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May 2014

Carrying briefcases, not toolbelts
The Unlikely Journey of the IBEW's Newest Local
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The members of newly-minted Trenton, N.J., Local 33 had to take an unusual road to win their dues cards. They confronted the typical anti-union forces, but as deputy state attorneys general, they didn't fit the profile of typical IBEW members.

After all, lawyers work for unions and sue unions but they don't join unions.

After years of broken promises, little say on the job and falling wages and benefits, they had to change the belief that they were bosses, not workers. And they faced something possibly more difficult: a state law forbidding them to organize.

No wonder it took more than 20 years to get their union cards and sign their first contract. But these lawyers are as tenacious as their reputation. Six years ago, they made the fateful decision to turn to the IBEW, a union as tenacious as they are.

Like the other members of the team that helped organize Local 33, Andrew Reese didn't come from a union family. For the last decade, he has represented the state in litigation against companies that violate the state's environmental laws.

But instead of feeling proud at the end of the workday, Reese said he and his colleagues felt misled and mistreated.

"We haven't had a raise since 2006. They were promised but no one ever followed through," he said.

Then, in 2011, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill that increased state worker health care and retirement costs. Before, the attorneys weren't keeping up; now they were going backward.

It wasn't true for everyone in the office. The secretaries and paralegals in the office — all CWA members — received raises every year, more than 13 percent.

"Some of them were making more money than the lawyers," Reese said.

Instead of doing what the opponents of unions have tried to tell Americans to do — demand that union members get less — Reese and his fellow deputies began asking why they weren't getting more.

Chartered in 2014, Local 33's membership includes most of the state's Deputy AGs. They enforce the civil rights laws, go after crooked businesses and protect citizens from polluters. They are like the state's law firm, providing advice on how to enforce laws and, when necessary, representing the state in litigation.

"These weren't people who were raised to think of themselves as union members," said Third District International Representative Wyatt Earp.

Turns out, the state of New Jersey agreed. When the deputy AGs tried to unionize back in the 1990s, a law was passed to deny them that right. In 2004, Reese and several other deputy AGs went to the union that represented the secretaries and paralegals to ask for help getting the law changed. They were turned away.

Not giving up, they began asking around for a union with a reputation for getting things done. In 2008, Reese had heard enough and came to the IBEW.

"It was classic worker abuse: broken promises, arbitrary changes to work rules, a pay scale in chaos and wages and benefits that were going the wrong direction," said Third District Vice President Donald C. Siegel. "It was clear they needed a voice, but before anything happened I needed to know if we could get the law changed and we needed to know they were committed to helping themselves."

To find out if the law could be changed, Vice President Siegel turned to Earp, the IBEW's lobbyist at the New Jersey statehouse. Getting a law passed, any law, is difficult, time consuming and uncertain. But Earp said he was optimistic it could be done.

"I thought we had a better than 50/50 chance," he said. "Politics is about relationships, and we have very strong relationships in New Jersey."

Reese said the IBEW's formidable political ability, three members who serve in the Assembly and a fourth in the Senate, was a significant part of the reason they approached the IBEW. But in June 2009 when the deputies finally met with Earp, Lead Organizer Joe Mastrogiovanni, who passed away in 2012, and Regional Organizing Coordinator Steve Rockafellow, there were many questions on both sides.

Reese said they knew the IBEW represented many different kinds of workers, including professionals, but their No. 1 question was whether the IBEW could really understand the needs of 400 lawyers.

Earp wanted to know if the IBEW went all in, would the DAGs stick together.

"They were asking a lot of us, so I was looking for signs of real, significant interest," Earp said.

It didn't take long before each side had the answers they needed.

"When we asked what they knew about lawyers, they told us they understood negotiating wages and working conditions," Reese said. "We were happy we would have our own local, but in the end it came down to the people. We were very impressed and they seemed genuinely concerned about our situation."

Earp said he was impressed that they talked most about wanting to make it possible to do work better for the state, but more importantly, they listened.

"They came in and said they were there to listen and learn and only later they said, 'We want to be part of this organization.' I respected that."

All they had to do was convince lawmakers in Trenton to let them join.

The bill to allow the DAGs, as well as managers, to unionize drew the expected opposition from anti-union forces, but it also drew in some surprising, and surprisingly powerful ones.

The biggest surprise was the private law firms that began lobbying against the bill. The state's largest law firms were worried that their own attorneys might begin asking questions about their own working conditions and pay.

