelli was that I was almost positive that we had crossed paths more than thirty years prior when we were both student activists in the Boston area. I cannot say for sure, but it is just one of those gut feelings.
The second thing that struck me was that he was not a picture post-card for an unconventional labor union leader. There has never been a moment that I have ever seen Pepicelli not dressed in a suit. Well-groomed, 60 years old, generally soft-spoken, Pepicelli is a bit of an enigma. His appearance is, at first glance, that of a more traditional, mainstream union leader. But it is when he starts speaking with you, and when you see what he has been attempting to do, that it is akin to meeting his doppelganger.
Warren Pepicelli grew up in Newton, MA, and became a progressive activist while enrolled in what was then known as Boston State College. Entering college at the tail end of the Vietnam War, he found himself enraged once he began to learn about US foreign policy generally, and the actions of the USA in Indochina in particular.
Pepicelli became active in the union movement when he went to work as an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, a New York-based union which subsequently merged with the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union to form UNITE. By the 1990s, the ILGWU and ACTWU were both facing a crisis brought about by the transformation of the textile and garment industries and the ramifications for their respective workforces. Both unions chose to merge as a way of staving off collapse and positioning themselves for the potentiality of new growth. Pepicelli was subsequently elected the manager of the New England Joint Board (of the merged ILGWU, ACTWU and Connecticut Textile Council).