May 2010

IBEW Customer Campaigns in South Stir Interest
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to

Instant success is a rare event in any organizing campaign. But, with good planning, magic can strike.

While 30 organizers fanned out in late February to advertise the savvy and competitiveness of IBEW labor to 330 Atlanta-area end-users of electrical services—customers from hospitals to architects, engineers and general contractors—phones started ringing with new business for signatory contractors. That's welcome news for a 3,800-member local with 40 percent of its electricians out of work.

The "end-user blitz," initiated by Atlanta Local 613 Business Manager Gene O'Kelley and Jed Dunagan, the local's membership development coordinator, assisted by organizers from Fifth District locals and the International Office, was based on similar successful efforts pioneered in south Florida as part of the Florida Initiative.

End-user Campaigns— ‘The Next Logical Step'

Setting the stage for more nonunion worker and contractor contacts, this kind of organizing goes straight to the customer—the company, firm, institution or municipality—and sells them on the benefits of IBEW labor, namely a highly-skilled work force with the work ethic and professionalism of the Code of Excellence.

"End-user campaigns are the next logical step to promote the training and productivity of IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association," says Walter Bost, who works in business development, a division of the organizing programs developed by Miami Local 349 and Ft. Lauderdale Local 728. "General contractors want two things: good prices and fewer headaches," he says.

‘Keep Re-inventing Ourselves'

"We need to keep re-inventing ourselves," says Bost (See "Former NECA Manager Spreads the Gospel for Florida Initiative," IBEW Journal, March-April 2007). Cold calls on potential customers, he says, build upon a pyramid for growth that commenced with another successful organizing tactic out of Florida: the industry night, a job fair that gives nonunion workers a chance to meet potential employers. It also allows the IBEW to highlight composite crews using a mix of classifications, including construction wireman and construction electrician, which makes using union labor more affordable.

Atlanta's blitz began on a Monday night with a PowerPoint presentation for organizers outlining goals and tactics. Early Tuesday morning, organizers grouped into 15 teams. Dressed in business attire, they mapped out their visits using GPS systems, dividing up glossy brochures titled, "Connecting People, Projects and Opportunity—IBEW Local 613."

‘A Home Run and a Slam Dunk'

"The blitz was a home run and a slam dunk," says Local 349 Organizer Chris Simpson, who helped introduce the concept to Local 613 leaders several months before. Three union contractors immediately went to work for general contractors contacted during the blitz. Forty-seven appointments were set up for future discussions.

"We got more hits from this blitz than any other," says Dunagan, who is busy following up on leads harvested during the campaign.

O'Kelley says the orientation session prior to the visits was critical. "We rehearsed our speeches and anticipated questions that would be asked by customers," he says. "We set our guys up with the questions and answers and gave them real live situations to address."

For instance, says O'Kelley, in visits to office building managers, they were asked what they would do if a switch gear went bad, shutting down power to their premises. Many managers, he says, were unprepared to answer. This offered an opening for organizers to propose a maintenance contract to prevent such catastrophic occurrences.

Selling the Green Team

Bost, whose daughter is a property manager, says that many building managers are young, college-educated women—like her—looking to achieve major savings through greener technologies.

More than one-third of electrical consumption in the U.S. comes from commercial and residential buildings. With large retail and condominium complexes under pressure to reduce energy costs in common areas to keep from losing tenants, times are ripe for developing new business relationships.

NJATC's courses in renewable technologies and building automation systems—including fire security systems—are key to new business. The courses are part of the fourth and fifth year apprenticeship curriculum in Locals 349, 613 and 728. Locals 613 and 728 also offer courses for journeymen to upgrade skills in automation and/or fire security systems.

"We have the greatest job in the world telling people how our organization works," says Simpson, who directed one of the largest energy management projects at Miami International Airport as a foreman for Fisk Electric. "But we can't go in like salesmen. We are and need to be industry experts."

Alvin Riley, membership development coordinator for New Orleans Local 130, who helped out in Atlanta, is considering launching an end-user blitz in his jurisdiction. It's important to visit with architects and engineers, say Riley, because they are the "influencers" who often determine who works on their projects.

Thomas Gay, an associate with SB Architects, based in Miami and San Francisco, was visited during the Miami blitz. "We get a lot of presentations on products," says Gay, but "very rarely on the work force. It's educational to hear about the proactive stance of the union [on green technology]."

Success—A Spreading Commodity

Judy Sheahan, recording secretary of Savannah, Ga., Local 508 was recently appointed as an International Organizer. Returning from Atlanta, Sheahan says, "I thought this was the best thing IBEW has done yet." Sheahan and International Organizer Dave Cornelius have been working to extend the concept to Charleston, S.C., Local 776.

Cornelius, International Organizer Gary Maurice and O'Kelley visited an Atlanta law school. The official in charge of the building said, "I can't use IBEW unless you cut your prices in half." The team helped convince the manager to meet with two signatory contractors who showed him that his assumptions were incorrect.

End-user campaigns also dispel some preconceptions among the general membership, says Simpson. "When members see the high-end professional brochures and hear about the positive response from customers, they get excited."

While Simpson saw some early hesitation among his peers to embrace the construction wireman and construction electrician job classifications, he says many of the members now understand that composite labor rates have increased the overall pool of work for union contractors.

For Contractors, Shortcuts Don't Work

Bost and Florida Lead Organizer Roddy Alvarez visited Roberto Verzura, CEO of general contractor Verzura Construction, who was attracted to the IBEW's rates and the union's professionalism. He was among several general contractors visited by organizing teams.

"When I think about unions, I think about workers who come in with the right tools, attitude and skills to get the job done right the first time," says Verzura, an Italian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1968, worked his way through school and started building luxury beach houses before moving on to major commercial projects like the 39-story, 1,000-room Diplomat Hotel and accompanying 18-hole golf course.

"I could take shortcuts with a nonunion contractor, but it ends up being ‘pay now or pay later,'" says Verzura. That sounds good to Simpson who, at 35, feels the urgency to keep the work coming in for a long time to come.

"I'm young and have a long way to go before retirement. I feel like union electricians are on a building with a fire up on the roof," says Simpson. We can either jump off, or set up a tightrope to another building." End-user campaigns and new classifications are part of the tightrope to survival.

Miami Local 349 and Fort Lauderdale Local 728 are establishing and improving relationships with customers. Meeting are Rodney Alvarez, left, International lead organizer; Walter Bost, director of business development, Locals 349 and 728; Roberto Verzura, CEO, Verzura Construction; consultant Leo Zeferetti, a former member of Congress; David Svetlick, business manager, Local 728; and Lee Rudnitsky, Verzura Construction.

Glossy brochures delivered to more than 300 Atlanta-area customers of electrical services boast the skills and training of IBEW members.