|IBEW Leaders Mount Massive Blitz,
Outreach Efforts in the South
Drive long enough down the dusty back roads of rural South Carolina, and you're likely to run into some obstacles. You may have to swerve to avoid livestock, brake for chickens crossing the road or maneuver carefully across gravel-strewn roads in old farm areas.
But once you hit the slightly more populated spots, you'll find small homes doubling as electrical contracting shops for folks who've learned skills in the nonunion sector and gone into business for themselves. And it's here that IBEW organizer Matt Ruff thinks he can meet some open-minded tradespeople who could help build up the union in the South.
"A vast majority of electrical contractors are working out of their houses out here, and they don't know us," said Ruff, following a week that saw him and 13 more IBEW organizers mounting the largest electrical contractor blitz the region has ever seen.
Late last October, organizers and other leaders from the 10th District and beyond gassed up their cars and hit the road, visiting 450 open-shop contractors in western South Carolina, northeast Georgia and parts of North Carolina.
"These guys hustled," said Ruff, who is the state organizing coordinator for South Carolina. "They busted their butts."
And they had their work cut out for them. The three states rank in the bottom of union density nationwide, and the region has a storied and frequently brutal history of worker suppression and anti-union violence dating back nearly a century.
"This is tough territory, no doubt about it," said Nick Brown, who helps head up organizing efforts for Local 379. Brown works out of the local's satellite office 115 miles south in Greenville, S.C. "I've done a lot of visits like this before. It's been such a challenge to get a guy working out of his house to talk with you, or get past the front desk at a nonunion shop. Up until recently, people see who you are and just say they don't want to affiliate in any way."
But things are changing. In the past few years, union shops in the Carolinas have had some unqualified successes with major projects building enormous computer data centers and working on nuclear power plant upgrades. With more of these jobs going IBEW, many formerly anti-union contractors have started paying attention.
"As time goes on, the list of nonunion shops that will talk with us and discuss their issues in the industry grows and grows," Ruff said. "This blitz was designed to reach every single nonunion contractor in the area, spreading the word that the new IBEW is alive and well and willing to assist in any way."
In many of the conversations that Brown had over the week, he didn't lead with the word "union." Instead, he started off by talking about skill and on-the-job excellence.
"What we've seen recently is that performance sells, plain and simple," Brown said. "We've bid data centers for Google, Apple, Facebook and AT&T."
The region was formerly home to the nation's domestic textile industry. While most of those plants were shuttered as owners began outsourcing labor, the electrical infrastructure left behind is ideal for communications and computer companies that traffic in storing billions of ones and zeros for their customers.
In western South Carolina, the main success story now is the Oconee Nuclear Power Plant modification project, where IBEW members working for Applied Control Technologies performed upgrades on safety backup systems, complex electrical controls and more. Their efforts netted them the 2011 Platt's Global Energy Award — a high accolade in the energy sector. "These guys are what I consider the greatest asset in market development of the area," Brown said. "You tell that story to the nonunion contractors you meet on the road, and they can't help but be impressed."
The know-how of IBEW electricians can be applied at many facilities along Interstate 85's manufacturing corridor in upstate South Carolina, Brown said. Technical trade skills are needed at the area's BMW plant, five Michelin tire plants, paper mills and high end plastics plants. "Other big companies with plants nearby like Lockheed Martin, GE and Bosch bring opportunity to the electrical contractor and our members who can fill that role," Brown said.
The idea for the blitz came on the heels of a new campaign that Brown and his colleagues put into play last fall. The local purchased ad space during Clemson University home football games and ran radio spots on game days promoting the IBEW's skill in the industry. (See "," The Electrical Worker, January 2013.)
"The whole idea is community perception," said Ruff. "We're working to elevate our profile, to raise awareness. The IBEW in this area is the best kept secret in the world. We're your neighbors, we go to church together. The only difference between us and the nonunion guys is that we've found a way to not only sustain ourselves but the industry, too. With the IBEW, the contractor, the workers — everyone profits. That's the message we want to send."
A few years ago, the organizers say, a blitz like this would have been a quixotic quest characterized by doors slamming in their faces and other kinds of outwardly anti-IBEW reactions.
"South Carolina is likely the most hostile environment in the nation for labor unions," Ruff said. "The governor of the state [Republican Nikki Haley] openly bullies labor unions and goes on lengthy dissertations on how they are not 'wanted, needed, or welcome' here."
But after long days of shop visits, impromptu talks with the nonunion electricians and many firm handshakes, organizers said after the blitz that things are indeed progressing. While no shops have yet signed on, as many as 10 have begun at least talking with the locals in the region about what the IBEW can do for their businesses.
"Raising awareness is the first part," Ruff said. "The second part is that face-to-face conversation. With our materials that we handed out, our pamphlets and fliers, all we're asking nonunion contractors to do is take a look at us. We're not asking them to sign anything — we want them to get to know us first. We want them to hear the message that the IBEW wants your business to be successful."
The team included Dave Hoque, 10th District Organizing Coordinator; Baltimore Local 24 organizer Mike Berg; Asheville, N.C., Local 238 organizer Josh Rhodes; Charlotte, N.C., Local 379 leaders Scott Thrower, Tommy Hill and Bob Krebs; Nashville Local 429 organizer Quentin Tanner; Savannah, Ga., Local 508 organizer Tommy Connolly; Richmond, Va., Local 666 organizer Butch Best; Charleston, S.C., Local 776 organizer James Hollman; Kingsport, Tenn., Local 934 organizer David Combs; and International Representative Benny Hunnicutt.