|Private-Sector Collective Bargaining Taps Grassroots Courage
The campaign to constrain and weaken collective bargaining in the public sector is unprecedented. But in the private sector, obstructionist tactics by employers in contract negotiations have been standard operating procedure for years.
Recent experiences of IBEW locals in Iowa and Washington State show employer opposition deepening.
Members of Des Moines Local 347 are seeking a first agreement with a wind tower producer, where they organized a bargaining unit a year ago.
Two thousand miles to the west, Seattle Local 46 members are fighting to conclude a successor agreement for broadcasting members at KIRO-TV.
Paul Clark, head of the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Penn State University, sees common links in both employers' violations of U.S. labor law.
"They raise in my mind how deeply ingrained is the opposition to unions and employees' rights to engage in collective bargaining," he said. Many employers, says Clark, "clearly have come to believe that that the end justifies the means, even if the means violates the law. And clearly one of the reasons why these beliefs and actions have become mainstream is because they have been effective."
In response, courageous grassroots efforts by workers standing up for fundamental labor rights are spreading. Here are the stories of two local union memberships who are tenaciously seeking justice by challenging law-breaking employers.
Winds of Solidarity at Iowa Turbine Manufacturer
In August 2010, after voting 69 to 62 in favor of IBEW representation, workers at Trinity Structural Towers, Iowa's leading manufacturer of wind towers, looked forward to making gains negotiating a first contract between their employer and Des Moines Local 347. Their struggle, at a plant located in the shadows of the iconic Maytag appliance factory shut down by Whirlpool in 2007, received national attention. Would percolating renewable energy manufacturing take the high or low road on workers' wages, benefits and working conditions?
In June, negotiations on a first contract had bogged down and frustration was building. The law firm representing Trinity had limited bargaining meetings to two-day sessions only once a month.
"Trinity kept dragging their feet on wages and benefits and gave us the same proposals over and over again," said Travis Healey, a leader of the organizing campaign and a negotiating committee member. Management arrogantly reminded Healey and other union activists that their election was only won by seven votes, raising the question in monthly union strategy meetings whether Trinity was planning to foment a decertification election following the August 20 anniversary of their organizing win.
Says Healey, a crane and forklift operator, "We asked ourselves what we could do to show Trinity that we weren't going away."
Healey knew support for the union had grown as some of the original complaints that led to the campaign remained unresolved, particularly Trinity's practice of knocking off production during the week and scheduling workers to work weekends without overtime compensation.
Their organizing efforts were fortuitously aided by a cocky new plant manager—the sixth in the plant's three-year history—who was serving workers at a lunch celebrating good safety performance. As workers sporting union stickers passed through the chow line, the manager asked them, "What has the union done for you?" Says Healey, "He'd say stuff like, 'No potato salad for you—you're a union member.'" The disrespect lit a fuse.
Local 347 filed NLRB charges charging Trinity with coercion and failure to bargain in good faith. Says Assistant Business Manager Jerry Kurimski, "Management said that our charges were creating a sideshow. We didn't want to file charges, but we were left with no choice. They created the sideshow."
A June 13 informational picket brought out 80 percent of the workers in the 175-member plant, all wearing union T-shirts. While they drew local press attention, the activists' impact inside the plant was dynamic. Forty-five workers marched to the plant manager's office, each carrying a flier: "WE DESERVE: A fair wage increase! Affordable Health Care! Time off to spend with our families or overtime pay when working weekends."
"The plant manager was on the other side of the door, but he wouldn't acknowledge us," says Healey. So workers slid their fliers under his door. "That's 45 members," a majority of the shift, said Healey, who had worked at Maytag for 10 years and was active in the UAW local there.
In subsequent discussions with Trinity management, Local 347 agreed to drop the NLRB charges in return for a public apology by the company for disrespecting bargaining unit members and a commitment to schedule five negotiating sessions before mid-August. The company complied.
"Trinity workers displayed great solidarity and courage," says Kurimski, praising more senior bargaining unit members for enlisting support from new hires for the picket and action on the job.
With three years of orders on the books supplying towers for General Electric, Trinity is solidifying its position in the marketplace.
Healey, Kurimski and other activists are determined to be partners in the company's success. Says Kurimski, "We tell them over and over that—with a union—they will have a high-quality work force."
Seattle Broadcast Workers Fight Ultimatums
Last October, Seattle Local 46's contract covering broadcasting workers at TV station KIRO expired. Since then, a bargaining unit committee led by Business Representative Angela Marshall has been working on monthly extensions of the agreement.
Management continues its drive to gut language on past practice and remove rights to effects bargaining. KIRO is also holding out for a clause that would bar workers from hand-billing and informational picketing, even though the local has not conducted such activities in several years.
In May, a dispute erupted in an ongoing skirmish that has persisted since new technology was introduced in the control room in 2007. The dispute eclipses all others in the negotiation and has resulted in NLRB charges.
In 2007, the station began using a new software program, Ignite, which dramatically reduced the number of jobs in the control room. Traditionally, control room crews consisted of producers, directors, technical directors, audio engineers, a tape operator and one or two camera operators in the newsroom.
Now control rooms can be operated with just one operator. Because most of the functions were formerly assigned to bargaining unit workers, Local 46 negotiated an agreement providing for the station's Ignite operator work force to consist of at least 50 percent of the bargaining unit.
This spring, however, in the midst of negotiations, KIRO's news director and general manager called bargaining unit Ignite operators into the office one by one and notified them that they were being given the option of relinquishing their bargaining unit rights or being laid off. They were offered a pay increase if they left the bargaining unit and were told that they must make their decisions within 24 hours.
The operators called Marshall, who was meeting with the local's lawyer preparing for an NLRB hearing. Operators were advised by counsel to accept the company's ultimatum. Local 46 immediately filed NLRB charges on their behalf, contending that the station was engaged in direct dealing with employees, intimidation and coercion.
Disputes over which jobs are properly placed in the bargaining unit are natural. But, says Marshall, "establishing a precedent for simply reclassifying jobs and pulling them out from under the union's protection would be damaging at KIRO and across the nation. Stations would keep grabbing for more."
Chuck Carter, a 15-year KIRO broadcast engineer and Local 46 shop steward contrasts IBEW's negotiations to those of KIRO's photographers, members IATSE and reporters, members of AFTRA. Both groups reached their current agreements without giving up jobs. Says Carter, "Our members are frightened that if we keep losing bargaining unit positions, we won't have a union left."
Carter knows how much pressure the utilization of Ignite exerts on the remaining operators. Ironically, he says, that pressure comes at the price of quality news. "Edward R. Murrow told us that it's a news crew's responsibility to keep the public informed to the highest standards," Carter said. "Ignite throws quality out the window and interferes with our ability to report on breaking news."
A steward for three years, Carter adds, "I came to KIRO to work with high-caliber professionals. Managers don't go around and tell people that they are doing a good job, so I do. Our members deserve positive reinforcement."
Carter expresses hope that the bargaining unit will prevail in achieving a decent contract. But events in Wisconsin and elsewhere have convinced him that victories won't come easily. He says, "Unions will stand as long as people stand."