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April 2014

Organizing Wire
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Overwhelming 'Yes' Vote Wins Rights for Ill. Satellite Techs

In more than five years on the job as a satellite TV technician for DirectSat, Josh Bennett had held his tongue.

Working long hours were one thing. Bennett had spent his share of 12-hour days on the road installing and maintaining service for customers just southwest of Chicago. And while he said that management was "less than ideal," Bennett let most things roll off his back.

But when a controversial performance policy started affecting wages, and employees found themselves working harder but making less money, Bennett and his co-workers decided it was time to balance the scales.

After reaching out to the IBEW for help last July, nearly 50 DirectSat employees overcame strong management pushback, the firing of a union supporter and CEO intimidation to vote by a two-to-one margin Jan. 29 to be the newest members of Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21.

"I've been in the business for 10 years, and I take a lot of pride in my abilities." Bennett said. "But when you look at all the challenges, they really add up. If a customer gets a bad piece of equipment, the workers are held accountable, even though we have nothing to do with that. Anyone who calls and complains about anything, it comes back on us and our paychecks.

"The job is very demanding," he said. "We have great techs, and no one has a problem with working hard, it just makes it tough when you don't get compensated for things that are beyond your control."

Technician John Bribiesca was the first DirectSat worker to reach out to IBEW activists — a move he said he would recommend for anyone in his industry. "You've got to take a stand against an unfair situation," he said.

After a July meeting with Local 21 organizers drew interest from more workers than expected, word about the effort got back to the company — which is a contractor for DirecTV and is owned by UniTek Global Services, Inc. Days later, management hit back hard by firing one of the campaign's most vocal early supporters for "very suspicious reasons," Local 21 Business Representative David Webster said.

"When they terminated that employee, I thought it would scare off the workers — but instead, it fired them up," Webster said.

Thirty-two techs showed up for the next meeting. It was a major turning point in the campaign, Local 21 Recording Secretary Bob Przybylinski said: "It was unbelievable. These guys really wanted a voice."

The local's organizers built a strong relationship with the workers and members of their volunteer organizing committee. A steady and consistent effort using phone banking, handbills, email and text messages unfolded, gathering momentum throughout the next few months when tensions ratcheted up on both sides.

DirectSat's CEO flew out to the workers' facility in Mokena several times to hold captive audience meetings. Rather than relent, Bennett said, the workers amplified their voices in the meetings.

"He told us all the reasons why we shouldn't vote for the union, but we had been doing our research and we knew how we could benefit," Bennett said.

Capitalizing on the group's growing solidarity, Local 21 organizer Mike Andel asked the employees at a later meeting if they wanted to sign a petition for an election — which is public — rather than signing authorization cards and remaining anonymous. More than 70 percent of the workers signed their names to the petition.

"These guys wanted to be out in the open rather than conceal their identities," Webster said. "You can't 'whisper the union in,' I always say."

Employees arriving at the company's office on the morning of the vote were met with warm support, as fellow Local 21 members and other activists turned out to welcome the DirectSat workers.

"The whole roadway was lined with IBEW signs," Bennett said. "I think that spoke to the techs, when they saw how many people were behind us."

Local 21 Business Manager Paul Wright expressed his pride in the new members' efforts. "Their perseverance, determination and unity are what helped them overcome their employer's anti-union campaign. I believe the Local 21 members and those in the labor community who were outside in the bitter cold on election day cheering them on may have swayed some votes. It showed our sense of community and definitely displayed the power of solidarity."

As the employees and organizers prepare to strategize for upcoming negotiations, Bennett says he feels more solid in his job and looks forward to the future.

"The company told us there wasn't enough of us to make a difference," Bennett said. "But winning this vote, there's no telling what we can do. This opens up the door to make changes."

Bribiesca agreed. A four-year employee with 12 years in the industry, he said, "It feels great to have won. We are laying good groundwork for ourselves, and for the employees who are coming behind us."


Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21 members and area labor activists greeted DirectSat employees ahead of their successful Jan. 29 NLRB election win.

Fla. Bridge Workers Turn Activists, Join IBEW

A swift campaign to bring bargaining rights to bridge operators in Florida resulted in a victory last month, with nearly 80 new members joining the IBEW.

The workers — called tenders — who operate drawbridges in and around Sarasota County, on the state's western coast, voted to become the newest members of Tampa Local 824.

"We're very excited about this victory," said George Metropoulos, a retired United Auto Workers member and bridge tender, who was a member of the volunteer organizing committee.

Because of the disparate worksite locations of the tenders, two NLRB-certified votes were held in late January and early February, with each vote tally showing a 3-1 margin for IBEW representation.

Organizer Kathy Smith said the campaign started organically. An active group of tenders had circulated petitions among their co-workers calling for employer ISS Services to discuss working conditions and hourly pay. ISS has profitable contracts with the county and state to provide bridge services. But Smith said most tenders had been making just above $8 an hour for years, with no wage increases in sight.

After two active workers found management thwarting their petition drive last June, the workers reached out to the IBEW.

"Management had been confiscating their petitions," Smith said. "These tenders were already working around the clock to try to get the employer to listen to them, so they came to the IBEW with a real desire to win."

