Marc Per­rone

Union man still be­lieves

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - CYD KING

Marc Per­rone de­scribes the ben­e­fits of union mem­ber­ship this way: “If you want to go some­where fast, go by your­self. If you want to go long-dis­tance, go with a group.”

That’s ba­si­cally what his lo­cal union rep­re­sen­ta­tive told him in

1971, when he was 16 and work­ing as a part-time cour­tesy clerk at the for­mer Wein­garten’s food store in Pine Bluff. The rep con­vinced the young Per­rone to join Re­tail Clerks, a pre­cur­sor to the United Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers In­ter­na­tional Union, or UFCW. More than four decades later, Per­rone, 61, is in­ter­na­tional pres­i­dent of the UFCW, head­quar­tered in the na­tion’s capital.

The group, self-de­scribed as one of the coun­try’s most di­verse and dy­namic la­bor unions, boasts some 1.3 mil­lion mem­bers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Unions in gen­eral pro­tect work­ers’ rights and fight for health care re­form, living wages, re­tire­ment se­cu­rity and safe work­ing con­di­tions for mem­bers.

Lit­tle Rock-based UFCW Lo­cal 2008 rep­re­sents some 5,000 mem­bers in Arkansas and south­west Mis­souri in the re­tail and whole­sale food in­dus­tries, poul­try and meat pro­cess­ing and pack­ing, health care and health ser­vices, bar­bers, lab­o­ra­tory sci­ence and the shoe manufacturing in­dus­try.

Not ev­ery­one has to join. Arkansas is one of 28 right-towork states, whose statutes pro­hibit union se­cu­rity agree­ments be­tween com­pa­nies and work­ers’ unions. One place you won’t see union work­ers — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (Not that the UFCW hasn’t tried.)

Work­ing for the union has been Per­rone’s only full-time job. He has a re­mark­able knack for re­mem­ber­ing the first and last names of peo­ple he has en­coun­tered and the cir­cum­stances that

“When you do this kind of work you have to be­lieve in it, heart and soul, or else you won’t be good at it. And he’s very good at it.” — Steve Ge­lios, pres­i­dent of United Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers Union 2008 in Lit­tle Rock

led to his rise to the union’s top: a sit-down at Wein­garten’s with that first union rep he met (Per­rone in­sisted that they talk while he was on the clock); a con­nec­tion made at a din­ner hosted by a union boss at Lit­tle Rock’s Ca­jun’s Wharf (Per­rone was wait­ing ta­bles there at the time); and a store man­ager who de­nied him a snack break.

The first time Per­rone called for union help came while work­ing at a Kroger store in Pine Bluff. His man­ager had with­held his pay­check over a sched­ul­ing con­flict.

Af­ter high school, he bounced back and forth be­tween Pine Bluff and Lit­tle Rock, work­ing in union and nonunion stores and tak­ing classes at the University of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He had his sights on med­i­cal school.

“I thought be­ing a doc­tor was go­ing to be able to help me help peo­ple,” he says. He even­tu­ally ended up with a de­gree in la­bor stud­ies through An­ti­och University in Ohio and has touched the lives of many with­out even break­ing the skin.

TA­BLE TALK

While wait­ing ta­bles at Ca­jun’s, Per­rone had the op­por­tu­nity to serve at a ban­quet hosted by a union vice pres­i­dent and re­gional direc­tor. When Per­rone ap­proached the ta­ble, the direc­tor thought he was go­ing to take his or­der, but in­stead he bent his ear.

“I said, ‘Look, the work that you guys have done has helped me pay my way through col­lege. My par­ents are hard-work­ing folks, but they couldn’t af­ford it,’” Per­rone told him. The union had helped Per­rone main­tain a steady wage and ob­tain bet­ter ben­e­fits than his friends in nonunion stores.

“I told them that they had helped make a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives,” Per­rone re­calls.

Din­ner was fol­lowed by an of­fer to work as a union or­ga­nizer. Per­rone had to get his mem­ber­ship back first, which he did by go­ing to work at the Kroger store at Rod­ney Parham Road and In­ter­state 430.

“I wasn’t to­tally sure what the po­si­tion was go­ing to be, I was just in­ter­ested in do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent,” Per­rone says. As an or­ga­nizer, he trav­eled a lot and met with work­ers about or­ga­niz­ing, and lis­tened to their sto­ries about the dif­fi­cul­ties and chal­lenges of their work­places.

Mike Mays of Green­brier, a friend of Per­rone’s since child­hood in Pine Bluff, tells of their time as room­mates early in Per­rone’s union ca­reer. Mays says Per­rone was never home, and his Pon­tiac Trans Am stayed parked un­der a car­port out­side while Per­rone was gone 300-plus days a year, two to three weeks at a whack.