After months of lobbying and testifying before the state Assembly and Senate, the fight went all the way to the final hours of the final day of the 2010 legislative session.

It was like something out of a movie, Reese said, complete with secret changes to the bill snuck in at the last minute, Earp working his cellphone to get the changes removed, votes held open while Reese and his colleagues hunted down a missing lawmaker for the crucial vote.

In the end, a law allowing the DAGs to unionize passed by a single vote in the Senate and outgoing Gov. John Corzine signed it into law on his last day in office, Jan. 19, 2010.

"We asked the question, 'How can you tell someone who is being mistreated that they shouldn't be able to do anything about it?' and the opposition never came up with a good answer," Earp said. "That was a very convincing argument."

With the law changed, the question returned home. Were these lawyers ready to start calling each other brother and sister? How many really believed that their fight for better wages and working conditions was a fight they shared with working people across the country and throughout history?

"It wasn't even close," Reese said. Nine months after the law changed, the New Jersey Public Employee Relations Commission certified the vote. They were a union.

"I've been around a lot of campaigns and I know what real ones look like," Earp said. "They never asked us, 'What're you going to give us? Can you go out and collect signatures?' They worked the phones every break and every evening. In hard times they stuck together. They were real."

Despite the distance they'd traveled, and all the people they'd convinced along the way, they were entering the time that sees the death of many organizing drives: negotiating a first contract. They had the very bad luck of starting those negotiations the year Republican Chris Christie took office.

Under the Christie administration, negotiations with the state Office of Employee Relations were contentious but mostly they were slow, excruciatingly slow.

"Before they would even begin negotiations, the state demanded a complete proposal from us. That alone took us more than six months," said Third District International Representative Brian Brennan, an experienced negotiator appointed by Vice President Siegel to shepherd Local 33 to a contract.

But over time it became harder and harder to get state officials to set dates for meetings, which were frequently canceled in any case. At a certain point, Reese said, the state even stopped making excuses.

"It was grueling. They wouldn't bargain with us. They always had excuses at first, but then they just wouldn't even meet with us," Reese said. "In many ways the last three years have been the most difficult of my life and Brian was really important to keeping us together and focused."

Brennan says the credit rests with the negotiators: Reese, Kevin Schatz, Michael Pushko, Anna Lascurin and Paul Stofa, along with the rest of the membership of Local 33.

"The deputies stayed the course, stuck by one another and they got their contract," he said.

Dec. 16, 2013, three years, two months and two days after negotiations started, they had a deal. It wasn't everything they had wanted but Brennan said it addressed the membership's top three concerns: wages, wages, wages.

The pay scale, which multiple attorneys general had promised to fix for almost a decade, was finally simplified and rationalized and everyone would get that raise they'd been promised but had never seen: 1 percent retroactive to July 2013 and another 1.75 percent in July 2014.

"We're not happy with everything in there. They should have gotten the raises they were promised seven years ago, but for the first time there is a contract in effect that protects them and gives them a voice," Brennan said.

After taking a break for the holidays, they prepared to bring the contract to the membership for ratification, a moment they had been talking about for years.

"We were actually a little apprehensive about bringing a contract into a room with 400 lawyers in it, each one with their own question," Reese said. "But in the end they asked some smart questions and then we voted."

In the end, it wasn't even close. Brennan said the ratification vote was overwhelming.

"It feels great. We've come so far," Reese said. "To go from having such low expectations to where we are now is extraordinary."

Having answered the question whether they are union material, Reese said the members now must decide what kind of union they will have.

"I think this will really play a big part in our working lives," Reese said. "It is our local and it depends on us what we make of it."

The contract was ratified the first week of February and President Hill certified the creation of Local 33 a few days later.

"That was an extraordinary moment that every member of the IBEW should be proud of," said International Vice President Siegel. "Credit goes to all the new members and Wyatt was the key player on the legislation but, from the very beginning all the way to the contract, there wouldn't be a Local 33 without Brian Brennan."

Brennan said that the lesson of Local 33 is simple: unions are still the answer for all workers who feel voiceless and misused, whether they shower before going to work or when they get home.

"People have to hear that this is still possible. These are people that no one expected to organize, that had every obstacle in their path; their lives are better because — right now, today — they stuck together and went union," Brennan said. "It won't just be lawyers who hear this. To be proud at the end of the workday, respected for our work and making a decent living that lets our families thrive; who doesn't want that?"


New Jersey Deputy Attorneys General Andrew Reese, left, Bill Andersen and Janine Long were key organizers in the long struggle that built Trenton, N.J., Local 33.