March 2012

Facebook Project Brings Promise of
Steady Work to North Carolina
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For days in mid-January, the tree-flecked hills of North Carolina's Rutherford County were hit with hammer-and-nail rain. For the nearly one in five people who are out of work, it was the natural environment reflecting the bleariness of the rural economy — where a once-vibrant textile industry was decimated by outsourcing and low-road business approaches that left crumbling buildings, few prospects and diminished hope.

"These folks are facing economic oppression, plain and simple," said Asheville Local 238 Organizer Josh Rhodes, a lifelong resident of the Tar Heel State, which has the lowest union density in the nation. Rutherford County's unemployment rate recently pitched toward 16 percent. "When you take our so-called right-to-work laws and combine them with no work picture, what does that leave people?"

But thanks to Rhodes and a team of other organizers, activists and members of the business community, nearly 200 unemployed county residents saw a proverbial break in the clouds Jan. 12 at a job fair hosted by the local and California-based signatory contractor Rosendin Electric. Also hiring was local outfit Preferred Electric, Rosendin's subcontractor. The mission: hire qualified electricians for an enormous Facebook data center construction project.

The social networking giant — which boasts more than 800 million active users — broke ground for new data centers in rural Forest City a year ago. Since then, hundreds of IBEW members of various classifications have built and wired the area's first 373,000-square-foot facility responsible for converting ones and zeros into "likes," status updates, photo albums and fan pages.

As business is booming, more manpower is needed for expansion. And Local 238 is hungry to meet the challenge.

'Jobs are Priority'

Over the course of a bustling three hours, the temporary trailer housing Rosendin's on-site team swelled beyond capacity with eager job seekers from the county and beyond. Though they came with varying degrees of experience — novice construction helpers shared a line with veteran hands — their goals were uniform. As the night rolled on, scores would be quickly but rigorously vetted, as organizers and contractors studied resumes, administered skill assessments and conducted group and one-on-one interviews.

Like many that night, area resident Chris Patrick arrived damp and road weary. He'd been working that week in Hilton Head, S.C., when he heard about the job fair from a friend. Used to logging 80- to 90-hour weeks on far-flung jobs away from home, Patrick drove nearly 300 miles to the Facebook site in search of better-paying work that could keep him closer to his wife and three children.

"There's no work nearby, so I spend almost all my time on the road when I can get hours," he said, adding that health insurance provided by his nonunion employer is costly. "I've got a 6-month-old and twins at home, and my insurance is $160 a week out-of-pocket. It's overwhelming."

But Patrick, 27, felt confident that his years of experience running crews for nonunion construction companies would help him land a local job. Also key was the fact that the job would provide health coverage.

"I've built hotels in Asheville, about 10 Walmarts and some Lowe's," said Patrick, who started helping his father with jobs as a youth and formally began his career at 18. "After the housing crisis and the recession, things bottomed out — that's when I hit the road. I hoped something would work out for me at the job fair."

For those unable to travel, the Facebook job offered a chance for many to put dormant skills back to work. Sixty-two-year-old Glenn Bush had been laid off and had his insurance cancelled by his nonunion employer following a hospital stay. The promise of a decent job with benefits brought Bush, along with his son, Rocky, out from their homes in Belmont, about 50 miles east.

"When I interviewed [with Local 238's representatives], I told them that I've been in the trade for 27 years and am one of the best pipe guys in the business," Bush said. "I just wanted the chance to work hard for a fair day's wage. That's something I haven't seen here in a long while."

Thanks to Facebook and Rosendin's partnership, local leaders like Business Manager Dusty Rhodes are seeing membership numbers spike and market share increase. At the same time, all of Local 238's journeyman wiremen are off the bench and on the job.

"Facebook could have gone with a nonunion shop," said Rhodes, as he helped direct a surging line of applicants. "But they know Rosendin's quality. They knew the type of work they'd put in, that there would be no problems and it would get done right the first time." Both the networking site and the contractor are based in California. Rosendin has more than 3,000 employees in major cities and rural enclaves nationwide, and the manager for the Forest City project began his career as a journeyman with the IBEW.

"This whole night — it's about market share and membership, of course," Rhodes said. "But it's bigger than that. People in this area have been struggling for too long. Anyone and everyone who's concerned about this state needs to do what they can to make jobs a priority and help get people back to work."

