December 2011

Boots & Blogs
Online Savvy, Shoe Leather Organizing Win Satellite Workers
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to

Satellite installation technicians in the Northwest won a big victory Sept. 14, voting to join the IBEW after a tough two-year organizing campaign at Star West Satellite—a company infamous for its anti-union management and often brutal working conditions.

Fusing sophisticated 21st century media technologies with tactics as old as the labor movement itself, organizers say the strategy employed at Star West Satellite may provide a blueprint for other unions looking to successfully organize in today's hostile anti-labor climate.

Breaking Point

Star West's satellite technicians install and maintain satellite dishes for Dish Network, bringing CNN, HBO, Nickelodeon and hundreds of other channels to communities across Idaho, Montana and eastern Washington State.

Hispanic workers were in the majority at many of Star West's 12 shops in the tri-state region. One of those Hispanic workers was Mario Diaz, a seven-year employee.

Diaz, who lives just outside Boise, Idaho, said that despite the low pay and minimal benefits, he was happy with his position as a trainer for new employees and planned to make a career at the company. But everything changed after he ended up on the receiving end of management's arbitrary disciplinary policy.

Diaz was installing a satellite two years ago, when the customer asked if he could do some more customized work around the house—a violation of company policy. Diaz politely refused.

"The guy called my supervisor to complain about me," he said. "My boss looked at the situation and told me that I did everything I was supposed to do, but he was still suspending me without pay—all for following company rules."

For Diaz, it was the final straw. "Everyone was afraid of being fired or having their good routes taken away; they didn't want to speak out or do anything," he said. "I was finally at the point where I said, 'If they want to fire me, go ahead, but I wasn't going to take it anymore.'" And he wasn't the only one.

The Low-Road Model

With unemployment running near 10 percent, Star West should be able to command a stable and loyal work force. But the company's model of workplace relations—with its low pay, minimal benefits and draconian work rules—has driven the employee turnover rate to more than 80 percent in the last two years.

Covering a 200,000-square-mile service area, technicians could be on the road for up to 18 hours at a time, says IBEW organizer Bob Brock. Denied overtime pay, workers were often docked for the drive time from job to job. Many were labeled independent contractors, a designation that put basic protections under state and federal labor law out of reach.

Health and retirement benefits are almost nonexistent. Workers are required to have multiple years of service before the company would contribute to their 401(k) accounts. And for some employees, health insurance bills went unpaid, despite regular premium deductions from their paychecks, leaving them to find out only in the doctor's office or emergency room that the insurance they and their families were counting on was not there.

Diaz pulled out a business card from IBEW organizer Willy Kniffin, who, along with fellow organizer Brock, was heading up an effort to organize the satellite industry in the region. Diaz first met Kniffin through a chance encounter months before while he was fueling up his truck en route to a job.

The next evening Diaz met with the organizers, and within a few days, nearly everyone at the 40-person shop had signed cards.

But the biggest challenge, Kniffin told Diaz, still laid ahead. "We realized that even if we successfully organized one location, there were 11 others in the chain and the company could play them against each other to make sure we never got a contract," he said. "The campaign had to be company-wide or it just wouldn't work."

Organizing Challenges

The campaign to organize Star West started in 2006 after employees contacted Billings, Mont., Local 532. The IBEW launched a national effort that year to organize the largely nonunion satellite industry. "Those contacts soon left the company, but it got me thinking about learning from the challenges we'd seen elsewhere," Brock said.

The union made some inroads, particularly at MasTec locations in Georgia and Florida (see "MasTec Satellite Technicians Install IBEW in Georgia," the Electrical Worker, June 2009) but hostile employers and weak labor law enforcement made those victories the exception rather than the rule, says Brock.

"I looked at the record of NLRB victories in the satellite industry going back to its beginning and it didn't give us a lot of hope," he said. "The law wasn't on our side so it forced us to try to get creative about how we wanted to move forward with the campaign."

Unionizing Star West would require a long-term commitment to patiently build ties with workers spread out across tens of thousands of miles—long before an NLRB-election was even a possibility.

So Kniffin and Brock came up with the idea for Satellite Techs Allied for a New Direction, a largely online group that gave nonunion satellite workers the opportunity to connect with the IBEW and each other. But most importantly, it let techs get active in bettering their workplace and building solidarity.

Launched in 2009 with the strong support of Eighth District International Vice President Ted Jensen, the STAND Web site — — quickly became a hub of discussion for satellite techs across the country.

"The STAND Web site was moderated to keep management spies off," Brock said. "It basically acted as their union hall, serving as a clearinghouse for resources and communication."

While relying on social media, Brock says that much of the inspiration for STAND comes from the early organizing experience of the IBEW.

"You have to remember that the IBEW existed for more than 30 years before collective bargaining was even legal in the eyes of the federal government," he said. "We need to get workers interested in the union connected and involved right away, even if we don't think an election is on the immediate horizon."

Winning the Vote

By the fall of 2010, organizers had enough cards to file for an election—the first company-wide petition ever filed at a multi-state satellite company. But the challenges in campaigning were two-fold: the aforementioned high turnover rate and the huge geographical spread of the service area, which made it difficult to contact employees in person.

After one particularly frustrating day of door-knocking, Kniffin got an idea, remembering the personal digital camcorder he had stored in his trunk.

He and Brock put together a quick video talking about the IBEW and burned it to dozens of DVDs, leaving them on employees' front steps.

Kniffin says that the DVDs gave employees a more personal connection with the campaign than they could with a flier, leading to increased traffic on the STAND Web site, where workers could watch more videos, including a primer on labor law.

The company tried to keep the union at bay by threatening shutdowns while promising a big wage increase if the workers voted against the IBEW.

"We posted Star West's promises on the Web site, which forced management to put their money where their mouth is," Brock said.

Organizers also were able to settle more than two dozen unfair labor practice charges against the company with the NLRB, including winning more than $10,000 in back wages for four discharged workers.

"That is when the momentum starting really going in our favor," Brock said. "STAND was able to win positive workplace changes even before the election, getting buy-in from employees. It made clear the importance of real collective bargaining."

Last spring, Diaz was offered a better paying job at an oil field, but he agreed to work with Brock and Kniffen as a temporary organizer until the election. As important as the Web was in building the campaign, they still needed face-to-face organizing to seal the deal.

"Mario was vital because he was a former Star West employee," Kniffin said.

Workers voted by a 78-65 margin to join the union in September.

Back to Basics

The main lesson learned, says Brock, is that unions can't wait for the NLRB to get involved before they start organizing.

"It is about getting back to the basics of organizing," Brock said. "It is how the IBEW organized the utility and telecommunications industry in the early 20th century, winning members and fighting for positive change in the workplace before a contract was even a possibility."

Delegates at the 38th International Convention unanimously passed a resolution calling on the International Office to examine the possibilities of creating an organization of associate members who would have a chance to learn about the IBEW and build ties with it.

"It took us two years to even get to a vote at Star West, but that didn't stop us from signing up supporters and fighting to make improvements in the workplace," Brock said. "You don't need anyone's permission to organize."


Read more: Sears techs overcome distance, resistance to organize

Star West Satellite employees—who install satellite dishes for Dish Network—endured long hours, minimal pay and abusive management.

Credit: Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Commoraney.

The Satellite Techs Allied for a New Direction Web site proved to be a key organizing tool at Star West.