The Electrical Worker online
August 2012

New Tactics, New Spirit
Grid Upgrades String Texas Organizing Opportunities
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Justin Boone says his jurisdiction was simply the right place at the right time to strip dozens of experienced outside line construction workers from the region's nonunion shops and put them to work for signatory contractors taking advantage of the rapidly-expanding wind power industry in the western panhandle of Texas.

Boone, business manager, Wichita Falls, Texas, Local 681, says opportunities are growing as transmission lines are under construction to carry wind power through Local 681's territory in the state's north-central quadrant to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area.

Seventh District Membership Development Organizer Tom Davis credits Local 681's gains to Boone and his staff building a comprehensive approach to advancing market share in outside construction.

That means both actively encouraging union contractors in the north to head down to Texas, building solid relationships with the area's unorganized workers and negotiating more flexible agreements to help signatory contractors stay viable.

As Texas, a state that neither exports nor imports electrical power, established geographic regions for wind power development called Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, Boone e-mailed the list of transmission projects to signatory outside line contractors across the country.

"We were being hopeful," says Boone. Some local and state nonunion contractors couldn't get bonding to snag 100-mile line construction projects. But it wasn't enough just to get larger signatory contractors into town.

Boone, an inside journeyman wireman — who says he learned the "lingo of the trade" from his predecessor, Larry Chamberlain, now a Seventh District International Representative — sat down with Chamberlain and contractors to negotiate a renewable energy agreement that enabled contractors to have one point of referral and a standard wage. "If they were jumping jurisdictions," says Boone, "they didn't have to worry about different contracts and could remain competitive."

With union contractors coming in from Houston and down from northern states, Local 681's organizer Leland Welborn was in a position to successfully pitch IBEW's benefits to nonunion workers. More than 30 left nonunion Willsboro Construction behind. They brought a full package of skills and experience, says Boone, who met with them to discuss the benefits of IBEW membership, showed them a sample exam and outlined how they could end up testing for full journeyman's tickets.

"These are knockout crews," says Boone. One project manager was so impressed with their abilities that he assigned them to run their own job.

Many of the newly-recruited crews are adept at the most difficult portions of building transmission lines, clipping and sagging. Workers attach the lines to the towers and travel along them in a powered bucket to make sure they are not overly taut or loose.

The gains from networking with nonunion crews are multiplying as new members bring their friends and relatives over to apply for union jobs.

Gabriel Pimenetal, who had worked for nonunion Sun Electric since 2005 and now works for North Houston Pole Line, a Quanta subsidiary, helped some Hispanic crew members with limited English-speaking skills to understand and support the changes that come with union affiliation. "Gabriel was our go-to guy," says Boone.

Says Pimenetal,"Workers at Sun Electric heard a lot of negative stuff about the union. We debated whether or not to join." So Pimenetal and co-workers Raymond and Reuben Martel met with local union representatives. "When we got back to our co-workers," says Pimenetal, "they were excited to hear about the benefits and training that the union provided."

"The [new members] are doing an excellent job. Our safety department has been out there several times and is impressed," says Rick Garland, a 33-year member of Houston Local 66 and a general foreman for North Houston Pole.

"I try to be on the lookout and communicate with my co-workers to take some of the work off of the general foreman," says Pimenetal. "If we work safely, it's one less thing he has to worry about."

Safety awareness — a common practice for line crews — took some adjustment for those coming over from open shops, says Boone. "We heard horror stories about practices that put workers in jeopardy," he says.

Garland, who hired many nonunion workers and heard their stories, says "Their employers simply put production ahead of safety."

Growth in renewables is contagious, says Boone, who is working to build more market share for his local's inside wiremen, too, using the Construction and Maintenance Department's Project Tracker to stay on top of future projects. As more transmission lines are built, more wind farms will be constructed, providing good jobs for the next few years.

"We've got over 1,100 miles of transmission line to build," says Garland. "We've got so much work, we're turning jobs down."

Garland sees the union ranks growing elsewhere in Texas. Recently 22 nonunion outside line workers in Marfa joined Amarillo Local 602. While pay scales in right-to-work Texas aren't in the same league with California or the East Coast, he says, "There's a whole lot of overtime and a whole lot of work here. And we're hearing it will last through 2015."

Demand for renewables is opening up jobs in other economic sectors.

"I passed by Dallas-Fort Worth and saw a huge yard where steel transmission towers are being fabricated. Above the manufacturing shop was a 30-foot banner saying, 'Hiring,'" says Boone.

Boone and Local 681 pledge to keep zeroing in on opportunities to bring in new members, including visits to nonunion work sites. That means working around obstacles. "We often get chased away from utility properties when they see our [untagged] vehicles," says Boone.

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New members of Wichita Falls, Texas, Local 681 celebrate their improved wages, benefits and safety conditions after they left nonunion line construction companies to work for signatory contractors.