February 2010

Organizing Push Spurs Local Union
Growth in Texas
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With more than two decades in on the job as a field service representative for Oncor—the largest utility in Texas—Don Gray gave eight for eight. He was conscientious about representing his company well. And if fellow workers were overloaded, Gray helped them out. He figured they'd do the same for him.

So when supervisors started clamping down on the work force in 2007 by raising health insurance premiums and then nearly tripling employees' duties, Gray stepped up to help lead the campaign for union representation with Dallas Local 69.

"The company had all the power," said Gray. "They felt like they could do whatever they wanted. I knew that it was going to continue unless we did something about it."

Field service representatives—the employees who do meter turn-ons and turn-offs—usually filled between 30 to 50 orders a day. But changes in company protocol last year sent orders as high as 120 per day for a single worker. That, combined with a new Texas law that puts stiffer fines on utilities if orders go uncompleted, created havoc for the employees.

So Gray started doing his homework. After talking with IBEW Lead Organizer Larry Hayes, Gray began meeting with representatives at the hall to see what the IBEW could do for him and his co-workers. Soon, talk of organizing spread around the workplace, and other employees came into the fold.

Years of campaigning and continuously trying to gin up support in a shop that was experiencing high turnover paid off last December when the field service representatives voted IBEW. By bringing 342 new members into the union, the Oncor campaign led to one of the IBEW's biggest organizing wins of 2009.

The win at Oncor was the latest in what is turning into a streak of victories for workers at the nation's sixth largest electricity transmission and distribution company. In December 2006, nearly 500 distribution line personnel voted for representation with Local 69. The unrepresented field service representatives—who received less pay than the distribution workers—took stock of the union workers' new arrangement and liked what they saw after the line workers won their first contract.

"After going union, the distribution guys got a raise, and we figured we could get something too," said Kay Ream, a 12-year employee whose husband and son both work for the company. "I do a lot of overtime, which helps boost my pay. Without it I'd be at the bottom of the totem pole. It's been years and years since we got a cost-of-living raise, and you need that when prices for everything are going up and you're trying to make it." Ream says that she's optimistic about upcoming contract negotiations. "People I work with say they're really happy with the union."

That attitude is welcomed in Texas, where trade union membership hovers around 4.5 percent (the national average is above 12 percent). And with unemployment in the state at its highest peak in decades, the need for unionization is even greater.

"Many workers said during the campaign that a major concern is possible loss of their jobs," said Hayes, the lead organizer. "Some people have 30 years in and nowhere else to go if they get laid off. So we're trying to incorporate language into the contract stating that they should be the first people trained for other available positions in the company, all of which we're looking to organize down the line."

After winning representation with the company (formerly TXU) in late 2006, hundreds of Local 69 workers became worried when the utility was taken over by private equity firms with plans to outsource highly skilled transmission and distribution work. Union activism across the board helped nix the outsourcing plan, saving the members' jobs. In return, the IBEW agreed to support the buyout in front of the public utility commission. This helped contribute to a more amicable relationship between labor and the new management.

Following the 2006 and 2009 campaigns, Local 69's bargaining strength has risen from 175 to more than 1,000 members.