June 2010

Standout Utility Locals Promote
Code of Excellence
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The unveiling of the IBEW's utility Code of Excellence more than two years ago opened up a new chapter in labor-management relations in the North American power industry.

Building on the Code of Excellence in the construction branch, the utility code is a call for all IBEW utility members to meet the challenges of a changing industry—an industry that is confronting a generational turnover, a struggling economy and a growing alternative energy economy.

"The code is a bold restatement of the most fundamental principles of our union: a fair day's work for a fair day's pay and a commitment to excellence in everything we do," said International President Edwin D. Hill.

From redoubling members' commitment to safety and quality work to developing a nonadversarial relationship with management, locals across the United States and Canada are taking up the Code of Excellence with members and management as a first step in guaranteeing good union jobs for utility workers now and in the future.

A Wake-Up Call

For Madison, Wis., Local 965 Business Manager Tony Bartels, the Code of Excellence was a "wake-up call."

Bartels says he was concerned that many members had grown complacent, taking for granted a secure role for the IBEW. "If we want the IBEW to be part of the future of the industry, we have to recommit ourselves to excellence on a daily basis."

His interest in the code began soon after it was unveiled in construction in 2007, a year before it rolled out in the utility branch. Bartels set up a meeting with management at Alliant Energy to talk about implementing its principles.

Management was cautious at first, particularly about the idea of using company time to promote a union-developed plan. But Bartles didn't give up, finally getting a chance to sit down with Alliant's vice president of operations.

The Alliant executive was impressed with the code's efforts to improve employee attendance and productivity, but Bartels reminded him that that the code is a two-way street: he couldn't call on his members to live by the code unless management was willing to do the same.

"There has to be a mutual level of trust for it to work," he said. Management agreed and allowed the training on company time and property. Members and management watched International President Hill's video message; Bartels helped answer members' questions.

Since 2008 more than 1,300 members of Local 965—more than 90 percent of the local—have gone through the orientation. Bartels also put on a session for salaried managers, who "came out raving about the program," he said.

It has also been implemented at Wisconsin Power and Light.

Since then, Bartels has noticed a different attitude from management. "If there is an issue with an employee, a lot of managers will now to come to the union first to see if we can work out a solution instead of resorting immediately to disciplinary measures."

The local has seen a big drop in employee grievances, from more than 40 a year down to 12.

The Work Force of Choice

Soon after President Hill's live video broadcast launching the Code of Excellence, Detroit Local 17 Business Manager Kevin Shaffer approached management at DTE Energy about adopting it.

While there was some skepticism from some of his own members initially about whether or not the company was serious about holding up its end of the bargain, the most common refrain he heard after the training was: "It's about time."

Since then, more than 400 members of Detroit Local 17 have gone through the Code of Excellence orientation.

Although utilities are cutting costs, Shaffer said he is hopeful that the company can avoid resorting to wage and benefits cuts or relying on nonunion contractors by increasing employee productivity and attendance.

The state of the economy calls for a more cooperative labor-management paradigm, he said. "We have to find ways to work together to improve performance so we remain the work force of choice."

A Professional Image

The struggling economy means customers are giving extra scrutiny to their energy bills, making promoting a professional image for utility workers more important than ever.

Collinsville, Ill., Local 309 has trained nearly 100 utility workers, mostly at AmerenIP and AmerenCIPS, in the Code of Excellence since 2008. Business Manager Scott Hassall says that the code is a vital tool in improving the public's perception of the union and helping to improve customer relationships.

"It's a key time in the industry and we need to make sure that we are putting our best face out there," Hassall said.

Management also participated in the training sessions. "I had a lot of supervisors asking for DVDs of President Hill's video presentation," he said.

Safety is Key

For Cedar Rapids Local 204 Business Manager David George, excellence on the job means making safety a priority.

"Every worker is part of a team," he said. "This is a very dangerous job and everybody needs to pull their own weight."

Local 204, which represents more than 1,300 members at utilities and power co-ops throughout the state, started implementing the code more than two years ago.

Since then, it has been incorporated into the local's yearly stewards' training school, with a session last year attracting one of its biggest attendances ever.

Stewards get even more extensive training in the code, with attendees role-playing different scenarios, from dealing with problem employees to difficult managers.

"It's gained the union a lot of respect from the companies we represent," George said. "The message is pretty straightforward: we're the best, most professional and safest work force around and we're willing to put it into writing."

Bartels says that the key to successfully implementing the code is winning buy-in from all parties involved: local officers, stewards, and management. "Because it's all about building a relationship based on trust, you have to make sure that everyone understands what the code is all about and supports its goals before it can be successful," he said.

The IBEW's utility workers are adopting a new standard of professionalism.