July 2010

Organizing Wire
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Internet Organizing Key to Software Company Win

When young, tech-savvy organizers began using the term "netroots" to describe grassroots organizing via the Internet, they primarily focused upon political campaigns or lobbying efforts. A home-grown, multi-state, May organizing victory by field service and installation engineers at a firm that designs and installs software for cost recovery and expense management stamps the union label firmly on netroots strategies.

The path leading to a winning NLRB election for Boston Local 2222 started last October, when an Equitrac worker approached the union with his concerns over job security as his employer kept dismissing co-workers and increasing the workload on the remaining employees.

"They piled the work on those of us who were left," says 13-year senior field service engineer John Harris, who has seen the company’s work force in New England shrink from 13 in 2003 to two.

Equitrac Corp. has closed almost all of its offices and now field service staff work out of their homes—with their time on the job measured by calling in from the field or when they log in on computers when working from home. The local union helped to organize an e-mail campaign sending workers across the country information discussing the need for a union and their right to organize. Then the campaign, in marketing parlance, went viral.

"Thirteen workers—located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut—did it all themselves," says Lead Organizer Steve Smith. "I’m used to organizing campaigns where I meet with a few guys in a Dunkin’ Donuts, but I believe this is increasingly the way organizing will be done." Once five or six workers had the same complaint, he says, a bridge was created that led to "guys from Boston trading notes with guys from New York."

Weekly conference calls were set up to answer questions about unions, countering misinformation from managers. "I would give an opening statement," says Smith, "then the workers would take over."

"The conference calls were even more decisive than the Internet, especially when they were followed by one-on-one conversations between engineers," says Harris, who had extensive experience in organized workplaces earlier in his work life and had "talked union" before the campaign with little success.

"People on the fence [about the union] felt they had little to lose," says Harris. In better times, he says, they would just go to get a better job. But, with the current recession, "They were willing to give the union a chance."

Equitrac, a privately-held company based in Plantation, Fla., didn’t take the workers seriously when they first petitioned for an election. The company told them on a company-sponsored conference call that they would lose their freedom if they voted for a union, says Harris. He challenged the charge.

"I explained that I was happy to be part of the union. I didn’t lose my freedom. The sky was not going to fall. Millions of people belong to unions and they do just fine," says Harris. The conduct of the campaign—leaving so much initiative in the workers’ own hands—further refuted the company’s pitch.

"Congratulations on your victory and welcome to IBEW Local 2222," said an e-mail message from Business Manager Myles Calvey after the vote. "By uniting in a union, you’ll never stand alone against a powerful corporation," added Calvey, who is also Second District IEC member.

"This was an inspirational learning experience, but also an ordeal," says Harris. "A lot of co-workers were dismissed, but we had a determined layer of people who were willing to put time and dedication into the campaign."

A new representation election will be held soon for workers in Equitrac’s southern region, comprising Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and Puerto Rico.

"All of us in the union want to serve our clients and provide excellent service," Harris said. "After all, the customers are paying the bills. Shouldn’t the company want to do the same?