The Electrical Worker online
July 2014

Connecticut IBEW Climbs with Tree Trimmer Wins
Local Brings Safety, Job Security in
Line Clearance

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Nick Webster paces toward the 60-foot white pine with the anticipation and caution of a mixed martial artist as the bell is rung.

After sliding the orange plastic muffs that straddle his white hard hat over his ears, he straightens the hat that carries the colors of Manchester, Conn., Local 42 and the logo of his employer, Lewis Tree Co.

Webster leans into the tree, wrapping his buckstrap around the pine's trunk, clips it onto his harness and then thrusts the sharp spike of his climbers, strapped tightly to his calves, into the wood.

Arching his back, he throws a green lanyard over the limb above him with a cowboy's precision, catching its end as it loops back down and inserts it into the mechanical jack hitched to his harness, the lock and load reverberating.

On this spring afternoon in Bozrah, Conn., Nick Webster — former nonunion tree trimmer, now proud IBEW member — is doing his part to keep electricity flowing to his neighbors.

Clearing Connecticut Light and Power's right of way, Webster is leaving an open path for the company's service vehicles and personnel to go to work during storms and other outages that have, over the past few years, left consumers without power for weeks on end.

He begins to spike and muscle his way up the pine, simultaneously attacking small branches, breaking them, while sharply kicking or sawing others with a hand saw drawn swiftly from the sheath on his belt.

Webster pulls his way 45 feet up, then over to his target: a large limb stretching into the right of way. He snaps back the rope on his power saw. The machine barely changes pitch as Webster slashes first the underside of the limb, then its top.

The limb and its branches land with a heavy thud on the upland drop zone behind yellow signs staged by his groundsman, well below the 115 KV transmission lines Lewis Tree Co. is paid to protect.

Webster, Army veteran and volunteer firefighter, is one in a family of 12,000 IBEW line clearance tree trimmers. He says he loves the challenge. Discomforts brought by the heat of August and bitter cold of December are more than repaid by the solitude and the magic — watching coyotes hunt for goose eggs or deer bounding across snow-covered valleys from some unseen threat.

He loves his job. But he and other tree trimmers say their contributions often go unnoticed. "It's time we were properly recognized," he says — not just to satisfy justifiable pride, but to improve the condition of thousands of his nonunion peers who risk their lives on the margins of an industry that is ripe for organizing.

Local 42 is setting an example on that challenging front. In 1973, the local represented 25 tree trimmers. Today, more than 450 carry Local 42 cards.

"When a new tree trimming company comes into an area, we go right out and try to organize their workers," says State Organizing Coordinator Craig Duffy. Organizers tout better safety conditions, the superior benefits in the union sector and wages that are often $5 to $7 an hour above the nonunion average.

Tree trimmers are a different breed, says Jeff Neurath, Local 42's senior membership development representative.

"If you have sawdust running through your veins," he says, "you are part of a family, even in the nonunion sector. You have each other's backs and the lives of others in your hands. You learn to trust each other. You have camaraderie and develop lasting friendships."

As part of a family, Neurath reasons, shouldn't every union tree trimmer want his nonunion co-worker to have a voice on the job and the improved safety, better wages and benefits that come with a union contract? His question is being answered across North America.

Pittsburgh Local 1919 is the sole local union with exclusively line clearance membership. About 800 trimmers are employed by six contractors serving Duquesne Power and Light, PPL and First Energy. "We're beating the bushes for new members, but we are running short on qualified trimmers," says Local 1919 Business Manager Don Kaczka.

IBEW YouTube Channel presents Nick Webster, Nate Julian, Ulises Vega and other Local 42 tree trimmers in action. Visit


Nick Webster, one of 450 Hartford, Conn., Local 42 tree trimmers, removes a limb from white pine for Lewis Tree Co.


Nate Julian, left, and Ulises Vega conduct thorough pre-hazard assessments before each job.

Facts: Line Clearance
Tree Trimming Trade

NUMBERS: 12,000 IBEW members work as tree trimmers. Signatory contractors generated more than 14 million hours of labor in 2012.

UNION DENSITY: Industry more than 80 percent organized in Pacific Northwest. Much lower percentage organized in other regions. Many employers "double-breasted" — own union and nonunion subsidiaries.

LOCAL UNIONS: More than 50 locals have jurisdiction in the line clearance tree trimming sector.

Chicago Local 9 includes 700 tree trimmers, the majority work for Commonwealth Edison contractors. Work increasing at rate of 20 to 30 new trimmers every year — result of state legislation mandating more trimming in advance of storms.

SAFETY: Line clearance tree trimming is one of most hazardous occupations in the country according to the National Institute of Safety and Health.

Tree trimming is covered under standards for the logging industry, a very different occupation from the line clearance sector. IP Hill has signed a letter to OSHA endorsing improved safety protections in the industry.

SUBCONTRACTING: Most utility companies rely on subcontractors. Rural Electric Associations, however, usually directly employ 2 or more tree trimmers for small jobs, subcontracting major work.