“He was al­ways some­body that ev­ery­body wanted to be around,” Mays says. In school, Per­rone had long, wavy hair flow­ing from atop his 6-foot-5 frame. “To come from where he came from in Pine Bluff, at that time, he’s re­ally done well for him­self,” Mays adds.

Per­rone’s job as an or­ga­nizer led to oth­ers within the UFCW: crew co­or­di­na­tor for manufacturing and food pro­cess­ing; ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant in a re­gional of­fice in Dal­las; and as­sis­tant to the or­ga­niz­ing direc­tor in Wash­ing­ton at age 28. When his boss in that po­si­tion was made UFCW in­ter­na­tional pres­i­dent, Per­rone went with him as his as­sis­tant. Per­rone was a re­gional direc­tor in New York for five years be­fore land­ing back in Wash­ing­ton as a strate­gic pro­grams direc­tor.

Be­gin­ning in 2000, he was col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing direc­tor for a cou­ple of years, then be­came or­ga­niz­ing direc­tor. “We were start­ing to make some progress, changing our culture re­gard­ing how we did things,” Per­rone says.

Lori Werner, as­sis­tant to Per­rone and direc­tor of ben­e­fits and union ad­min­is­tra­tion for the UFCW, de­scribes her boss as a good lis­tener who is open to ideas from staff. “It’s al­ways been a very col­lab­o­ra­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ship,” she says. He’s en­gag­ing and re­lates well to ev­ery­one, even those who don’t share his views on things, she says. “I think they view him as some­one who will speak his mind and not be shy.

“He’s not one to just talk ideas and not see them come to fruition. Ex­e­cu­tion, to him, is very im­por­tant,” Werner adds. He’s fo­cused and sur­rounds him­self with like-minded peo­ple.

When the UFCW in­ter­na­tional pres­i­dent — for whom Per­rone pre­vi­ously worked — re­tired, sec­re­tary-trea­surer Joe Hansen took the helm. Per­rone was elected sec­re­tary-trea­surer in 2004.

SELF-MADE UNION MAN

Per­rone ad­mits he didn’t have a lot of fi­nan­cial knowhow,

but he had ex­pe­ri­ence man­ag­ing pen­sions. Rather than de­pend­ing on hired pro­fes­sion­als to help man­age the union’s as­sets, Per­rone got the school­ing he needed through pro­grams at the Whar­ton School of Busi­ness and Har­vard to do it him­self. He man­aged two pen­sion funds — one for staff and one for mem­bers — to­talling about $6.5 bil­lion. He con­tin­ues to have a hand over those funds in his role as in­ter­na­tional pres­i­dent, to which he was elected in 2014.

When Per­rone took the reigns, the UFCW’s pen­sion plans were “in fi­nan­cial stress,” he says. Per­rone led an ef­fort to re­con­fig­ure the plan, adding more con­tri­bu­tions, changing el­i­gi­bil­ity re­quire­ments and investing in a more di­ver­si­fied port­fo­lio. That work paid off when the stock mar­ket took its down­ward slide in 2008. The pen­sion suf­fered but not nearly as much as oth­ers, he says.

Pro­tect­ing the pen­sions of the UFCW’s mem­ber­ship is Per­rone’s crown­ing achieve­ment. “These are folks that de­pend on that money ev­ery month, to make sure they can pay their bills,” he says.

Per­rone swung through Lit­tle Rock re­cently on a cross-coun­try tour aimed at as­sur­ing mem­bers that their union is work­ing for them. “I’m of the be­lief that, as time has gone on, they’ve lost touch with the value of their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment,” Per­rone says. “We’re ac­tu­ally, math­e­mat­i­cally, putting a pen­cil to ev­ery por­tion of the con­tract to show them what the value is,” he says. “They’re start­ing to see the dif­fer­ences.”

The UFCW is also do­ing fo­cus groups with mem­bers and non­mem­bers, ask­ing them for ideas on how the UFCW can bet­ter serve their needs. “Ba­si­cally we’re try­ing to re­ally dig down deep and find out what the mem­bers and non­mem­bers’ per­cep­tion of what [the union] is.” Per­rone has hit more than 50 cities to date and says he will con­tinue as long as he’s pres­i­dent.

Tom Clarke, a UFCW exec with many ti­tles and 25 years of ser­vice to the union, has worked his en­tire ca­reer with Per­rone. He de­scribes Per­rone as en­er­getic, in­no­va­tive and for­ward-think­ing. “He’s al­ways will­ing” to look at other ways of do­ing things.