Many of the bridge tenders are 65 or older, and the wages help supplement monthly income for those who have retired from other careers or who are collecting Social Security.

"After the recession, anything helps," Smith said.

Tenders are responsible for opening and closing 14 drawbridges to allow boat passage in one of the most popular sailing areas in the U.S. Safety is a prime concern, as tenders take multiple surveys and use radio equipment to ensure that traffic near bridges — including cars, cyclists and pedestrians — are protected while bridges are raised to allow boats to pass through. "We're responsible for the safe operation of multimillion dollar pieces of heavy equipment," Metropoulos said.

Smith said the determined efforts of the tenders overcame management pushback.

"The volunteer organizing committee was incredibly strong," she said.

It helped that many of the tenders came from union backgrounds. The VOC counted firefighters and retired railroad employees among their ranks. Metropoulos, with his UAW history, helped inform and answer questions from employees who were skeptical or on the fence about organizing.

"We used every tactic in the campaign to help convince the workers — email, home visits, you name it," Metropoulos said. "The company had swayed some people to think of voting no. I tried to tell them, 'If you want a raise or the possibility of extra days off, you need to join.' Once you sit down over a cup of coffee and have that conversation, most people decide to vote yes."

Denmark-based ISS is a multinational company with more than 530,000 employees who provide cleaning, tech support, security, facility management services and more. The International Association of Outsourcing Professionals last year ranked ISS as the top outsourcing service provider worldwide. The company netted about $14.5 billion in global revenue last year, according to ISS' official website.

"These new members are living examples countering the notion that today's low-wage workers are teenagers who live with their parents, or don't really need or deserve a boost in pay," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. "More and more retirees are going back to work on jobs that protect the safety and security of our communities. Like other low-wage workers, they deserve a raise and a voice on the job."



Nearly 80 workers who operate drawbridges in and around coastal Sarasota County voted overwhelmingly to become the newest members of Tampa Local 824.

Minn. City Supervisors Promote
Good Government, IBEW Values

As a public works supervisor in Oakdale, Minn., Jim Romanik has some serious street smarts.

That is, he's the one who helps make sure that nearly 100 miles of public roads are safe for motorists, cleared of snow and ice in the winter, and can allow for crews to respond in an emergency such as potential flooding.

And though he manages several members of the Operating Engineers who perform street maintenance duties, Romanik is not your typical boss. He's a union member, too.

Romanik and seven of his colleagues working for the city of Oakdale joined the IBEW after a quick and clean organizing drive three years ago. The supervisors oversee forestry and environmental management, city parks and building maintenance, utilities, police and other services for the city of about 27,000 located just east of the state capital of St. Paul.

"After the economic downturn, the city council started talking about things they wanted to cut — salaries, benefits, retirement security," Romanik said.

But at the time, with the city workers' contracts locked in, the council knew it couldn't balance its budget on the backs of the rank-and-file employees. So instead, they started looking at cost-cutting measures by leaning on Romanik and his fellow nonunion supervisors.

"When that happened, it made sense for us to start looking for representation just like our employees had," Romanik said.

Oakdale supervisors reached out to St. Paul Local 110 in late 2011. But as Local 110 business representative Rick Bieniek said, he and Business Manager Jamie McNamara initially had more questions than answers.

"I honestly didn't know if we could organize these folks," Bieniek said. "We knew how to do it, we just didn't know if this was a group we could bring in or if there even were any unionized city managers in the state."

Bieniek coordinated with Region 6 Lead Organizer Steve Fosness to explore the options. It turned out that a similar IBEW group in the town of Norway, Mich., had negotiated a contract with the city. Learning this, the vast majority of the Oakdale managers quickly signed authorization cards for representation through Local 110 before beginning first contract talks that year.

Since then, Romanik said, life has been a bit easier for the supervisors. Building on their growing relationship with the Oakdale leaders, the unit signed its second agreement with the city in December. The new two-year contract, which expires in December 2015, continues to protect the managers' wages, retirement and vacation benefits that the city had sought to reduce prior to the organizing drive.

"This second negotiation process went smoothly," Bieniek said. "There were a few disagreements, but this has been a positive process. We think it's beneficial for all sides. It's good for the city and helps our members maintain what they had."

For Romanik, who was promoted to his management job in 2004, distinctions like "boss" and "employee" blur when you bring a union perspective to a supervisory position.

"Four of us who are supervisors were all on the [public works] crews at some point," he said. "We had those values instilled in us. So we try to manage in a very pro-employee way." The other four members of the unit — who all work at city hall — had never been union but are developing into strong worker advocates, Romanik said.

The Local 110 members' victory has been contagious. Upon hearing of the benefits the Oakdale managers won, public works supervisors for the nearby suburb of North St. Paul recently voted to become members of Minneapolis Local 160. The 10-member unit is currently in negotiations for a first contract.

Romanik, who is his unit's shop steward, said this "domino effect" is common sense. "In a union, we're all here to help each other out. It's always beneficial to be part of a group, and not just left standing on your own."

Fosness, who helps coordinate organizing efforts across the Great Lakes region, agreed. "It doesn't matter what position you are in," he said. "It always helps to have a union at your back."