To urge that along, Local 238 worked with State Organizing Coordinator Matt Ruff and Tenth District Organizing Coordinator Dave Hoque to push stories about the job fair in local newspapers and in area TV markets. Organizer Josh Rhodes spearheaded leafleting at unemployment offices, Internet ad placement and public service announcements for every radio station in the western part of the state. Along the way, the team picked up a welcome partner in the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, which promoted the job fair for the local.

"Anything that helps create jobs and move our economy forward is something we can support," said Clark Poole, the county chamber's director. "We have a great work force here, and it's encouraging to see so many applicants at this job fair."

At the end of the night, the event was deemed an unqualified success. "This is easily the biggest one we've ever had in the Carolinas," Dusty Rhodes said around 11 p.m., as volunteers packed up, organizers headed out and attendees made their ways back home.

Leaders of Local 238 said they couldn't have had as successful a night without the help of apprentices Tom Doyle, Nathan Klutz, James Palmiter, John Pettepher, Nick Raynor, John Rice and Jason Simons, as well as President Buck Buchannan.

But while the project's sponsors were pleased with the effort, a bigger celebration came in the days and weeks afterward for the dozens of electricians who had been waiting in anticipation to hear two magic words: "You're hired."

Patrick — the traveling wireman — got a phone call that weekend telling him that he was one of the first prospective new IBEW members. As did the Bush father and son team, who expressed interest in learning all they could about how the union helps ensure pension and health care benefits.

"It was the best news I'd heard in a very long time," Patrick said.

The next week, he hit the jobsite, where the shell of the second building was taking form. Crews were then using 3-D imagery to map locations for conduit, installing the fire system, and making preparations for the thousands of feet of wire that will connect hardware. When complete, the dark rectangular fa├žade will resemble the first structure, sheltering what is essentially a giant computer more than a football field in length. The entire top half of the building will largely be empty space for hot air to gather, as a state-of-the-art cooling system keeps circuits and hardware from overheating. The job promises at least two-and-a-half years of steady employment for about 250 journeymen, apprentices and construction electricians/construction wiremen.

"This is complex work," said Dusty Rhodes, "and we're the best people to do it."

'The Social Network' in Real Life

Matt Ruff says there's a lot of overlap in the real-world life of growing the membership and the online world of social networking.

"If you're on Facebook and you have a lot of friends, the simple fact is that the more friends you have the more you're likely to have in the future," he said. "It's the same with organizing — if I meet a good electrician, he or she's likely to recommend to me other good electricians, and then they recommend even more. Organize one, and they bring more with them. It becomes an exponential process."

At the same time, it's necessary to show that the IBEW is there not just for the electrician, but for that worker's whole family, says Dave Hoque, who works with 17 construction locals throughout the Carolinas, Arkansas and Tennessee. Two hours east of Asheville, Charlotte Local 379 is based inside a renovated house with a playground in the back. "There's a reason for that," Hoque said. "We want our folks to know that they can feel at home there. So we don't just talk about the union. We talk about hunting, racing — anything that's valuable to the member. It's nice to talk with them and see their spouse out on the playground with the kids. It reminds you as an organizer to see the whole picture." Plus, Hoque said, with family support, locals get better retention and better quality electricians and trade unionists.

Family and social involvement, even in the digital age, isn't just helpful for organizers in North Carolina and beyond. It's crucial. Life moves at a different pace than in a bustling metropolis of California or New York, and face-to-face interaction is key. "This is especially true given all we have to go up against every day," Hoque said. "This is an area that can be hostile to unions. We have extreme political counteraction on a daily basis and we constantly face obstacles. Anything you can do to convey the fact that the IBEW doesn't want to just take your money, but that we want to improve your standard of living, is a benefit. Personal connections are everything."

And increased membership after events like the Jan. 12 job fair is proof of that. Rocky Bush, who was with his father at the event, spent more than two decades doing mostly commercial and industrial electrical work for nonunion companies. Now a construction electrician on the Facebook project, Bush said, "I know more than a dozen people on this site who used to work for me, and they all talk highly of the folks at the local. The IBEW cares about us." At 38, Bush says he's found his lifelong career. "I'm going to be in this for the long haul."

A New Industry?

