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IBEW Takes On Florida
IBEW Seeks to Regain Market Share in
Booming Sunshine State

November 2005, IBEW Journal

The face of America is changing—and no state
can provide a better window into the future than Florida. Florida is growing, due as much to Americans migrating there as to immigrants. The state is the fourth-largest both in the size of its economy and its population.

Florida has a low unemployment rate —less than 5 percent. But it is dominated by an anti-worker governor and legislature and a weak state labor board. Wages are low and benefits are few. It is no coincidence that organized labor is not strong in Florida. The IBEW is working to change that.

Preparing signs for an informational picket in front of Sprint call center in Fort Myers are Tampa Local 824 member Dan Wagner, left, Interna­tional Representative Troy Johnson, and Local 824 members Kathy Smith and Patty Wilkins.

With a historic new campaign of unprecedented magnitude, the IBEW is out to rebuild its market share in construction and increase its presence in every other branch of the Brotherhood. The IBEW has nothing to lose. And workers—who are suffering at the hands of an out-of-kilter labor market that overwhelmingly favors employers—have everything to gain.

“We’re reinventing a union movement in the state of Florida,” said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. “We’ve never targeted a state like this before. We’re throwing everything we have into it.”

A state organizing coordinator has been placed in Florida, and several organizers have been transferred to the state to aid in campaigns in every branch of the Brotherhood. Letters from President Hill have been mailed to all members and retirees living in the state, notifying them of the campaign and soliciting volunteers. IBEW and nonunion electrical contractors and electricians have also been put on notice. A new Web site, www.ibewflorida.org, has been posted to provide news and information to prospective members.

New construction in Florida is paving the way for the IBEW’s re-emergence. And key to the Florida effort are new agreements that fundamentally change the way the IBEW operates in the construction industry. In a state where residential construction comprises more than half of all construction—a 20 percent larger share than the national average—a small works agreement targets projects like high-rise apartment buildings and condos as well as shopping centers and hotels.

Such an agreement will put signatory contractors in a competitive position to win the vital residential and small commercial work that has recently eluded the IBEW. An intermediate wireman classification has been instituted to recruit those performing electrical work for nonunion companies. The moves are an acknowledgement that things have changed, and the IBEW had to adapt or cease to be a player in the construction industry.

Downers Grove, Illinois, Local 15 member Char White, left,
Fort Myers Local 199 member Tom Nolan and Las Vegas
Local 396 member Carol Gunther picket Sprint last May.

“This is a sea change in the way we do business and it will have a dramatic effect down there,” said Buddy Satterfield, Special Assistant to the International President for Membership Development. “The terms and conditions of our other contracts no longer fit. They were structured when we dominated and had the luxury of dictating the rules.”

The intermediate classification, designated “construction wireman,” bestows an official title upon those members who have not yet reached the highest level of expertise, and seeks to preserve the inside wireman designation for only those whose skills meet the rigorous journeyman qualifications. The new classification demonstrates that the IBEW is opening its doors to all workers in the Florida electrical industry with good attitudes, work ethics and the desire to be part of the organization.

As with other agreements, the small works agreement must be negotiated by the local union and the National Electrical Contractors Association chapter. But it is an acknowledgement by both sides that a more competitive agreement is essential for the success of the Florida initiative.

A similar heavy highway agreement—also complete with staffing, portability and classification changes—has helped ease the IBEW back into highway construction in the Sunshine State. IBEW members are at work installing new electronics and signs along the 400 miles of state toll roads, a $35 million contract for the Florida Transportation Department under that pact. Such agreements, designed to give contractors flexibility on rules, have become necessary for the IBEW to work in the overwhelmingly nonunion state construction market, said Florida Initiative Coordinator Jim Rudicil.

“Most nonunion employers operating here have no restrictions on moving manpower across jurisdictional lines,” Rudicil said. “These agreements are innovative, and way beyond what the IBEW has ever done before.”

Local 1205 member Dwight Nelson, a construction wireman, is at work at Majestic Towers, a 22-story condominium building in Panama City. He is employed by Consolidated Electric.

The small works agreement is already netting construction jobs for the IBEW. Fifty members of Orlando Local 606 are working on a 35-story condominium project in Orlando. The $90 million, 900,000-square-foot project is among the first large-scale residential jobs for Local 606. “We’re enthusiastic about this step into the high-rise residential market,” said Business Manager Harry Brown.

The Florida effort, originally conceived by President Hill in response to the dire reality of IBEW market share in the construction sector, concentrates existing resources on the strategic plan but provides for organizers and financial support for targeted campaigns, Satterfield said.

President Hill conceded the task would not be easy when he announced the Florida plan at the Construction and Maintenance Conference last April. “I don’t think that we are going to turn Florida around overnight,” he said. “But I do know that if we don’t start now, we’ll be out of the game totally. And if that happens in places like Florida and other rapidly growing states, then we are in danger of seeing the beginning of the end of the IBEW.”

Local 1205 first-year apprentice Mario Dumosch, feeds wire
at Seychelles condominium in Panama City.

