The Electrical Worker online
August 2012

New Tactics, New Spirit
Professionals at Canada's NB Power Vote IBEW
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The famous inventor Thomas Edison once said, "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

Heeding Edison's axiom, Local 37 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, refused to give up after four failed attempts to organize a diverse group of 186 professionals, including information technology specialists, accountants, financial planners, purchasing agents and supply chain personnel at NB Power, the province's government-run utility.

In June, the professionals voted to authorize Local 37 as their bargaining agent.

Union's Public Posture Plants Seeds

Business Manager Ross Galbraith said that the seeds of success in the organizing campaign at the company — where 90 percent of all workers are now represented by IBEW — were planted during and after the last representation vote that was narrowly lost six years ago.

Since that loss, says Galbraith, Hydro-Quebec, a neighboring utility, made a 2009 bid to take over NB Power. Local 37 publicly opposed the merger, citing its potentially negative effect not just on the work force at the utility, but on consumers. The deal was derailed.

Scott Mullin, a 16-year NB Power systems analyst, says the turmoil was the driving factor that culminated in the June victory, but a more professional approach by Local 37 also contributed to the win.

Job Security Concerns Tip Vote

"NB Power is a Crown corporation [government-run] and we would have been at the government's mercy facing Hydro-Quebec, one of the world's largest utilities," says Mullin, who noted that Local 37 had been a strong voice for all workers — both union and nonunion — at the utility during the time of the proposed sale, a fact that was noticed by the nonunion workers. Professional workers, he says, were then shocked when, a year and a half following the deal was scrapped, NB Power put 12 high-paid executives on layoff status, the first time the company had resorted to such a measure.

"Members who voted against the union before now feared for their jobs," says Mullin, who reminded his IT co-workers that NB Power was a unionized company, with "just a sliver" of the work force unorganized, leaving his colleagues more vulnerable.

"No other job in Atlantic Canada offers the opportunities we have at NB Power. If members lose these jobs, we will have to move to Ontario or further," says Mullin.

Professionalism Wins Respect

"In the last few years, we've done a lot in this local to raise our profile," says Galbraith, who ensured that extra copies of local union newsletters were circulated in the offices where the newly-organized professionals, members of the shared services department, work. "We knew they would only agree to join a professional organization and we worked hard to establish a professional image," says Galbraith. Concerns among NB Power workers extended well beyond their own job prospects.

"The spinoff work from NB Power, like contracts for welding, pipefitting and locally-made materials, could have dried up in a Hydro-Quebec merger," says Mullin, who saw the deal as part of that company's controversial plan to build a transmission line straight down to New York, an option that is being opposed by IBEW utility locals in the U.S.

NB Stays Neutral

Labor and management have a track record of "working through tough issues at NB Power," which promotes its relationship with the IBEW on the company's Web site, says Galbraith.

The company took a neutral stance on the organizing campaign, which was structured in four stages, says Local 37 President Steve Hayes, an NB Power retiree who was assigned to work with IBEW's Membership Development Department to organize the new unit.

First, Local 37 established a campaign Web site. "It was the cornerstone of our campaign," says Hayes. Then the local began circulating fliers in front of the main office answering frequently asked questions about unions. Leafleting continued during the winter, even on sub-zero days, demonstrating the local's commitment to building union power at the utility.

Fresh Tactics

While some shared service workers began to call the local union hall to express support for the campaign, fresh tactics were needed to bring along some of their less enthusiastic peers. Sandwich boards were set up outside the main office with QR (quick response) codes that could be scanned with smartphones to take workers to the campaign's Web site. YouTube videos of the union in action, including an IBEW-produced video of a successful campaign to organize attorneys general in the state of New Jersey, were posted.

Flash drives were distributed to all shared services workers containing a welcome message from International President Edwin D. Hill, an interview with Galbraith and links to stories about successful IBEW campaigns among IT specialists in Indiana and court supervisors in California.

IBEW Shows Brotherhood Beyond Borders

"The statement from President Hill was important," says Galbraith. "We wanted to demonstrate that the IBEW is truly an international organization, that the folks in Washington know where New Brunswick is and that unions are not alien to highly-skilled, well-educated workers," he adds.

Local 37 organizers and member volunteers knew opposition to organizing in the IT ranks sank prior campaigns. "Some of my co-workers thought they were superior to workers who organize unions," says Mullin. "I tried to convince them that doctors, nurses, firefighters and dentists all have associations to speak for them and the IBEW was offering the same opportunity."

Two meet-and-greet sessions were held in a hotel down the street from NB Power's main office, where the local union provided lunch for prospective members.

In past campaigns, only other NB Power workers made the case for organizing. This time, labor lawyers, International Representative Brian Matheson and other professionals were there to discuss collective bargaining options.

"Some members were concerned that they were going to lose their jobs with or without a union," says Mullin, whose brother is a union activist on Via Rail, Canada's passenger line. "But they became convinced that if they were part of an organized group, they would be able to fight for more severance pay than the company would initially offer and win the right to return to their jobs if they were restored."

"We got a lot of information out, but didn't push too hard in our one-on-one discussions with NB's shared services workers," says Hayes. "The whole thing was about treating them with respect," he adds. If workers had a different opinion about unions, that was their right. But Local 37 provided facts to lay the basis for a changing of minds, says Hayes.

Team Effort Inspires More Inside Organizing

Region 6 Lead Organizer Rod McVicar says the NB Power campaign only succeeded because of the team effort between Local 37, locally-based International Representative Brian Matheson and the Membership Development Department.

"I'm quite proud of how we combined traditional organizing formats — like call-ins, leaflets and informational picketing with online sources, Facebook and YouTube," says McVicar. The NB Power win has inspired local unions in Canada to step up their internal organizing efforts, says McVicar. "We expect this win to be repeated at other utilities and workplaces."

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Fredericton, New Brunswick, Local 37 helped nearly 200 professionals at NB power win a voice on the job.