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November 2014

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Ariz. Locating Technicians Join IBEW

More than 80 technicians at ELM Locating and Utility Services will soon be members of Phoenix Local 387 after a federal court found the company guilty of numerous labor law violations.

The court ordered ELM to collectively bargain with the IBEW under a Gissel bargaining order in September, which is issued when an employer is found guilty of disrupting a scheduled union election through various labor law violations.

Two weeks prior to a scheduled March election, ELM fired two members of the volunteer organizing committee, sending fear throughout the workforce, said Lead Organizer Robert Sample. The company also prevented workers from voting, telling managers in outlying service areas to keep employees away from the ballot box. The IBEW narrowly lost the election.

ELM is a contractor for utilities across Arizona. Its technicians, working out of their trucks, identify underground facilities — such as cables or sewage pipes — before the ground is evacuated by residents or businesses.

It also had a reputation for poor workplace relations.

New Local 387 member Juan Guerrero went to work for ELM in 2013.

"The place was a revolving door," he said. "People were quitting in droves because they couldn't handle how they were treated by the company."

Workers were punished and sometimes fired without good cause. ELM also refused to provide the proper safety equipment.

"Workers have to go into manholes on busy streets," he said. "And the company did not provide the proper equipment to ensure our safety."

Despite these problems, he never thought of joining a union, having no experience with them.

But last January, he got a call from a co-worker that changed his mind. ELM technicians hold regular meetings with their supervisors, usually held at area parking lots.

"He told me that a union organizer had showed up for the meeting talking about the IBEW," he said.

He quickly got into contact with Lead Organizer Robert Sample.

"He had me convinced we needed to organize in less than 10 minutes," Guerrero said. "It was a no-brainer."

He and some of his co-workers started a volunteer organizing committee and collected signed IBEW cards from the majority of the workforce.

What really gave the organizing drive a boost was management's decision to cut three vacation days from the schedule.

"That pushed it over the edge," Guerrero said.

This wasn't Sample's first effort to organize ELM.

He started in 2012, meeting with workers who contacted Local 387. The campaigned started strong, but as soon as the company found out, it fired all the members of the organizing committee.

"It stopped the drive in its tracks," Sample said. "It created an atmosphere of fear."

The IBEW filed unfair labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board, winning a quarter of a million of dollars in back pay. But the fear persisted, effectively quashing the organizing campaign.

Guerrero says he couldn't believe the news when the court issued its decision. "I'm still sitting here with a smile on my face," he said.

Negotiations on a first contract have yet to begin as of press time, but Guerrero says the culture at ELM has already changed for the better. "It's a different era around here," he said.


Texas Nuclear Workers Unite to Win Improved Health Care

About 350 IBEW members working at the South Texas Project nuclear facility cheered in February when their new contract took effect.

The biggest gain? Unionized employees switched from the company's health care plan to the IBEW's Family Medical Care Plan, which will save half of the workers about $500 a month in costs — or $6,000 each year.

For STP employees not covered by the agreement, the possibility of shifting over to the IBEW plan inspired a quick organizing campaign this summer when about 100 workers voted to be represented by Houston Local 66.

"It was a very light, very easy campaign," said Local 66 business representative Bruce Bettilyon, who led the effort at the facility southwest of Houston.

The workers include maintenance planners and chemical technicians — with an NLRB ruling pending on reactor operators who voted for the IBEW. Employees voted in three separate NLRB-sponsored elections spanning from July to August.

Bettilyon is on something of a winning streak with campaigns at STP. In 2011, he helped organize a crew of performance technicians looking for the same rights as their IBEW-represented co-workers.

This time, like the last, attitudes between the company and workers looking to organize remained on a relatively even keel, Bettilyon said.

"STP had normal captive audience meetings, saying that the company could better look out for the workers than the IBEW could," he said. "But there were no union busters, no attorneys, nothing like that. It truly was not an adversarial campaign."

Talks between the workers and IBEW leaders began last October, after employees facility-wide began asking each other about upcoming changes in health coverage.

"Internal organizing is different than other campaigns," said Bettilyon, who worked with spokespeople from each group, tapped the resources of existing activists like Local 66 members Tyson Blakeburn and Mark Griffin and held evening meetings for employees looking to organize. "When you already represent some employees at a facility, talking to the nonunion people is easy. You don't need to do house calling. You just have to keep interest going and have daily conversations with folks."

In voting, the workers participated in what the NLRB calls an Armour-Globe self-determination election. Rather than form their own unit and negotiate a completely separate contract, the new members will soon bargain to be included in the existing agreement that already covers IBEW plant workers. After that, all represented employees will negotiate future issues as a single group.

In an ironic twist, Bettilyon said STP is now looking at broadening the IBEW's health plan to cover even more employees. The FMCP also covers retirees, which shifts costs away from the company.

"They originally said, 'No we don't want this insurance.' But now they're looking at how to get everyone on it — management, supervisors, everybody," he said.

Bettilyon said that plant management had warned the facility's owners — NRG Energy, San Antonio municipal utility CPS Energy and Austin Energy — that the union's health care plan could be a potential organizing tool. "But the owners recently said, 'We don't care if it's an organizing tool, as long as it saves us money.'"

The IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association established the Family Medical Care Plan in 2005. Thousands of union participants and their dependents receive medical, dental, prescription drug and vision benefits through the FMCP.

"Providing good benefits has been a bedrock principle of this union since 1891, and the growing strength of the FMCP ensures that we will continue to uphold this commitment for generations to come," IBEW International Secretary-Treasurer Sam Chilia wrote in a 2012 editorial in The Electrical Worker. Chilia is a trustee of the plan.

Bettilyon said that even more employees at the 1,200-person facility might be looking to organize.

"I don't expect this momentum to stop," he said. "Other groups at the plant are looking to see what happens with these new IBEW members. I'm sure I'll be getting some more contacts."


About 100 employees at South Texas Project Nuclear voted to join Houston Local 66.

Photo used under a Creative Commons License from Flickr user Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Asplundh Trimmers Vote 'Yes' in W.Va.

With 30,000 employees and revenues totaling more than $1 billion a year, Asplundh Tree Expert Co., one of the nation's largest family-owned businesses, has negotiated 80 collective bargaining agreements with unions, including dozens covering units of the Brotherhood.

However, more than 1,000 Asplundh trimmers who clear vegetation for Appalachia Power and Kentucky Power, subsidiaries of American Electric Power, are unorganized, as are 20,000 others at the company.

On Sept. 17, by a vote of 32 to 4, Asplundh tree trimmers in Walgrove, W.Va., near Charleston, voted to be represented by Huntington Local 317.

The Walgrove victory was followed by another on Sept. 30, as Asplundh trimmers at the South Williamson, W.Va., lot voted 14 to 3 for IBEW representation.

"These guys were interested in winning the same kinds of wages, benefits and protections as trimmers working under collective bargaining agreements," says Lead Organizer Dale McCray.

The Walgrove workers came together and jumped at the chance to wear Local 317 T-shirts early in the campaign to show Asplundh their support for collective bargaining and a voice on the job.

More representation elections are scheduled soon at Asplundh lots across West Virginia, where crews of 30 to 50 trimmers shape up for daily duty. McCray expects more success as a growing wave of trimmers opts for representation.

"More trimmers have latched onto the necessity of having a collective bargaining agreement to gain a greater voice in their pay and conditions. And those who have already voted 'Union Yes,' are excited about their futures," adds McCray.

"We are hopeful that bringing more Asplundh employees under the union umbrella will not just be good for the workers, but good for the company, too," says IBEW's Special Assistant to the President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland.

Asplundh is currently the largest single contributor to the National Electrical Benefit Fund, a retirement fund for IBEW members supported by collectively-bargained hourly contributions from employers for each hour worked by members.


Asplundh workers in West Virginia and Michigan are choosing IBEW to gain a voice on the job.

Photo credit: Big Dream Photo Works

Chicago Local Wins at SimplexGrinnell

On Sept. 18, by a vote of 57 to 39, inspectors and technicians at a regional facility of SimplexGrinnell, the world's largest fire protection company, voted for representation by Chicago Local 134.

Bert Rodriguez, a 21-year technician at the shop in Addison, serving Northern Illinois, said his respect for IBEW grew during the union's campaign.

"The union never made this a smear campaign and never made false promises," says Rodriguez.

SimplexGrinnell workers first contacted Local 134 organizers last May after hearing that a similar-sized unit of technicians had voted for IBEW representation in the province of Manitoba, Canada.

Before Tyco International, a $10 billion a year giant, acquired Simplex Time Recorder Co. in 2001 and joined it with Grinnell Fire Protection in 2002, Rodriguez says technicians worked in a "family atmosphere," characterized by open communication and trust. Those qualities have often seemed lacking at SimplexGrinnell, he says.

While they know the clock cannot be turned back to another day and time, Rodriguez says he and his co-workers hope that by negotiating a mutually-satisfactory contract with the company, they will gain a stronger voice on the job.

Those are the same aspirations that have led nearly 2,000 home and small business security system workers to opt for IBEW representation as part of the multi-union ADT Coordinating Council. Members work under 30 collective bargaining agreements across the U.S.

ADT's commercial security installation services currently operate under the brand Tyco Integrated Security.

Abe Rodriguez, Local 134 organizer (who is not related to Bert), said some inspectors and technicians had experience working side by side with 21 co-workers who belong to the Sprinkler Fitters union.

Many have also worked with Local 134's inside electricians and voice-data-video technicians who install SimplexGrinnell's fire alarms, nurses' call stations and time clocks in public schools and other buildings.

"They've seen the benefits of a union," says Abe Rodriguez. The IBEW decided to project a positive message even in the face of misinformation spread by union avoidance lawyers hired by Tyco. The campaign was aided by Bob Parrilli, a former Local 134 business agent who is now employed by seven area locals for special organizing.

The local hosted meetings on Saturdays leading up to the representation election to answer questions and refute mischaracterizations.

"We persevered and won by a respectable 18-percent margin. There was only one employee eligible to vote who did not cast a ballot and he is a staunch supporter who was out of the state on vacation," says Illinois State Organizing Coordinator Charles Laskonis.

Laskonis said a strong volunteer organizing committee whose members used email and text messages to quickly dispel erroneous claims about the IBEW and union membership was key to the campaign's success.