|HEALTH CARE IN FOCUS
Nevada Retirees Resist Cuts
Go to www.ibew.org
Tom Bird was different from most baby boomer retirees who hang up their union activism with their tools. For two years, the Reno, Nev., journeyman lineman, a member of Northern California-based Local 1245, and a few other retirees had tried unsuccessfully to form a retiree club.
On October 15, Bird got some unexpected help in his organizing efforts when his former employer, NV Energy, called a meeting for approximately 300 retirees at a Reno casino to announce that all bets were off—the company was planning to cut retiree health care benefits. And it would refuse to negotiate over pensioners' benefits with Local 1245 during talks on the contract covering 800 active employees which expires on Dec. 31. After the meeting, a number of retirees signed a contact sheet expressing interest in forming a retirement club and in support of a rally on Nov. 7.
Retired lineman Ron Borst stood up to question the company's benefit manager, who answered that he would meet Borst privately in the back of the hall. "No, I want to talk to you over the microphone so everybody can hear," said Borst, whose wife, Vickie, also worked for the company for 26 years, serving on several Local 1245 committees.
After Borst, Bird walked up to the microphone to announce the rally. The HR manager, seeing members in Local 1245 shirts standing up, shut off the microphone and ended the meeting.
The HR manager left, but 172 retirees, including some in their 70s and 80s—who had worked for Sierra Pacific Power before it merged with Nevada Power in 2000—were ready to join Borst, Bird and fellow retiree Mickie Baryol in forming a retiree club that would be more than a social club.
"I'm not unique," Bird told the Local 1245 Utility Reporter. "I've got some health issues along with a lot of other people out there who are also busted up from being in the trade for any length of time. What they're doing to us is immoral."
Borst, who retired with 43 years in the lineman trade, says, "There's no excuse for what they're doing." The company is paying a stock dividend. During the last round of negotiations, the union gave NV Energy until 2015 to fully fund the Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association trust that covers retiree health care. The company quickly put money into the trust, leaving it fully funded.
NV Energy is also getting federal help. On Oct. 27, the company received a $138 million grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to implement smart grid technologies in the state.
After the meeting, under the leadership of Mike Grimm, Local 1245's temporary business representative, Bird, Borst and Baryol immediately began organizing the retirees club and a contract action rally to put public pressure on NV Energy, exposing it for breaking a deal with its union. "We'll show them in force that we won't lay down and let them walk all over us," says Vickie Borst.
Prior to 1998, the union bargained for the company to pick up 100 percent of medical insurance benefits for retirees. That was changed in 1998, when Local 1245 agreed that prospective retirees would pick up 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums in return for an early retirement plan that would allow workers to retire if they were 55 years old and had 30 or more years of service.
NV Energy now wants to set up a defined medical insurance benefit that would cap the company's share of health care insurance costs at the 2009 level and force all retirees to pick up any future increases.
"It used to be if you were loyal to the company, they were loyal to you," says Baryol, who retired last year as an Auto-CAD draftsman, helping keep her co-workers safe by updating electric circuit maps. "Do they expect the older retirees to go back to work to be greeters at a discount store to pay for insurance premium increases after they get knocked on their health care?"
Under threat of a cancelled contract, Local 1245 members are preparing to defend their agreement and their retirees during negotiations. Hundreds are wearing stickers with the Revolutionary War slogan "Don't Tread On Me" superimposed, with accompanying snakes, over the IBEW logo.
"What happens to us will trickle down to the active employees and to older retirees, too," says Bird. An even larger bargaining unit of NV Energy workers is represented by Las Vegas Local 396 whose contract expires next year. Borst, who serves as temporary president of the retiree club, says, "I don't know if we will win, but if we lose, the company will have to face us next time they want a rate increase."
Fighting to defend collectively-bargained retiree health care has become a routine but ardent challenge for trade unionists over the past two decades. Local 1245 retirees should take heart that mobilizing their numbers can beat back takeaways.
Retiree activists save AT&T benefits
The recently settled contract negotiated between AT&T and IBEW locals opened with the company pushing for major cuts in retiree health care benefits. Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21's Business Manager Ron Kastner enlisted the help of Larry Moeller, an AT&T retiree and former local union officer who had moved to Michigan to come back and help organize his fellow AT&T pensioners across Illinois and Northwest Indiana.
Since the local only had one active retiree club, Moeller says that he spent five months seeking out "coffee klatches" of retirees, many of them in their 50s and 60s, approaching them one-on-one about writing letters, making phone calls and walking informational picket lines to stop the health care cuts. Hundreds participated.
"Our efforts had a direct result in successfully protecting retiree benefits," says Moeller, who is now planning to initiate five new Local 21 retiree clubs.
Ohio Leaders Take on Retiree Organizing Challenge
"America has been taught to believe a lie," says Ken Erdmann, assistant business manager of Toledo, Ohio, Local 245. No longer, says Erdmann, can workers put in 30 years on a job, relax and let the next generation take over. For his senior project at the National Labor College, Erdmann wrote a paper entitled "Retirement! Now the Work Begins," based upon his own research on how different organizations are organizing seniors and retirees to "continue working for the cause of the middle class and their families while enjoying retirement."
"The hurdle that IBEW and the labor movement need to get over is the idea that retirees don't want to be involved once they retire," says Erdmann. He found that the one-on-one method that is employed on union organizing drives is the key to helping retirees reach a comfort level to engage in activities like phone banking and going door-to-door on political campaigns.
While the 164 retiree clubs chartered by the IBEW—including Local 245's—are largely focused on social activities, Erdmann says that when retirees are asked if they want to become more active advocates for the needs of seniors and working families, many volunteer. Activism in protecting their benefits and improving the economic well-being of working families can be powerful extensions of the social support network that the clubs provide to retirees.
Assigned to work with Local 245's retiree club, Erdmann convinced its leaders to affiliate with the Alliance for Retired Americans to help educate and motivate members on critical issues facing them. Formed with the support of the AFL-CIO in 2001, the Alliance has more than 3 million members with chapters in 30 states.
The Alliance mostly concentrates on national issues like protecting Social Security and Medicare from privatization, strengthening health care and pension reform—but state chapters take on issues closer to home. The Ohio chapter, for example, successfully lobbied for a bill which offers a reduction for senior citizens on their property taxes. The group also worked with others to pass an increase in the state's minimum wage.
Retired Fourth District International Representative Tom Curley serves on the board of directors of Ohio's ARA. With the support of Fourth District Vice President Sam Chilia, Curley is now visiting all local unions and their retiree clubs in the state encouraging them to affiliate with ARA. Retired Canton Local 540 Business Manager Les Wiley also works on retiree issues as the AFL-CIO's area coordinator in Cleveland.
"I understand that most local unions are embroiled in everyday activities," Curley says, "but retirees are a tremendous resource that they need to tap."
Applauding Curley's work, Erdmann says, "Losing track of the wisdom possessed by the 47 million Americans retiring soon will be a tragedy."