The Electrical Worker online
August 2012

New Tactics, New Spirit
IBEW Tools Help Grow El Paso Local
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IBEW organizers are often told to think outside the box. "I hear that a lot," says El Paso, Texas, Local 583 Business Manager Javier Casas. "We're not just talking about it, we're doing it."

Over the last year, Local 583 has made significant inroads in traditionally nonunion construction sectors, resulting in more work for signatory contractors and good jobs for members.

Casas credits the local's success to its adoption of a mix of tactics and new tools — integrating top-down and bottom-up organizing to grow the IBEW.

One of the local's most important tools has been Project Tracker, the Construction and Maintenance Department's database of upcoming construction projects, allowing the IBEW to go after new work while projects are still on the drawing board.

Casas says he and his staff spend hours poring over the data, seeing which jobs are coming to El Paso.

The area is experiencing something of a construction boom. U.S. Army base Fort Bliss underwent a major expansion last year, which brought in more than 10,000 additional troops, providing a needed boost to the local economy.

"We've got restaurants, shopping strips, movie theaters — all going up because of the new soldiers and civilian support staff coming to El Paso," says Casas.

While it's good news for the local construction market, ensuring the work is done by National Electrical Contractors Association members has been a challenge.

"Small works projects haven't usually been our focus," Casas says. "We weren't players in the sector."

But by using Project Tracker, Casas was able to get the information about these jobs to signatory contractors in El Paso and across the country, encouraging them to aggressively bid on the work.

"Every time I saw a new project, I would send out a mass e-mail to all the contractors I knew to let them know about it," he says.

Casas researched general contractors, finding out if they ever worked with union shops in the past — information he used to attract NECA contractors.

"It is labor intensive, but it paid off," he says.

Some of the bigger NECA contractors, like U.S. Electric and Parson Electric, have successfully bid on jobs in the El Paso area because of Local 583's outreach efforts.

The use of alternative job classifications, like construction electricians and construction wiremen, helped keep union bids competitive, winning work that was usually lost to the nonunion firms.

"CWs/CEs have been vital to keeping the IBEW in the game," Casas says.

The local also aggressively policed wage and hours laws, working with the U.S. Department of Labor to crack down on employers who cheat their workers out of pay and benefits.

So far they've helped win more than $1 million in back wages for the defrauded employees.

"We're keeping the competition honest so they know they have to play by the rules," Casas says.

To make sure there are enough signatory contractors to do the work, Casas has been encouraging his own members to go into business for themselves. It is not easy, he says, in today's economic climate, but already four Local 583 members have struck out on their own, laying the groundwork for the next generation of NECA contractors in Far West Texas.

From stripping nonunion electricians to organizing subcontractors, bottom-up organizing also plays a big part in the local's growth strategy.

Earlier this year, 25 tree-trimmers for Asplundh Tree Expert Co., voted to join the IBEW after failing to receive a raise in more than four years. Their average pay was around $10 an hour.

Safety was another major concern, says Seventh District International Representative Fernando Huerta, who worked on the campaign.

"Employees were working near energized equipment without the proper equipment or training," he says.

Huerta credits Local 583, Regional Organizer Tim Bowden and Lead Organizer Robert Sample for helping to make the campaign a success. The local is currently negotiating a first contract.

Casas' advice to locals looking to copy his success: "Educate your contractors about all the tools available to them. Project Tracker is one of the best things the International Office has put out in years. Use it and then talk it up with NECA contractors. Inform them what's coming up in your area, so you can go after the work in a coordinated way."

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Downtown El Paso, Texas, is undergoing a construction boom.

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