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Anti-Union Tactics Defeated by Oregon Line Clearance Tree Trimmers  

October 21, 2005

When Jerry Casterline, an IBEW line clearance tree trimmer working 200 miles away, heard that workers at a nonunion contractor near his hometown of Eugene, Oregon wanted a union, he offered to move back home to help their organizing efforts.

Casterline's hopes for a decent union job closer to home were lifted when workers at Utility Tree Co., a California-based subcontractor for the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), voted 15 to 11 to be represented by Medford, Oregon Local 659 in August.

It was the second time in a year that the workers concerned about substandard wages and hostile supervision voted for the IBEW.

They first voted 25 to 1 for IBEW representation on October 8, 2004 while employed by Arbor Tree Co., another California contractor.  Even before a first contract was negotiated, Arbor lost its contract with EWEB.   When EWEB brought in Utility Tree, a subsidiary of Asplundh Inc., to replace Arbor, the entire work force went to work for the firm.

On September 8, 2005, the results of the second representation election were certified.   This time, the vote included workers for Utility Tree who work in Oregon's valley region for Consumers Power Inc.   Steve Rose, an organizer for Portland Local 125, who lives in the area, assisted the campaign.

Lennie Ellis, a Local 659 assistant business manager, explains the closer margin in the second election, saying, "Utility Tree is real anti-union.   Two years ago they lost an election to IBEW Local 1245 in Diamond Bar, California and still kept fighting the union, until the local filed numerous unfair labor practice complaints and pushed them back."

Casterline knows what kind of difference a union contract can make.   At Trees Inc., his last employer, he was paid union scale of $22 an hour.   He is paid $17.52 for performing the same work at Utility.  Problems with Utility Tree's hostile general foreman can be alleviated, he says, with a grievance procedure that makes him accountable for his decisions.

At Trees Inc., Casterline had health and welfare benefits provided under LineCo, the national insurance carrier covering utility workers. When more tree trimming firms are organized, workers who move from one employer to another will have no interruption of benefits, because LineCo coverage is portable.   "The union is the only way to go," says Kasterline.

As Utility Tree engages in stalling tactics over when negotiations will start on a first contract, Ellis says, "The members are ready for whatever they throw our way." They know, he says, that a good contract in Eugene will be a step to bringing more nonunion trimmers into the IBEW.

Local 659 Organizer Darren Morgan and Kelly McDonald, the local's assistant business manager in the Albany, Oregon, area helped in the Utility Tree campaign