June 2011

Branching Out:
IBEW Tree Trimmers Go for Growth
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It's one of the most dangerous jobs in the Brotherhood. Clearing tree branches and other obstacles encroaching on power lines may seem easy, but professional tree trimmers and line clearance workers have one of the most hazardous occupations in the country according to the National Institute of Safety and Health.

When called in after major storms, tree trimmers cut away broken branches and felled trees entangled in live transmission lines. Falls and electrocutions are all too common.

"It's very dangerous, working around downed or damaged equipment," says Pittsburgh Local 1919 Business Manager Don Kaczka, a 35-year veteran of the industry.

But despite being a vital part of any utility or outside construction crew, too often tree trimmers don't get the respect they deserve, he says.

"There is a stigma attached to us that we are uneducated and unskilled," says Medford, Ore., Local 659 Assistant Business Manager Lennie Ellis, who has worked as a tree trimmer for more than 30 years.

And while they work side by side with IBEW members, they often don't get to share in the benefits of union membership, Kaczka told attendees at the 2011 Construction and Maintenance Conference. He was invited back by popular demand to give his presentation on tree trimmers, following an appearance last year.

"We're talking thousands of potential members, and a lot of business managers are beginning to figure out that we need to go after them," he says.

Organizing Challenges

More than 50 locals count line clearance tree trimmers among their membership, but the industry still remains unorganized in many parts of the country, making low pay, nonexistent benefits and shaky job security the norm for many of them.

Most utilities and outside construction contractors rely on subcontractors for line clearance and in states like Pennsylvania that have low union market share, it is hard for IBEW tree trimmer contractors to compete for work. Many of the union contractors engage in double breasting, by running a nonunion section of their shop.

"We are able to stay union largely because the management of Duquesne Power and Light has had a longstanding relationship with the IBEW, but the same can't be said for all utilities," Kaczka says.

But despite the many obstacles, Local 1919—the only local consisting exclusively of tree trimmers—is making impressive organizing gains.

Last fall it successfully organized more than 100 tree trimmers at Asplundh Tree in eastern Pennsylvania, who signed their first contract in March.

It wasn't easy. Asplundh increasingly relies on Spanish-speaking, largely immigrant workers—as do many nonunion line clearance contractors—driving a cultural and language wedge into the work force.

"Owners are trying to use culture to divide us, but at Asplundh it backfired," Kaczka says. "The company assumed the Latinos would be the most anti-union, but it turned out to be the exact opposite."

Management tried to conflate the IBEW with some of the corrupt unions workers faced in their home countries and told them that the union did not care about Latino workers. But diligence on the part of Local 1919 allowed Kaczka to build the trust needed to win their support.

"It just took one Spanish-speaking worker to publically come out for us for the rest of them to feel comfortable enough to join up," Kaczka says. "You can't let boundaries get in your way. If you build bonds with Spanish-speaking workers and gain their trust, you will open up new opportunities at other work sites because you have recruited organizers who can spread the word in their own language," he says.

Pacific Northwest

In contrast to Pennsylvania, the Pacific Northwest boasts one of the highest line clearance market shares in the country, with more than 80 percent of tree trimmers unionized, says Medford, Ore., Local 659 Assistant Business Manager Lennie Ellis. He credits this in part to state regulations requiring utilities to do routine tree maintenance near power lines, which provides year-round work for most tree trimmers.

"It's a lot easier to organize workers when they don't have to travel every few months," Ellis says.

Stringent training requirements have also helped improve the image of the industry in states like Oregon and Washington. The majority of tree trimmers must go through a Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee-sponsored program, which has increased productivity and dramatically lowered accident rates.

High union density also translates into higher wages and better benefits, creating a more stable and professional work force.

"By making sure the tree trimming industry is regulated and providing training opportunities, the IBEW has been able to provide tree trimmers with wages and benefits other utility workers enjoy," Ellis says.

A commitment to training has allowed Detroit Local 17 to represent most tree trimmers in its jurisdiction. The utility local runs a U.S. Department of Labor-certified tree trimmer and line clearance apprenticeship program, which is mandatory for any tree trimmer working at one of DTE Energy's line clearance contractors.

"We not only guarantee a professional and skilled work force, but we get the chance to educate new tree trimmers on the benefits of union membership," says Local 17 Business Manager Kevin Shaffer.

Whatever their local situation may be, Kaczka says, it's up to each local to develop a plan to organize tree trimmers. "Members work by them all the time and they want the same things all workers want: a shot at the American dream. But we need to step up our efforts because only the IBEW can provide them with that shot."

IBEW locals across the country are taking up the challenge of organizing tree trimmers into the Brotherhood.