“I think he’s one of the most ca­pa­ble la­bor union lead­ers in the United States to­day,” Clarke says. Per­rone’s suc­cess, he says, can be at­trib­uted to the fact that “he’s an­chored in a ded­i­ca­tion to the ev­ery­day lives of our mem­bers.”

The UFCW is as­so­ci­ated with the AFL-CIO — a source of pride for Per­rone. He re­cently served as co-chair­man of the AFLCIO’s La­bor Com­mis­sion on Racial and Eco­nomic Jus­tice. The group held six hear­ings in as many cities be­tween fall 2015 and spring 2016 and is­sued a re­port with rec­om­men­da­tions for im­prov­ing re­la­tions. In Jan­uary, Per­rone was pre­sented the At the River I Stand Award at the AFL-CIO’s 2017 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Hu­man Rights Awards Lun­cheon.

“I think it’s easy for us — if it’s not hap­pen­ing to us — to not see it, to turn a blind eye to it,” he says.

A UNION LIFER

Per­rone knew early what dis­crim­i­na­tion looks like. He learned about it as a kid from his pa­ter­nal grand­mother, who came to the United States from Italy through the port of New Or­leans, and his pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, who en­tered among the masses at El­lis Is­land. They made their home in Texas.

“It wasn’t pos­i­tive,” Per­rone says of his grand­par­ents’ at­tempt to blend in. His grand­mother’s given name was Italian for “Tina,” but she changed her name to Agnus “to avoid ridicule,” he says. Pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the Per­rone fam­ily name mor­phed from Per-O-nee to the flat Per-onne as a means to Americanize it.

When Per­rone was in the fourth grade, his par­ents moved to Arkansas to start a candy busi­ness, but the hu­mid­ity thwarted that. His fa­ther even­tu­ally went to work as a con­duc­tor and brake­man for the for­mer St. Louis South­west­ern Rail­way. Marc and an older brother went to school at Wat­son Chapel.

His par­ents even­tu­ally di­vorced, and Per­rone’s first mar­riage ended in the same way af­ter 25 years. The cou­ple had no chil­dren.

Lo­cal 2008 pres­i­dent Steve Ge­lios of Lit­tle Rock worked for the in­ter­na­tional union 24 years and re­calls well the travel re­quire­ments and their ef­fect on one’s per­sonal life.

“It’s not con­ducive to any kind of fam­ily life. You ba­si­cally give up your friends, your fam­ily. It’s rough,” Ge­lios says.

“The union be­comes your fam­ily,” he adds. “Your co-work­ers and the mem­bers that you rep­re­sent and the peo­ple that you’re or­ga­niz­ing.”

Says Per­rone: “I’m pretty driven. There’s not a whole lot of space for any­thing else.”

He has been mar­ried nine years to the for­mer Donna Al­shouse, who started out as a motorcycle-rid­ing buddy. Their first date was to the Rolling Thun­der Run, a one-day rally that starts in the park­ing lots of the Pen­tagon and rolls through the streets of D.C. in honor of the na­tion’s prison­ers of war and those miss­ing in ac­tion.

While dat­ing, he and Donna had a se­ri­ous motorcycle crash that left Donna with, among other in­juries, a con­cus­sion, seven bro­ken ribs, a bro­ken leg, two pelvic frac­tures and a col­lapsed lung. She was in the hos­pi­tal for a week and in a wheelchair for 12 weeks. The ac­ci­dent wasn’t Per­rone’s fault, but he still felt re­spon­si­ble. De­spite her protests, he told her she couldn’t ride with him any­more.

Per­rone says her com­pan­ion­ship has helped shape him. “She’s had an im­pact on me, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. In re­turn, she got a great cook. Spe­cial­ties in­clude his grand­mother’s home­made meat sauce and cream puffs and his mother’s Ger­man choco­late cake made from scratch. His pasta of choice is bu­ca­tini, a thick spaghetti with a pin­hole that runs all the way through it. “And I am way into the twirling,” he adds.

Food is the com­mon thread in Per­rone’s life, whether it’s cook­ing, work­ing in a food store or head­ing a food work­ers union.

“The union is his whole life and has been for 40 years,” Ge­lios says of Per­rone. “A lot of peo­ple go to work and it’s a job. It’s a pay­check. Just a way to make ends meet.

“When you do this kind of work you have to be­lieve in it, heart and soul, or else you won’t be good at it. And he’s very good at it.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKLES JR.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/JOHN SYKLES JR.

“I’m pretty driven. There’s not a whole lot of space for any­thing else.”

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