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