The Electrical Worker online
March 2014

In Calif., a New Breed of Union Activist
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It's a challenge to organize workers when so many people think unions have outlived their usefulness. No wonder union members often shrink from the task of organizing.

So when a Northern California utility local racks up a string of winning organizing drives and door-to-door political campaigns, inspiring dozens of young members to volunteer, and has members lining up to fill innovative new "organizing steward" positions, it's time to take a deeper look at just what they're doing and how they're doing it.

Over the past five years, Vacaville Local 1245 has transformed its culture and awakened a new breed of hybrid union activists — part stewards, part community organizers, all action.

Tom Dalzell, Local 1245 business manager, will tell you that seven years ago, the local, halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento — while larger than average — wasn't that much different than hundreds of others.

Most of the 18,000 members worked for more than 50 employers like Pacific Gas and Electric or NV Energy, and some 200 signatory contractors. Local 1245, with a jurisdiction spreading into Nevada, had earned its reputation as a good "bread and butter" local union where stewards enforced the contract, business representatives led negotiations and members enjoyed solid wages and benefits and retirement security. The local had survived the energy crisis of the 1990s.

Then everything changed.

Recession Challenges 'Bread and Butter' Successes

The Great Recession of 2008 slammed down hard. Major employers tried to force furloughs, wage freezes and reductions in retiree medical benefits.

Dalzell knew that the local's playbook needed to change. Without a new strategy it would be difficult to defend members' jobs, let alone the local's legacy of accomplishment and progress.

"We marshaled our forces, drew on relationships, organized our base and managed to avoid draconian cuts and limit losses. It was exhausting but exhilarating," says Dalzell, a former United Farmworkers organizer who got his law degree and served as staff attorney to Local 1245 for 25 years before being elected business manager in 2006.

The economic and political offensive against unions, says Dalzell, underscored the "imperative to invest in organizing and to identify, recruit, educate and train young members — the present and future of the worker movement."

Young workers were given leadership training and meaningful roles on important committees. They were recruited to be leaders of their local units.

These freshly-engaged activists were encouraged to recruit co-workers to participate in community service activities, organizing drives and door-to-door canvassing on critical state and municipal referendums.

Some were deployed out of state to defend union rights in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Alaska, to stand up for better pay and benefits for Walmart workers at the company's annual board meeting in Arkansas, and to help organize Greenlee Tool Company workers in Illinois (See "Ill. Tool Plant Triumph Aided by Calif. Organizers," Electrical Worker, January 2014). "We send people out and they come back trained and experienced," Dalzell says.

Stacking Up Victories

After waste disposal workers, members of Stationary Engineers Local 39 in Fresno, were faced with a ballot measure last May to outsource their work to a private company, Local 1245 offered four young workers from PG&E's Fresno call center an opportunity to work on the "Vote No" campaign.

When Georgette Carrillo, Cruz Serna, Rey Mendoza and Valdemar Guzman arrived at the campaign's headquarters, they were surprised to learn that they were the only full-time canvassers.

They diligently made the case to the community that privatization would be a losing proposition for workers and taxpayers. One month later, Measure G was defeated by the narrowest of margins, with just 50.7 percent of the vote. Local newspapers suggested that the victory could mark a shift in Fresno politics, which until that moment had been characterized by more conservative and upper-income voters dominating low-turnout elections.

"Our participation in the campaign allowed us to broaden our skills, so in the future we can utilize those skills when needed for IBEW Local 1245. We put our hearts and passion into our work and are proud to assist other union members, as we may need them in the future," Carillo says.

Carillo had not been active in the union before she attended a Local 1245 leadership conference in 2012. In only nine months, she had helped win in Fresno, worked on the Our Walmart campaign and chaired a workshop at the IBEW International RENEW young worker's conference.

The "No on G" campaign built on past successes. Just a year before, 31 Local 1245 member organizers helped lead the "No on 32" campaign, a statewide referendum that would have stripped California workers of collective bargaining rights.

The California Federation of Labor honored the local for mobilizing more relief staff and members than any other union in the state and awarded Jennifer Gray, now an IBEW lead organizer, the Young Trade Unionist of the Year award. Gray was one of the first member organizers, whose activism helped defend her PG&E clerical unit from concessions a few years back.

Multi-faceted Approach Stokes Volunteers

One of the trademarks of successful organizing is meeting folks where they are, being mindful of their lives.

In 2011, Local 1245 started hosting annual soccer tournaments for predominantly Latino line clearance tree trimmer crews, inviting young member organizers to step up as team captains. The volunteers became the nucleus of the "Yes Committee," which sought and won a master contract unifying workers from five different tree companies.

The same year, young members formed the Sacramento Organizing Committee to bring co-workers from different workplaces together to raise money for a yearly charity event that builds closer relationships with nonprofits in the region.

"We're establishing a volunteer culture," says Eileen Purcell, one of two veteran organizers hired in 2009 to create a leadership development, organizing and youth outreach program. She recalled a Saturday conference where all attendees were on their own dime. "When members commit their own time to a project, they own it."

Five young people have been hired as full-time staff members. One of the member organizers, Lorenso Arciniega, serves on the AFL-CIO's advisory council on young workers and addressed the federation's last convention in Los Angeles.

Winning is contagious. Victories like the recent Sunoptics organizing campaign for 78 employees of a Sacramento skylight manufacturer — have awakened more senior members and even retirees whose own youthful activism had long been dormant.