West Frankfort, Ill., Local 702 employs 275 tree trimmers employed by REAs and seven contractors. The local union maintains nearly 100 percent of line clearance tree trimming work in 11 counties of S.E. Missouri, 28 counties in Illinois and 13 in Southern Indiana.

The Union Advantage: Safer Working Conditions in Trees

On a hard-packed dirt road in Dudley, Mass., Nate Julian, a 15-year tree trimmer and member of Manchester, Conn., Local 42, tucks a clipboard under his arm. His bucket truck is parked behind him on the road's shoulder above a ravine, beneath a white pine that will be pruned back to protect the power lines of National Grid.

A crew leader for Lewis Tree Company, Julian, 35, is looking for all potential hazards that could put him or Ulises Vega, drop zone manager, standing by his side, in jeopardy.

For Julian, who coaches football, wrestling and baseball, sometimes seven nights a week, the assessment is another playbook. Winning is going home healthy and whole. Julian is lucky. His sole teammate, Vega, 23, who will stay on the ground as Julian ascends in the bucket, has been climbing trees for a year. The father of a newborn son, Vega is safety-conscious and vigilant. A sticker on his hardhat says, "IBEW-We Mean Business."

"I've worked for nonunion companies," says Julian, who was hired by Lewis after participating in a failed organizing campaign. "Nonunion shops treat you like a number. It's just about making profit. At Lewis, the managers care about safety."

With less turnover than in the nonunion sector, crews are more cohesive and attentive to each other's strengths and weaknesses on job safety.

"This job is only hazardous if you make it hazardous, if you don't plan your job," says Julian.

The pride in working safely on a crew where workers take care of each other, he says, is matched by traveling through a town where he and his fellow union members have worked, leaving well-cut trees, safely distanced from power lines.

Fatal accidents in the tree trimming industry are 10 times the average for all industries according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Julian and Vega know the potential dangers. But they have seen the benefit of pre-job planning where veterans and new hires, alike, are encouraged to ask questions and offer solutions to safety challenges.

Pre-planning means developing strategies to keep out of power lines. It means studying the lean of the tree and properties of its wood, properly staging the bucket trucks, safely extending booms, factoring in wind and traffic and applying the proper tools to the job. Crews must understand each other's hand signals and anticipate job site hazards from snakes and bees to vines.

Vega says even experienced climbers are always learning, constantly on the watch for the "widow-makers," like broken branches that can fall on climbers or unexpected stress points that cause chain saws to bind up, turning a good day at work into a tragedy. And Vega says he's appreciative that he isn't under pressure to sacrifice safety for speed. "I work at a safe pace, making sure my cuts are made the right way," says Vega, who likes moving through a variety of positions from climbing to working from a bucket to ground work.

"We need people we can trust to work safely, while maintaining the reliability of power lines, staying ahead of storms and leaving an area aesthetically-pleasing," says Dave O'Brien, a Lewis Tree Co. manager. That means maintaining a safe working area, but also looking out for residents and landowners who are driving or walking nearby. Everything is more complicated during extreme weather.

Working union makes a difference during long stretches in weather emergencies. "If you've worked 14 hours in a storm and need a day off, you're much more likely to get it in a union shop," Julian says.

Trimming the Competition

Hartford, Conn., Local 42 organizers work hard to establish close ties with some of the best workers during organizing campaigns. If a bottom-up campaign loses, they double down to convince workers to leave the nonunion sector and go to work for Lewis, the third-largest tree trimming company in the U.S. "We have a great relationship with Lewis Tree Co.," says State Organizing Coordinator Craig Duffy.

"Stripping" these qualified trimmers from nonunion companies has proven effective, not just at building Local 42's numbers, but at weakening the market position of New England-based employers who resist organizing. Local 42 has stripped 50 workers from nonunion companies in the past seven months alone.

As Local 42 builds greater density in the tree trimmer trade, sometimes nonunion employers choose to abandon jurisdictions rather than facing the prospect of new bottom-up campaigns or stripping. Local 42 is there to pick up nonunion trimmers they leave behind. "If we don't win a campaign and they walk away, we take their best workers," says Duffy.

After 18 months negotiating a first contract, Local 42 was waiting on a signature from ABC Tree, a Texas-based company, when the local received a certified letter announcing that the company would be pulling out of the jurisdiction, laying off 125 workers, says Jeff Neurath, Local 42's senior membership development representative. Many of the workers ended up at Lewis Tree Co.

Thirteen months ago, after ABC ran, a new employer cemented ties. Local 42 signed Northern Land Clearing, a Massachusetts-based company, through a top-down campaign. Neurath says the company, which already owns one union-organized entity, had targeted upcoming work in the local's jurisdiction and looked to the union as a willing partner. Work has increased as utility companies move to allay public criticism stemming from long power outages during storms over the last few years by intensifying tree and vegetation maintenance.


Local 42 tree trimmer Ken Graley delivered pizzas before joining the local more than two years ago to 'learn a good trade.'