January 2012

Big Lessons for Labor/Community Alliances in Small Missouri City
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The year 2011 will be remembered for its high-profile public fights over collective bargaining rights.

Sick of the brawling, elected leaders and residents are looking for pragmatic, mutually-beneficial relationships between city governments, taxpayers and the men and women who keep their lights on, teach in their schools and maintain their roads.

Potosi, a city of 3,000 in southeast Missouri, offers a measure of hope — and some homegrown, IBEW-made solutions.

Collective Bargaining = Collective Savings

Eleven years after voting to be represented by St. Louis Local 1439, 19 workers who maintain Potosi's gas, water, sewer, streets and wastewater facilities are harvesting the rewards of neighbor-to-neighbor politics, steady community involvement and close attention to the IBEW's image on and off the job. Their gains, starting with a job classification system that reverses years of pay inequalities, are broadly shared.

"Collective bargaining has brought collective savings," says Local 1439 Business Manager Mike Walter, who serves on the International Executive Council as Fifth District representative. "IBEW members in Potosi have powerfully refuted the narrative of unions busting municipal budgets and hurting taxpayers."

Workers' compensation and medical insurance costs have been slashed in the former lead and barite mining city, named after a Bolivian mining town. Safety training, nonexistent before the union, is now widely accepted. Once viewed as ragtag and unprofessional, Potosi's workers are today a proud, uniformed and proficient force.

Changing the Perception of Unions

"We realized pretty quickly [after organizing in 2000] that we had to change the perception of the union and the city workers," says Jeff Benson, a former UAW body shop welder, who started working in Potosi in 1988 as a dog catcher and mechanic. He helped lead the campaign and now serves as general foreman, supervising all bargaining unit members.

Benson says, "We decided to go above and beyond in our jobs." That meant smiling at fellow motorists and waving them through intersections, showing extra courtesy and laying the groundwork for a change in the city government's political structure, which then included an anti-union mayor, city clerk and majority of the board of aldermen. But it also meant acknowledging the insular character of a city 90 miles from St. Louis.

Local 1439: 'We're Your Neighbors'

"We understood that when some residents first heard about the union, their attitude was, 'We don't want city people telling us what to do,'" says Walter. Local 1439's patient, protracted approach began with the bargaining unit.

While 90 percent of the workers had signed union authorization cards, several didn't pay dues. Putting 1.3 percent of their straight-time earnings into dues was seen by some as an unaffordable burden. "We didn't pressure the non-payers, "says Walter. "We wanted to show that we weren't just out to take their money. We knew if we could solve some of their problems, more members would come around later."

Supporting and Caring for Potosi's Seniors

Community outreach began with modest fundraising efforts — helping pay gas bills for financially-strapped residents and contributing to the city's annual Christmas for Kids effort.

"Before we did anything," says Benson, "we discussed the positives and negatives and consulted with the local's leadership." Everyone agreed that supporting Potosi's city-owned senior center was central to both the union's image-building and political goals. Starting with covering the costs of small equipment and some building maintenance, the local's support has grown to include an annual golf tournament that raises thousands of dollars for the center.

"Senior citizens vote in high percentages," says Sam Johnson, a gas foreman, shop steward and negotiating committee leader whose parents, both over 80, gather with friends at the senior center, a focal point in the community that delivers hundreds of meals to homebound residents every week. "Convincing one or two seniors to go with your candidate can make all the difference in a place where 150 votes can determine who wins an alderman seat."

While some of the regulars at the senior center have union backgrounds, like Johnson's father, once a Steelworker in a lead mine, others who were skeptical of organized labor are now supporters.

Nancy Politte, the center's administrator, says, "I can say nothing but good things about our city boys [work crews]. I want to have a recognition day here at the center for our seniors to meet them."

Success building community ties came earlier than breakthroughs in negotiations.

Discussions with city leaders over developing a new job classification plan were contentious. Talks dragged on for years. But Benson, Johnson and Walter kept members engaged in community service, learning more about their own rights on the job, and patiently setting about changing the city's leadership.

Educating Members, Electing New Leaders Pays Off

"One of our biggest tools was education," says Benson, who distributed information on the job about the state's sunshine law that opens public records to citizens. Armed with information, most of the new members, who had never been in a union, became bolder, says Benson. When confronted with questionable directives, he adds, they would tell their supervisors, "'I'm not being disrespectful, but I want to talk to my shop steward.'"

"More workers came to see that without a union, things run amok," says Benson, who credits a Local 1439 retiree, Lessel Mosier, with helping to keep the union's campaign headed in the right direction.

Union members began to support candidates for aldermen and mayor who understood the benefits of collective bargaining. In the close quarters of a small city, says Benson, effective politics requires far different tactics than the slash-and-burn variety dominating the national picture.

"We didn't sling mud about the candidate that we weren't supporting," says Johnson. By spreading positive messages about union-supported candidates and asking seniors and others to talk to their families, the city leadership's makeup and orientation began to change.

Potosi's Mayor: 'Better to Have Workers at Table'

Mayor T.R. Dudley, first elected in 2006, said the city's new relationship with Local 1439 resulted in yearly contracts that have lifted benefits, standardized pay structures and enhanced holidays.

