December 2011

Boots & Blogs
Ill. Sears Service Techs Win Innovative Organizing Campaign
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Vic Carusi knew what he had to do. For 17 years, he had serviced lawn and exercise equipment for Sears in northeast Illinois. But a new district manager was making life miserable for him and more than 300 other technicians who work primarily in the state's northeast.

Technicians always expected some jobs to run into overtime, but the manager's lack of respect for basic family needs had reached a breaking point. Like when a technician, Lou Ervin, with more than 20 years of seniority asked for time off to attend his daughter's college graduation, and was told, "Sure, turn in your keys, take all the time you want."

"My father told me growing up, 'Don't let anyone step on you,'" says Carusi.

So, in October 2010, Carusi talked to a couple of players on his softball team who are members of Local 176 in Joliet. Carusi, who knew that Sears technicians in Colorado and Wyoming were represented by Denver Local 68, told the electricians that conditions might be ripe for his co-workers to follow suit.

Joliet members advised Carusi to talk to the Local 176 Organizer Matt Kenney, who contacted the Membership Development Department.

Eleven months later, an innovative organizing campaign that combined the efforts of seven locals representing multiple IBEW branches reached the finish line as technicians voted 184 to 125 in favor of representation by Chicago Local 134. It was the largest win in the Sixth District in many years and a critical one in the IBEW's efforts to organize Sears workers across North America.

Dirty Tricks

Sixth District International Organizing Coordinator Jeff Radjewski says Sears was relentless, employing carrot and stick tactics to oppose the campaign. The company held captive audience meetings. They tried to sidetrack organizers by removing some poor managers, reducing overtime requirements and handing out gift certificates.

Simultaneously, however, Sears played hardball, giving the union an inaccurate worker contact list, spreading misinformation about the IBEW and trying to confuse workers on voting locations.

Despite the company's efforts, a strong, well-respected volunteer organizing committee came together, preparing their co-workers for the company's tactics and setting up a Web site for them to share comments and information.

Internet Levels Playing Field

Pierre Powell, a Chicago-area repairman with 32 years at Sears, had participated in past unsuccessful organizing campaigns. He followed organizing activities by other Sears technicians by visiting a Yahoo online group set up about 10 years ago.

"The Internet leveled the playing field," says Powell, adding that Sears had combined two districts in Illinois "with the mentality that the geographical spread would be enough to calm down the union talk.

"Sears told technicians 'the union was going after us,'" says Powell. But workers knew the truth—that technicians had sought out the union. The techs and the IBEW became partners after that, says Powell.

Before the campaign, Sears had "targeted some technicians because of their outspokenness," says Powell, who repairs cooking appliances. The customers loved them, but they were fired anyway. "That was a game changer," he says.

"I can't be anything but hopeful," says Powell. "I'm 51 years old and have eight or nine years to go. I want to help the [younger workers] correct injustice on the job."

In October, a new manager pulled Powell aside and asked if he would be interested in taking a management position. Powell turned him down.

"I like dealing with the customers one-on-one," says Powell, who expresses hope that an improved relationship between managers and workers will improve customer service, job security and the company's bottom line.

Organizing Spirit Spreads Across Continent

IBEW's Sears campaign is picking up as technicians challenge managers who abuse their authority and mistreat their employees.

In February, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Local 1928 signed its first collective bargaining agreement covering Sears service technicians. The template for the agreement was a prior one between Sears and Vancouver, B.C., Local 213.

Local 134 Organizer Abe Rodriguez says the Illinois campaign "blended old and new technologies." Postcards were sent out to prospective members, but the Web site, www.unitedtechsgreatlakes. was there for younger techs who "live off their laptops and cell phones."

Assisted by Region 3 Lead Organizers Mike Green and Steve Fosness, the volunteer organizing committee, says Rodriguez, "did a fantastic job." Illinois locals contributing to the campaign's success included: Chicago Local 9, Elgin Local 117, Chicago Local 134, Waukegon Local 150, Aurora Local 461 and Lisle Local 701. Also participating was Louisville, Ky., Local 369.

As a symbol of the volunteers' commitment, Rodriguez remembers an organizing meeting that was called during a snowstorm when techs might have preferred to stay home to watch a big football game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. Fifty technicians showed up.

Rodriguez, who is bilingual, reached out to Hispanic workers, part of a diverse group that included Arabic-speaking Americans, African-Americans and women.

Synergy Helps Engage 21st Century Work Force

Says Radjewski, "The Illinois technicians reflect the 21st century work force. This is a classic example of how several branches of the Brotherhood can work together and create a synergy that wouldn't exist otherwise."

Radjewski and Lou Ervin, the technician who was threatened for attending his daughter's graduation, described the Sears campaign at the Membership Development Conference last month.

During the campaign, the manager whose actions helped instigate the drive visited Carusi at home and then accompanied him on his route, trying to discourage his participation in the campaign. The manager was removed by the company. "I told him I'd been there 17 years and I would outlast him," Carusi says. "And I did."

Hoping for a Decent First Contract

Carusi is looking to improve some benefits in a first contract with Sears. He saw his defined benefit pension plan frozen about 11 years ago. Married with two children, Carusi, 37, pays $600 a month out-of-pocket for health insurance.

He doesn't know how negotiations will turn out, but he knows IBEW has his back.

"I went to Matt Kenney and told him I wanted to start a union drive covering hundreds of miles and 344 people. He took time away from his family for months [to help us organize]."

"I told him, 'You have little kids, you can step down now,' but Matt Kenney stayed with us," says Carusi. "That's the kind of people that make the IBEW a great union."


Read more: Satellite workers employ technology for big win

Sixth District Organizing Coordinator Jeff Radjewski, left, and Chicago Local 134 Organizer Abe Rodriguez discuss upcoming first contract negotiations covering newly organized Sears service technicians.

Pierre Powell, a 32-year Sears employee, says, 'I want to help the younger workers correct injustice on the job.'

Sears Repairmen:
A Proud History of Service

The customer-based work ethic that is personified by today's repairmen has served Sears well for generations.

An advertisement in a 1962 issue of Life Magazine shows a line of Sears service trucks, emblazoned with the slogan, "We Service What We Sell." Opposite the trucks, immaculately uniformed appliance repairmen race to take their places behind the steering wheel.

In the consumer-driven postwar economy, the Sears serviceman was the trustworthy guy you called when the washing machine stopped wringing or the refrigerator turned warm. Work was steady and pay and benefits at the company, whose catalogue was known as the "consumer's bible," were sufficient to put repair technicians solidly in the middle class.

That was then. The tables turned on the iconic retailer. Sears, the subject of no less than six books on its history and finances listed on, was purchased by a bankrupt K-Mart in 2004.

The new company, now directed by hedge fund financiers, is struggling and could go under as Walmart, Best Buy and other competitors turn up the heat and seize more retail market share.

For service technicians, says Pierre Powell, a 32-year Sears employee who repairs cooking equipment, the competition means that everything became numbers-driven. "It's hard for the younger guys because they don't get enough training on new products and need to learn them on their own," he says.

Go further inside this
month's cover story:

Check out video highlighting Sears techs' organizing victory at TheElectricalWorker.