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IBEW Goes "Wall to Wall" at Massachusetts Town's Electric Utility

October 21, 2005

Bob Ellston, operations division manager of the municipal electric utility in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, is the kind of employee newspapers write about when they talk about the "changing face" of unions in the U.S.  

In 2003, when Boston, IBEW Local 104, organizers distributed union authorization cards to North Attleborough's electrical department workers, town leaders even argued that Ellston was exempt from the bargaining unit.

Ellston, however, was among the majority when municipal electrical workers voted 23-6 for representation by Local 104 in August.

A member of IBEW Local 2323 at New England Telephone in the late 1970's, Ellston felt more kinship to the linemen and meter readers working for the utility than with the town's leaders.

"This company has been in business for 112 years, but only about two and one-half years ago did any of us start thinking about organizing," he says.

Organizing started with linemen, but quickly spread to clerical and business division employees. The "big tent" approach flowed from concerns about job security among utility workers when a referendum was proposed on changing the town's government model.

Currently, North Attleborough is governed by selectmen and a town administrator.   The electric department is directed by a board of commissioners and managers distinct from other city departments and generates its own income.

The referendum proposed a charter form of government with decision-making residing with a town manager. The utility department would no longer be an autonomous entity.  

"We needed some kind of protection," says Ellston, adding, "We could have been on the outside looking in, as they sold the department to private interests."   Workers were also concerned that their jobs could be reclassified at lower rates.

Voters defeated the charter referendum by a margin greater than 3 to 1, but Ellston says , workers still feel that they need a union to deal with changes that could "come around through the back door."

Linemen, substation operators and meter readers comprise one unit.   Customer service and customer collections personnel comprise a second unit.   A systems engineer, an information technology manager and operations and business division managers constitute the third.

"This isn't the first Massachusetts municipal light department where managers asked for representation," says Local 104 organizer Steve O'Donnell.   In fact, they were "driving forces" behind the campaign, he says, because they "feel that they run a clean ship" and resent town leaders threatening the job security of their employees. They chose IBEW rather than another public employee-oriented union, he says, because "we sold them on our service and availability."

North Attleborough electric department workers are preparing for bargaining on a first agreement that will address their job security concerns.   Dale Langille, a line crew leader, says, "At least two of the town's selectmen are going to be real tough."

O'Donnell expresses confidence that the department's workers will prevail and is hoping to spread the union's influence beyond the other six municipal utilities in the state already represented by the IBEW.