The Electrical Worker online
June 2015

Texas Utility Workers Win Contract
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For Steve Stone, the wide open spaces, vast skies and rolling plains of the Lone Star State offer some of the best reasons to get up in the morning and go to work as a lineman for Texas New Mexico Power.

"For me, it's the freedom of getting to be outside, doing something different every day for a job I love," said the 30-year-old father of two, who works out of TNMP's site in Emory — about 45 miles east of Dallas. "I feel like we get a lot of respect for helping keep the power on."

It's a massive job in a power-hungry area. TNMP — which, despite its namesake, now only services Texas — has 375 employees in more than 20 cities and towns across the state.

But for the past few years, work has been difficult for Stone and his fellow employees. Lack of managerial consistency among different sites meant that crews working storm duty had different wage rates, different perks like paid lunches and different sets of expectations, depending on who was running the job.

Also, favoritism, irregular disciplinary procedures and a gradual eroding of benefits had employees like Stone working harder each year for less.

"The company would take something every few years from the workers," he said. "They turned our retirement benefits into a company-run 401(k) — earning pennies when we should be making more." TNMP also sought to slash paid time off benefits, a major point of contention for the workforce.

This wasn't the first time that workers were to the point of saying "enough." Some employees had mounted an organizing drive with the IBEW in 2008 that failed. But activists like Seventh District Lead Organizer Craig Parkman knew the terrain. He and other IBEW leaders had spoken with TNMP workers in far-flung locations and still had employee contacts.

Many workers had also been burned by the company before. "Six years ago, when we tried to organize, managers came in and said they would fix the pay scale," Stone said, adding that some linemen doing the same work for the same amount of time had as much as a $10 difference in their hourly pay. "We ended up not going union, but nothing changed. They made promises that never turned out."

In January 2013, several workers reached out to the IBEW again. Parkman and other leaders helped coordinate a robust campaign that went deep into the employees' issues and cast a wide geographical net.

"The largest construction group, stationed in Texas City, is more than 600 miles from the Pecos construction yard," Parkman said of the diverse unit composed of linemen, construction workers, substation operators and more. "And Pecos is over 400 miles from the company headquarters in Lewisville. It was clear that careful communication would have to be of the highest priority."

Building Support

The campaign brought together more than 180 workers, many of whom had never even exchanged a "hello."

"The fact that these guys are scattered throughout the state — that's the hardest part," said Local 66 Business Manager Greg Lucero. While organizers employed both shoe leather and tire rubber in great supply, constant communication through cell phones, texts and email helped spread the word.

The organizing team also invited the workers at each site to select representatives to serve as spokes of the communications hub.

"We held elections with all the workers — we went to every site," Parkman said. Two coalitions were formed — one for the northern part of the state surrounding Dallas, and one for the south near Galveston, close to the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Pecos group out west toward El Paso. "We said to the employees, we're letting you guys choose. This is your campaign."

Workers with decades of experience brought a seasoned perspective to the campaign. "I have seen many things change over the years, some good and some not so good," said distribution lineman Jeffrey Hall, a 26-year employee. "I have been through bad times, buyouts and restructures. Having representation in the workplace is one reason for me to support the union. The other is the idea of bringing workers together to unify and build strength in members."

The company hired a union-busting attorney, who used many tactics easily anticipated by the organizers.

"TNMP said if we wanted a union in, everything is going to be starting from scratch — everything you have now, throw it out the window," Stone said. "The IBEW was honest with us from the get-go. Everything they said was right on the money, and they were good at predicting what the company would throw at us."

Still, it wasn't enough to sway everyone. "Some of those who were against it, I never really got a straight answer why," Stone said. "Some said, 'Man, I already make enough, and they treat me good.'"

For others, Stone said, the term "union" came with heavy political baggage — a turnoff to many in this deeply red state where union density is less than 5 percent.

"I grew up straight across-the-board Republican, so I know what some people were thinking," Stone said. "But I even got my dad behind me, supporting our effort."

"At the end of the day, it's about good jobs for Americans who work hard," Stone said.

May 21, 2013, union supporters squeaked out a victory in an NLRB-sponsored election: 88 yeas, 87 nays.