More than 150 members and retirees have volunteered to help the massive organizing effort, signing up for shifts ranging from three to 40 hours a month. Their services will be used in a variety of ways, from working phone banks, to talking to prospective members about the benefits of the IBEW to letter-writing campaigns in support of project labor agreements. The spirit and strong union tradition of retirees and other transplants from dominant union areas is highly valued in this right-to-work state.

Like many, retired member Clayton McKinney, Local 278, Corpus Christi, Texas, responded to the call for help in touching fashion. “I’m 80 and in poor health but willing to help in any way I can,” said McKinney, now living in Moore Haven, Florida, just west of the Everglades in the southern central part of the state.

A fleet of organizers is starting to take shape. Topeka, Kansas, Local 304 member Carmella Cruse is leading the ground effort with a group of organizers that includes women and bilingual English/Spanish speakers. Those qualities will be particularly helpful in the IBEW’s efforts to organize a 660-worker unit of technicians and production workers at a Rockwell Collins plant in Melbourne. The defense manufacturer is one of many in Florida’s east coast region known as “Space Coast” for the number of high-tech companies near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Rockwell Collins workers reached out to the IBEW because of its established relationship with two Rockwell plants in Iowa, Local 1362 in Cedar Rapids and Local 1634 in Coralville. But the difference between shops in Iowa and Florida is greater than a few hundred miles. Rockwell Collins pays an average of $10,000 less to Florida workers, offers scant pension benefits and requires its Melbourne work force to pay three times more out-of-pocket for health insurance than IBEW-represented workers in Iowa.

The company pays no cost-of-living increases and due to sky-high housing costs, many Rockwell workers are forced to work overtime as well as second jobs to make ends meet.

“These employees need a voice and a chance to come above the poverty level,” Cruse said. “They have to spend a tremendous amount of time away from their homes and away from their families… and they’re getting nowhere.”

At around five percent, Florida has one of the lowest union density rates in the country, so people there have limited firsthand knowledge of the benefits of collective bargaining. With newly-retained union busting consultants on the job, Rockwell Collins is rushing in to fill a vacuum and help paint a skewed picture of unions.

Satterfield said the Rockwell campaign is being closely watched by other plants in the area, most of whose workers lack a voice on the job.

Local 1205 members on the job at Panama City’s Seychelles condos. Front row, from left are Bruce Carnley, general foreman; David Humphries, journeyman; Mike McDoungh, superintendent; Janero Johnson, third-year apprentice; Brian Ross, construction wireman; and Tom Andrews, fire alarm systems foreman. Second row, from left are Bob Smith, rough-in foreman; Alfred Fox, job steward; and Scott O’Dell, first-year apprentice.

Several public employee organizing campaigns are under way. The biggest is in support of municipal workers in the city of Tallahassee. And Gainesville Local 1205 has recently been recognized as the bargaining agent for workers in Live Oak, despite stark opposition from town leaders. Although the city outsourced management of the 39 blue collar workers to a private firm, that company has recognized the union and is cooperating with its workers in crafting a first agreement.

Local 1205 Business Manager Jeff Henderson said he was approached early this year with heartbreaking stories from Live Oak workers: one man worked 30 years and only earned an $11 hourly wage. Another returned from an on-the-job accident to be told he had to work two months without a salary to repay the city for its share of his workers’ compensation benefits.

“You can’t meet these people and say you’re part of the labor movement and not help them,” Henderson said. “If anybody I ever met needed a union, it is these people.”

Arbitrary work rule changes and stagnant wages and benefits led 300 municipal utility workers in the city of Lakeland to Tampa Local 108. Plant operator Chris McPherson left his job and a membership at IBEW Local 3 in New York to move South, where he describes the difference between the two work environments as night and day. “Here, there’s a lot of nepotism and favoritism that goes on,” McPherson said. “I told them the only way to defeat this is to bring the union in.”

An all-out blitz to sign up new members at an IBEW-represented Sprint call center in Fort Myers netted nearly 40 new Local 199 members ahead of bargaining last summer. Those intensified efforts drew IBEW members from across the country, and involved house calls to current and eligible members, informational picketing and membership meetings. “It’s no different today than it was 100 years ago,” President Hill said. “People want to belong and want to be involved. Many times they just need to be asked.”

And in Jacksonville, a unit of 12 communications operators on contract with the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station finally has a first contract a year after the employer recognized Local 2088 as their bargaining representative. The group—which had not had a raise in two years, or overtime pay, or affordable health insurance—unanimously ratified the contract, said Business Manager N. Harry Judah.

The organizing effort recognizes that, if unions are not making consistent strides in organizing in a growing state like Florida, then the labor movement is constantly losing market share.

In 2000, President Bush won the White House by a razor-thin share in Florida. “By the small numbers we lost the presidency in 2000, we could have changed history,” Satterfield said. “By organizing, we can change the political landscape.”

And by making membership gains, the IBEW and other unions can exert more influence on wages and working conditions, a critical influence in the rising tide that lifts workers in all boats.

For the latest news and updates on the IBEW’s Florida initiative, visit www.ibewflorida.org or www.floridaibew.org.