|Courage & Innovation Mean Growth
Organizers Grow IBEW, Gain Market Share in Wake of Stormy Economy
Whichever candidate wins the Nov. 6 election will encounter an economic reality that mirrors in many ways what IBEW members in the construction sector already know: we've been on the ropes, but we're coming back — we just aren't quite there yet.
But at locals in states where right-to-work laws are on the books, IBEW organizers are doubling down on the No. 1 tactic to keep the Brotherhood strong: organizing.
By putting in place the IBEW's recovery agreement — which creates alternate job classifications to ensure a competitive composite crew rate for signatory contractors — locals in states like Wyoming and Oklahoma are swimming against the stream of anti-union laws and sentiments to fashion a stronger movement in their communities, bringing better wages and benefits to working families while increasing market share and boosting their rolls.
"In a down economy, it's still good to keep your name out there and keep organizing," said Casper, Wyo. Local 322 organizer Jerry Payne. "You keep up the pressure even when things don't look so good economically, so when work does come back, you're set. You've established contacts with workers and signatory contractors. It's a way to give people the dignity of good wages and benefits and grow the local at the same time."
Across Wyoming, union density is a little higher than 7 percent, which poses challenges for organizers like Payne who are trying to get surer footing in the construction sector. In early 2010, the local — which has a wide jurisdiction in the central part of the state — controlled about 30 percent of the market.
But over the past 18 months, successful salting campaigns — where Local 322 members took nonunion jobs to reach out to unorganized electricians — mixed with proactive volunteer organizing committee actions and outreach to contractors, have more than doubled the work for the local, which now boasts more than 70 percent market share in the area.
The trick? "Build relationships," Payne said. "We've been inviting nonunion electricians and contractors to our Christmas parties, our summer picnics, barbecues — you name it." Popular local sporting events like an industry-wide buck-hunting contest and fishing derbies draw many nonunion workers looking for recreation and camaraderie. Along the way, some formerly defensive postures toward the IBEW get softened, Payne said.
"We have to show that we're not the negative media stereotype of union bosses," he said. "We're out there doing our work in the same trade, providing for our families. Once [nonunion workers] see that you're not that different from them, it's easier to convince them that joining a union can make things even better."
Such grassroots outreach has brought scores of new electrical workers — many already boasting worthy skills — into the union as construction electricians and construction wiremen. Local leaders are then able to market the IBEW work force more effectively.
"We had one contractor bid on a job and lose it to a nonunion shop by just over $10,000," Payne said. This was before the owner had put the recovery agreement into place. By explaining how composite rates could have lowered overall labor costs while still putting a majority of existing journeymen on the job, the company changed course. "As a result of this experience, the contractor began using the agreement with more concerted effort and started picking up projects that we have not done in years."
New members and those who had been on the bench are now building or remodeling fast-food restaurants, new residential facilities, a car wash, local schools and a hospital.
Losses and Gains in Okla.
On the great plains, IBEW members have seen the effects of right-to-work laws decimate union gains the way the region's storied tornadoes occasionally uproot trees and shatter infrastructure.
"It used to be that for the organizers, a lot of work was done for them because solidarity among the trade unions was stronger," said Trentice Hamm, who, along with his co-organizer Dewayne Wilcox, coordinates membership development for Oklahoma City Local 1141. But after the state legislature passed a right-to-work law in 2001, "The whole climate has changed. If I don't get out there and talk to [nonunion workers], then nobody is talking about the union.
"They don't come to you in Oklahoma — you have to go to them," Hamm added. "If the message isn't going out, it's because I'm not saying it."
But buoyed by what he sees as evidence that the union way of life benefits both workers and businesses, Hamm and his colleagues developed a strategy to reach out to small and mid-sized contractors in the area. By encouraging dozens of signatory contractors to implement the recovery agreement, a sizeable amount of those shops have seen business take off and add personnel. Today, Hamm said, most of those businesses have added at least three employees, and the largest recently peaked at 31 employees, all of whom are IBEW.
"For about the last four years, everyone's been working who wanted to work," Wilcox said. "This has been a very good fall for us."
Experienced journeymen, apprentices and newer CE/CWs recently completed construction on the massive Devon Tower, now the tallest building in the Sooner State (see ").
The success of this project — which wouldn't have been possible without implementing the recovery agreement and generating new members — points to how a similar recovery agreement strategy can help other locals that are vying to rebound in the wake of the recession, Hamm said.
"Whoever is advertising in times of a down economy will have the upper hand when things improve economically," he said. "That means more new members and more work for existing members. When times get better, you'll be able to say to contractors, 'Lean on me, and I can get you the manpower that you need.'"
One of the reasons that labor leaders work to shore up membership rolls regardless of whether the economy is up or down is that organizing is unaffected by the cyclical nature of the market, said Kirk Groenendaal, Special Assistant to the International President for Membership Development.
"Like all business, when one section goes down, one section goes up. So when we have a down market in areas like industrial, manufacturing, or power plant facilities — then you look around, and ask 'what is happening elsewhere?' Well, it may be commercial, it may be malls, housing developments, or other smaller projects."
"Some things rebound quicker than others," he said, "so what we try to do is position ourselves to be in all the markets. Then with our skills, training and work ethic, we should be able to enhance our signatory contractors. Any time we can increase man-hours for the local unions and organize at the same time, it's a win-win."
All of which can — and should — accompany efforts to generate the strong social ties and interpersonal involvement that organizers like Payne and Hamm work to foster, said Groenendaal.
"The more social interaction the local can offer to the membership and potential new members, the stronger the bond is going to be at all levels of the local," he said. "Part of the philosophy is that we can serve a dual role for people — the more that we're your source for work as well as a source of social well-being and family interaction, the stronger the local is going to be, and the better off all the members will be."
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