The Electrical Worker online
September 2015

Big Organizing Win on Tiny Pacific Atoll
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Wake Island is hard to find on a map, even if you know where to look. It is a three-square-mile speck in the western Pacific with white sand, a sky blue lagoon, a flat-roofed U.S. Air Force base and a buzz cut of palm trees.

Wake is also home to some of the newest members of Honolulu Local 1260, the 12 firefighters contracted by the Air Force to watch over the base, the military planes that regularly land there as well as the odd emergency landing of civilian airliners that runs into trouble in the most isolated reaches of the Pacific Ocean.

Wake is one of the most isolated inhabited islands on the planet and best known as the site of the first American battle with the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Its closest inhabited neighbor is the Utirik Atoll in the Marshall Islands, nearly 600 miles away. It is a great deal closer to Asia than North America. Local 1260's headquarters is nearly 2,000 miles to the east and the closest IBEW members are 1,000 miles west in Guam.

"There is nothing to do there but work," said Honolulu Local 1260 Communication Director Russel Yamanoha. "It is beautiful, but the working conditions are hard."

Of the 12 unincorporated U.S. territories in the Caribbean and Pacific — including Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands — Wake Island has the smallest permanent population, about 200. About half of the population are members of either the Air Force or satellite trackers for the U.S. Space Command. Nearly all the rest are civilian contractors and can be organized.

But the only way to get to Wake Island is on an Air Force charter and the only ticket is an official invitation. Trying to organize the firefighters by traditional in-person techniques like waiting outside the base gate or meeting them in the local bar was impossible.

"It was a challenge organizing there, but through our contacts we heard that wages were low and benefits not very good," Local 1260 Business Manager Brian Ahakuelo. "The Pacific is very large and it is a big deal for the local and for the IBEW that we are expanding across it to reach our brothers and sisters wherever they need and want us."

The firefighters are employees of Chugach Federal Solutions, a military contractor familiar to Local 1260. Hundreds of its members work for Chugach across multiple military bases in Hawaii. Ahakuelo said it was because of their positive history with Chugach that the organizing campaign was resolved so quickly.

"We spoke with potential members first to make sure we had strong backing with cards and when we were certain, we were able to convince Chugach that it would be good for them too," Ahakuelo said. "They see the value of our local and how we look out for our members, but that we are not grievance hounds. We negotiate, but based on common interests wherever we can and we've been able to do that with Chugach."

New Opportunities

Ahakuelo, who credits Local 1260 Construction and Maintenance Director Brandon Ahakuelo for the organizing success, said the local's experience organizing Guam more than a decade ago is their blueprint for the push to organize across the Pacific.

Guam is the westernmost American territory, far closer to Australia than the mainland of the U.S. Local 1260 organized its first members in Guam in 2001. Now there are more than 1,000 members, nearly 1 percent of the island's total population and, Ahakuelo says, those members are building a strong, local labor movement that is transforming the local economy.

There are 16 territories in the Pacific that enforce U.S. labor laws, and Yamanoha said Local 1260 intends to organize on all of them.

"We already have a strong Guam-Hawaii connection," said Yamanoha. "With the organizing campaign in Wake, we are trying to turn it into more of a spider web."

Next targets include the 55,000 residents of American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, home to another 53,000.

"There are so many opportunities," Ahakuelo said. "We are not only living up to our mantra of 'Bridging the Pacific Basin,' we are also venturing to take organized labor far beyond its normal boundaries."


Bridging the Pacific Basin and taking organized labor beyond its normal boundaries