"Management has a tendency to look just at the bottom line. Workers bring in other important concerns," says Dudley, who said the union has elevated the professionalism of the city's work force. "That is noticed by the community, but it also shows in the added pride that they take in their jobs."

The widespread pay disparities of the past, says Dudley, led to internal problems that hurt both the workers and the city. "I'm from the school that everybody should come together. I think it's always better to have workers at the table. It makes a happier crew when workers are no longer divided into 'haves' and 'have-nots' doing the same work."

As a sign of the growing cooperation between workers, higher-paid bargaining unit members, who earned as much as $10 per hour more than others doing the same jobs, agreed to lower wage increases to help level the playing field on wages. The union and the city have a "symbiotic, win-win relationship," says Dudley.

"We're constantly looking for ways to save the city money," says Benson. Electricity usage has been reduced in one of the older workshops. Oil that used to be purchased by the quart is now bought in bulk, saving $1,000 a year. The union has negotiated bonuses that return a portion of the yearly cost savings to members of the bargaining unit.

Walter recalls a discussion with an alderman, a bank president, who had been opposed to the union, but called him to discuss what the city needed to do to be in compliance with the state's commercial driver's license requirements. "He said that he never realized what kind of resources the union brings to the table," says Walter. The union's influence reaches into public policy. Local 1439 members have been instrumental in keeping the city's industrial development council focused on the need for good jobs, says Walter.

Benson, now the general foreman, remembers the day he told an anti-union manager to go ahead and fire him for his union advocacy, threatening to work full time to build more support in the community. Today, he agrees with Dudley's assessment of their cooperative collective bargaining relationship. "Now that we have a good mayor, city collector and council," he says, "we sit down with a couple aldermen, hash out a contract and bring it back to the whole body and it's a done deal."

The union's changed image is immediately apparent in the city's yearly parade, where the IBEW's contingent now gets many thumbs up from the crowd, instead of the boos of yesterday, says Walter. But mutual trust goes further. Potosi residents who have had union jobs all their lives feel more comfortable talking about the gains unions have brought to their families.

"The model can be duplicated anywhere," says Walter of Local 1439's success in Potosi. "It's about community involvement and getting engaged in local politics. In fact, what Potosi represents is how much influence a small group of members can generate when they have their ears to the ground and stay organized."

Comparing the progress in Potosi to the divisiveness and partisanship over public worker bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, Dudley says, "We are in a moment of infamy in our country. We need to address the have-nots. American workers deserve the fruits of their labor. We can't be silent anymore."

Community activism and neighbor-to-neighbor politics have helped municipal workers in Potosi, Mo., win pay equity, improved safety and dignity on the job.

Members of St. Louis Local 1439 have raised thousands of dollars for Potosi's senior center, lifting respect for unions in southeastern Missouri.

Labor Educator:
IBEW's Work in Potosi
an Inspiration

"The IBEW's work in Potosi is an inspiration, a demonstration of what needs to be happening everywhere," says Robyn Cavanagh, instructor of organizing at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md.

Like members of Local 1439 in Potosi, she says, more labor organizations need to bridge the gap between unions and communities and "behave in ways that demonstrate our real values." She says, "Economic issues don't just show up in our contract language, but in our communities."

While polling reveals that broad numbers of Americans still hold negative views of unions, says Cavanagh, the Potosi example of protracted, deliberate activism shows that "with a lot of cultivation and 'walking the walk,'" attitudes can be changed.

"When we review the struggles of labor in the 1930s and 1940s [that led to widespread organizing victories]," says Cavanagh, "we realize that they had been going on a long time."

Building labor's power is an ongoing fight.

NECA/IBEW Family Medical Care Plan Key to Potosi Success

Power in numbers. That's one of the messages that moved a determined group of workers in Potosi, Mo., to draw upon the resources and experience of the IBEW.

The same motive fueled the establishment of the NECA/IBEW Family Medical Care Plan. The goal was market power: bringing together dozens of smaller plans to leverage a reduction in health care insurance costs for members and employers.

When organizing began in Potosi, no one foresaw how decisive the Family Medical Care Plan would be in building bargaining strength and a cohesive unit.

Today, Potosi is saving thousands of dollars a year in health insurance costs because the city agreed to place all of its workers, including police and clerical employees — who are not part of the IBEW bargaining unit — under the umbrella of the FMCP.

"We're no longer in a pool of 47. We're in a pool of 13,000 and growing," says shop steward Jeff Benson. The city's health care insurance was formerly provided by a politically connected broker. It was high-cost and low in benefits. Now, city workers are reaping healthy savings on prescriptions and are entitled to dental and eye care benefits that were formerly paid for out-of-pocket.

Local 1439 Business Manager Mike Walter said he has received letters from Potosi workers thanking the IBEW for improvements in their health care coverage. One member whose spouse is a cancer survivor, noted that her successful remission requires thousands of dollars of medication each month that he picks up for "next to nothing."

The city's savings under the FMCP helped convince more bargaining unit members to become dues payers and persuaded the city to sign the strongest type of agreement possible in right-to-work Missouri.

Potosi Voices in New Video

IBEW-produced video features workers and community leaders telling the story of how, in their mayor's words, they have "built a symbiotic win-win relationship." www.YouTube.com/ TheElectricalWorker.