"It was a narrow victory, but it was a victory," Parkman said.

'We Became the Minority'

While the organizing campaign was relatively quick and energetic, the following months dragged on as the company delayed first contract negotiations and gradually ramped up their anti-union tactics.

Workers were barred from wearing their IBEW stickers on their hardhats. Union supporters were singled out, and four were fired. With the loss of about 10 more workers due to retirements and resignations, "We became the minority," Parkman said. IBEW leaders filed unfair labor practice charges against the company on behalf of the terminated supporters.

At the same time, the rest of the group continued mobilizing. Due to the sprawl, workers lobbied successfully to have two negotiating groups: one for the northern sites and one for the south.

"Local Union 66 and I wanted to show complete transparency to the employees," Parkman said. "We opened up the steward training to all bargaining unit employees and held classes at all the major service yards. We took our time to explain Weingarten rights, why it's important to use your steward, and we showed examples of situations where stewards are helpful." Each elected steward was given a disk that included information on legal rights and strategies for working as a unit, Parkman said.

Workers were able to challenge false information from the company and build momentum during contract talks. The NLRB eventually ruled in favor of the terminated workers.

A 'Decert' and a Deception

Last May, nearly one year to the day of the 2013 vote, an anti-union employee filed a decertification petition. "We had expected it," Stone said. "We knew people were talking about it."

TNMP then presented a proposal to the negotiating committee to eliminate the employees' paid time off plan and shift to a different system that would have cost workers vacation and sick days that they had already earned. As the decertification vote loomed, TNMP made an effort to cast the IBEW as a third party and told its workers that the union, not the company, had made the proposal to eliminate paid time off.

The move backfired — badly.

The negotiating committee moved to a full-court communications press, as stewards and other employee activists made sure their co-workers knew that the company was misrepresenting the union's position.

Late last year, the employees again voted whether or not to be unionized. This time, the yeas were more forceful: 115-62.

"The vote count in this election clearly showed the dedication we gave to this campaign," Parkman said.

'Never Give Up'

The next few weeks moved fast. TNMP agreed to mediation procedures through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service at the union's request. A deal was reached Feb. 5.

About two months after not even knowing whether he and his fellow employees would have a union anymore, Stone voted "yes" for his first collective bargaining agreement. The contract was ratified by about two-thirds of the unit.

"It feels good — really good," Stone said. One of the employees' main gains includes keeping all their paid time off. A new pay structure has also been established that will help accelerate wages for those at the lower end of the scale.

"There's also the plain, commonsense benefits of being union," Stone said, "like just cause and Weingarten rights," which grant workers the right to union representation in front of management. "They can't lay guys off or fire them for no reason."

At the same time, TNMP has continued to see solid financial success. Its Albuquerque-based parent company, PNM, increased its net earnings to $116.3 million in 2014 — a $16 million jump from the previous year. TNMP was the largest contributor to the corporation's success, posting a whopping 30 percent increase in net earnings since last year. Union leaders said they are still trying to find win-win ways to work with the company under the new contract.

"Getting employees the agreement was the best part, but we still have to train our guys in how to work underneath the contract, and how to get management accustomed to it," Lucero said. Due to the geographical challenges of the unit, Lucero said that stewards will be vital primary representatives for the unit on issues like grievances, with the local office adding support when needed. "The stewards will be the 'go to' guys, and we'll be the final step," he said.

IBEW leaders say that while this campaign was long and winding, it's a symbol of the kind of tenacity organizers and workers need to maintain to ensure victory where long distances are factors.

"The moral of the story is to never give up," Parkman said. "We had a narrow, one-vote victory. We had key supporters who were terminated and never returned to work. We had a company that stalled at every opportunity. We also had many positives. The most important reason that this campaign became a success was the constant communication we had with employees. When we told workers something, they could take it to the bank. Honesty, transparency and communication were the keys to victory."


Nearly 200 Texas New Mexico Power employees are spread out across the Lone Star State. The shaded areas indicate service regions, where the new members of Houston Local 66 live and work.


'At the end of the day, it's about good jobs for Americans who work hard.'

– Houston Local 66 member Steve Stone