Outside of the Facebook project, the work picture is bleak for vast numbers of residents in Rutherford County. But North Carolina once helped form the hub of a textile manufacturing sector that provided steady work for generations, especially in rural communities.

Following mass strikes and worker demonstrations in the 1920s and '30s — including the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, about 40 miles east of Forest City, which pitted violent strikebreakers against women and children — textiles continued to play a major role in the state's economy until increasing globalization and outsourcing began to cripple the industry in the 1990s. Hundreds of textile mills began to close before the millennium, and hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in North Carolina alone, all before the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

But if the dilapidated buildings and persistent poverty are what are left behind from a burnt-out industry, Facebook's presence may be something of a phoenix rising from the ashes. "The industry is gone, but what's left behind is a stable electrical infrastructure and power grid that used to run those factories," said organizer Josh Rhodes. Google recognized that in 2007 and began work on a similar data center using Charlotte Local 379 labor. "Plus, land is relatively cheap, so these big companies look at North Carolina as a good place to bring their business."

Young workers like Local 238 member Gary Chapman see this as an encouraging sign. Chapman, 26, was on hand Jan. 12 to assist friends who came to the job fair — many of whom had earned four-year degrees but were still struggling to find work. "My mother worked in the textile industry, and we know people who've been laid off," said Chapman, a lifelong Forest City resident who is looking to get into the local's apprenticeship program. "This county has sorely needed jobs ever since I've been in the work force. Everyone in my generation who I went to high school with used to just want to get out of Rutherford County because there wasn't anything for them."

That has started to change since crews broke ground on the Facebook project early last year. Chapman, who had experience doing residential work, was hired as a construction electrician when the first data center building started to go up early last year. He said the promise of steady work for at least the next two years "has completely changed the attitude and morale for this community, especially among my peers."

Chapman said that the project can set an example for other industry leaders who are looking at the area. "This is vitally important for the community and the county. If one of the biggest companies in the world is willing to come here and hire union workers, it shows to me that we may be rebuilding. Maybe one day we can get back to where we were with textiles."

Status Update

In the weeks since the job fair, dozens of locally hired hands are working overtime to meet their construction deadlines. As the conduits are bent and the wire is pulled, the paychecks come. The arctic rain has left, and in its place are many balmy afternoons in the low '60s. Workers in the open air have traded in their ponchos and facemasks for light jackets. A news report announces that nationwide unemployment is at the lowest in three years.

Spring is coming.

The Facebook project means different things to different residents. For new members like Chris Patrick, it means being able to spend more time now with his children, without the constant tug of having to travel hundreds of miles to pull marathon shifts just to make ends meet. For Glenn Bush, it means access to quality health care, and his son Rocky will likely test up to journeyman status soon.

"Our goal was to grow the local and get area people back to work," said Dusty Rhodes. "Simple as that." It's a modest recognition of meeting monumental goals. And in a place like rural North Carolina, it's also a formula to spread solidarity to more residents adopting union values, as they — in the parlance of Facebook — find friends, share and connect.

"This is the happiest I've ever been," said Chapman, the prospective apprentice. "And I'm excited to see what the future holds for me in the IBEW."




A Facebook data center project employing hundreds of members of Asheville, N.C., Local 238 increases market share for a growing local and offers job opportunities to an economically hard-hit rural county.


Video Views from N.C.

Two new videos highlight the union's efforts to organize and gain market share in North Carolina. See compelling interviews and footage of the Facebook job fair, and view a profile of an organizer committed to growing the membership in the state with the nation's lowest union density. Watch at www.YouTube.com/TheElectricalWorker.





Local 238 member Gary Chapman




Nearly 200 applicants attended a Jan. 12 job fair to interview with IBEW and signatory contractor representatives. Dozens will be hired as new Asheville Local 238 members.




Asheville Local 238 President Buck Buchannan, left, organizer Josh Rhodes and steward Charlie Phillips.


The Facebook Project,
By the Numbers

250 Area journeymen, apprentices and alternative classifications who will be employed

2.5 Minimum years that the project will provide area residents with work

19.1% Rutherford County's unemployment rate prior to the project

232,000 Jobs lost in the state since the demise of the textile industry in the mid-1990s

2.9% Union density in North Carolina

1% IBEW statewide market share increase in 2011, in spite of great obstacles