Organizing Stewards — Protecting Labor's Future

In January, Local 1245 launched a new position, organizing steward, to institutionalize the member-to-member activism that has been grabbing attention across California, the AFL-CIO and the pages of The Electrical Worker. The position was created by the local's executive board last May.

"Organizing stewards are going to stand and represent the union and say, 'This is why we fight, this is why we exist,'" says Fred Ross Jr., who was hired with Purcell. "We're going to protect our voice, and we're going to protect our wages, our benefits and our working conditions."

As the successes of its mobilization program stack up on and off the job sites — with the promise of more experimentation by organizing stewards — Local 1245's leaders hope that the skill and inspiration gained by Donchele Soper, a member organizer who worked on campaigns to protect working families in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, will spread.

"I didn't know how to talk to people, especially strangers. It was very new to me," says Soper. Overcoming her fears, she told Local 1245's Utility Reporter how she came to a new understanding. "You got a sense we're all the same, even if we come from different backgrounds. We all want success, we all want our fair share. We're not asking for too much, we just want to live, to have freedom." The campaigns offered a chance to be "engaged in the community," she said, "and I feel like when we left, a part of us was still there with them."

Putting the Movement Back in the Labor Movement

Local 1245 leaders say their capacity to mobilize members and craft a new culture was built upon a foundation of high standards of service. It wasn't "either organize or service." It was doing both better. Organizing stewards won't replace traditional shop stewards; they will complement and support them.

The local's leaders say they recognize that a healthy treasury has been instrumental in underwriting efforts that pull members out of workplaces and place them on temporary union assignment during campaigns near and far. But they stress that time, energy and focus, not money alone, are the fundamentals in aligning union culture to today's economic, social and political realities.

"The organizing steward program of IBEW Local 1245 is not only an exciting new initiative that promises to engage younger members in the union, but it is also a strategy for putting the movement back into the labor movement," says Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.



Local 1245 activists have learned and drawn inspiration from Walmart workers fighting for fair pay and from referendums like the winning campaign in Fresno to prevent the privatization of municipal services.

Local 1245 At-A-Glance
❚ Members


❚ Employers
With current labor agreements: 52
Signatory contractors with labor agreements: 99
❚ Bargaining Units
Largest: Pacific Gas and Electric Co.: 12,000 members
Average unit size: 60
❚ Representation
Elected Business Manager: 1
Elected Executive Board members: 10
Elected Advisory Council members: 31
Elected Unit Chairs: 107
Elected Unit Recorders: 96
Shop Stewards: 942
Professional Staff:57
Organizing Stewards: 30
Retiree Clubs with elected officers: 9
Calif. 'Green Collar' Workers Vote IBEW

Following a dramatic campaign that tapped the resources and verve of workers and organizers, 78 employees at Sunoptics — a Sacramento-based manufacturer of high-tech skylights — are the newest members of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245.

With nearly 100-percent participation, workers voted by a two-to-one margin to unionize in a Jan.10 NLRB-sponsored election.

"This is an excellent win for these workers," said Lead Organizer Jennifer Gray, who spearheaded the campaign. "It's a great feeling knowing what this means for them and their families' futures."

Following the vote, volunteer organizing committee member and welder Pam Pendleton said, "I felt something I hadn't felt before," she told Local 1245's blog: "I got really emotional. We've actually done this, this is actually happening. I'm excited about what's going to come after this victory."

The employees produce skylights that maximize natural daylight for office and residential spaces. Despite the otherwise forward-thinking vision of the company, which promotes its commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions through green technologies, Gray said management had been taking a low-road approach to employee relations and job safety.

"There was no real training for the workforce," she said. "You would just learn from watching someone and that was basically it." Gray said this was a potentially dangerous mix in an environment where welding, sawing and other tasks are part of the job.

Looking to boost their safety and working conditions, two employees reached out to the IBEW late last summer. The workers had learned that Sunoptics' parent company — Acuity Brands — already employed IBEW members elsewhere in California, as well as in New York, Indiana, Minnesota and Georgia.

With help from Local 1245 veteran organizers Fred Ross Jr. and Eileen Purcell, Gray began connecting with workers and forming a volunteer organizing committee. From initial meetings of one or two people, the VOC swelled to a solid 15-member unit around the holidays.

From there, Gray said, employees, organizers, and Local 1245 activists who volunteered for the campaign crafted a full-court press. Local 1245 leaders launched a page on the local's website specifically for Sunoptics workers. Social media tools like Facebook dovetailed with house calls, home visits and handbilling to get the word out to the workers. And a letter from International President Edwin D. Hill to management helped make the IBEW's case while inspiring the employees, Gray said.

All of this helped beat back an anti-union effort rife with scare tactics, misinformation about dues and the threat of closing the facility. "Management told the workers, 'Don't make any large purchases right now,' because their jobs might be going away," Gray said.

But the workforce was undaunted.

"They were a real unit," Gray said of the VOC, which was representative of the wide array of diversity at the plant. "We had every department and shift represented, and we translated all the fliers for the Spanish-speaking workers. Everyone had a voice."

The new members are currently mobilizing for first-contract talks.

"I'm so proud the workers got what they deserved," said Local 1245 organizing steward Jammi Juarez after the vote count was announced. "It's a hard feeling to describe, and I think no matter how many times you go through it, it's indescribable. It's just joy."