December 19, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Organizing is, and always has been, one of the toughest challenges that unions have. But 101-year-old Charles Ponti, Sr, OPEIU Local 153 Retirees Association president, should be an inspiration to all those struggling to get workers to sign cards. Ponti has been organizing for more than 75 years, and has only now decided to slow down – just a little.
“In my day, we used to knock on doors at night after supper to sign up people,” the Jersey City native told LaborPress this week.
OPEIU, the group representing 125,000 employees and independent contractors in credit unions, hospitals, insurance, higher education, transportation, shipping, utilities, hotels, administrative offices and more, honored Ponti at Moran’s Restaurant this week for his 77 years of service to the Labor Movement.
“He was my mentor when I was first employed in 1967,” OPEIU International President and Local 153 business manager Michael Goodwin told LaborPress. “He taught me the ropes. He showed me how to organize. He was a great organizer, but he wouldn’t go around boasting. He is a very humble man.”
Ponti, who came up through the union during the Great Depression, acknowledges that organized labor faces major challenges today, but he says that’s still no reason to quit striving.
“You’ve got to go out and organize,” the centenarian told LaborPress. “Put on a big campaign. That’s the only way you’re going to do it.”
“Richard Lanigan, OPEIU International vice-president and Local 153 secretary-treasurer, recalled stories of how Ponti would often show up outside a workplace with nothing but a folding table and chair and just “set up shop.”
“He used conventional and unconventional [organizing] techniques,” Lanigan told LaborPress. “He’d hand out leaflets and get people to sign up until somebody asked him to leave. He’d make contact with lots and lots of people. He had the nerve and audacity that people need to organize – to push it to the next level, to interact with people, and try to get them to sign cards, or work toward a campaign.”
According to Goodwin, Charles Ponti’s secret to successful organizing has always been his humility and personal integrity.
“The members felt like they could trust him,” Goodwin said. “When he said something, it was believable. It was not like he was a salesman. He was a real human being. He was one of them, and that really came across.”
Charles Ponti also loomed large at the bargaining table where he managed to succeed without ever being threatening.
“Sometimes, the union is seen as a threat to employees, and it becomes a macho thing," Goodwin said. “But he never presented those kinds of threats to employers. He just wanted to get in and do his business – help get better wages, and get out. And he did it very effectively. It took a great personality to be able to do that.”
Technology and the rise of social media are certainly having a huge impact on the future of organizing, but Ponti insists that organizers still have to pound the pavement.
“You gotta go out there,” Ponti said. “The people are out there. But they’re not going to come to you, you’ve got to go to them. That’s the answer. You’ve got to go after them. You've got to tell them what you stand for.”
In his younger days, Ponti would hit the streets three and four times a day, running up and down subway steps to make his calls. And some believe that all that aerobic activity has contributed to his longevity.
“He knew the New York City Subway system better than anyone else,” Goodwin said.
Although he has now decided to take things a little easier, Ponti is quick to point out that he’s still not entirely stepping away from the business of organizing.
“I’m still going to come in every once in awhile,” Ponti said. “They didn’t retire me one-hundred-percent.”