June 2009

MasTec Satellite Technicians
Install IBEW in Georgia

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Too many workers were being cussed out by their supervisors or fired for no reason. James Hampton, a satellite installer-technician for MasTec in Duluth, Ga., knew in his gut that things had to change. So last February, he placed a call to the IBEW asking for help. International Organizing Representative Carmella Cruse and Atlanta Local 613 Assistant Business Manager Robbie Evans met with Hampton and several co-workers.

On April 30, Hampton’s co-workers voted 32 to 22 to be represented by Local 613. The vote is a giant step for IBEW’s efforts to win job security and respect for thousands of MasTec workers nationwide and bring the company—which declared record revenues ($1.4 billion in 2008) and holds 25 percent of the national market for satellite TV installation—into the circle of responsible employers.

“I was ready to pay the consequences,” says Hampton, who began working at MasTec in 2003. After learning of his support for organizing his co-workers, supervisors tried to turn other technicians against him, saying that “they needed to watch out for me,” he said.

“Everyone saw the same thing I did,” Hampton said. Workers who took company trucks home were charged $80 per week. Favoritism was rampant in job assignments, with workers getting paid different rates for performing the same work. Worst of all, technicians were hit with back charges, forced to pay out of their pockets for equipment failures that were out of their control.

MasTec contracted with Bell and Associates, an Austin, Texas-based firm that showcases its versatility in assisting employers who are either fending off unions or bargaining with them. The company was confident that, with the Austin firm’s help and their own obstructionist tactics, the union campaign in the suburb of Atlanta could be derailed.

MasTec has stonewalled on signing a first contract with IBEW at its Tampa, Fla., location, first organized in 2006. Negotiations were going well at the company’s West Palm Beach, Fla., shop, organized in 2008, until the IBEW petitioned for the Duluth election. Then MasTec went to the NLRB and petitioned to decertify the unit. Even though the IBEW blocked the decertification, the company figured that it could convince Duluth workers that a union would take more from the workers than it could give.

Bell and Associates held meetings with the 63-worker force, claiming to be “neutral,” interested only in “giving workers information about unions.” But Hampton and a co-worker, Dave Edwards—with help from Cruse and Evans—had prepared their co-workers for union-bashing.

“I’m a research-oriented person,” says Edwards, a one-year employee who left self-employment as a real estate appraiser after the housing bubble burst. He checked out the IBEW online and circulated information to his co-workers outlining arguments they would hear against unions, including a link to the video, “Confessions of a Union Buster.”

When the consultants warned that organizing a union could put the workers in jeopardy like those at General Motors, Edwards, Hampton and other workers challenged their assumptions. “Bell’s consultants seemed to take it personally,” says Hampton, who notified members in one of the captive audience meetings of new movement among installers in other locales. The CWA, Hampton reported, had just organized workers in Paducah, Ky., at DirecTech, MasTec’s main competitor. And the IBEW was knocking on the door at another location in Tennessee. The consultants cut the meeting short.

Despite fears among a section of the work force that supporting the union could cost them their jobs, a majority lined up for IBEW representation.

Cruse identifies two factors that were decisive in the campaign’s success. First, the volunteer organizing committee broadly represented the work force. Hampton, who is African-American, teamed up with Edwards, who is white, and a Hispanic organizer to help unify the predominantly Hispanic work force. International Organizer Maria Gonzales assisted in the outreach. Second, says Cruse, Assistant Business Manager Evans “did a good job showing what Local 613 was all about—just what kind of organization they were joining.”

After the vote, MasTec retaliated against the union’s election observer by reassigning him to less lucrative work. The union has filed several NLRB charges on this and other violations.

Hampton sees a change in company attitude since the charges were filed. “They were coming at us hard before the election,” he says. “Now they are backing off because we have a union standing behind us.”

Edwards went straight to the Internet to report on the election win to inform MasTec workers across the country about the victory.

“I never was pro-union before this,” says Edwards. “Now, I’m super pro-union.” Edwards works nights in a restaurant, and his boss calls him “Norma Rae,” after Sally Field’s character in a 1979 film based upon the life of a legendary Southern textile organizer.

Fresh from operating his own business, Edwards scoffs at corporate lobbyists who say that unions destroy companies. “We’re not asking them to sign their lives away,” he says. “We just want some checks and balances and the bare minimum that we should expect from any employer.”

Dave Edwards, left, and James Hampton spearheaded a successful organizing campaign at DirecTV installer MasTec in Georgia.