The Electrical Worker online
December 2016

Southern Organizing Strategies
IBEW Organizes Memphis, Tenn.,
Manufacturing Plant
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The IBEW welcomed hundreds of members into the Brotherhood Sept. 27 when the workers at Electrolux's Memphis, Tenn., plant voted by more than 2 to 1 to form a union.

More than 90 percent of the 700-member bargaining unit voted in the election and more than 70 percent of them voted to join Memphis Local 474. The victory came 16 months after the first organizing campaign fell 59 votes short.

It took two votes and more than two years of organizing by dozens of Electrolux workers, IBEW organizers from across the country and union activists from Sweden to ensure victory.

"This is the most important manufacturing victory in a southern, right-to-work state in my memory," said Director of Professional and Industrial Organizing Carmella Thomas.

Factories have been moving south from union-strong industrial cities for decades and have proven very difficult to organize. Even when the companies haven't actively opposed organizing, like Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga two years ago, political pressure and unfamiliarity with unions has made victories rare.

The southwest Memphis plant makes high-end commercial and residential stoves and ranges that cost from $2,000 to upwards of $10,000. It was one of the highest profile economic development projects in the city when it opened two years ago. The company received state and local subsidies worth nearly $180 million to build the factory, according to an investigation by Memphis' newspaper, the Commercial Appeal.

But soon after the facility opened in 2014, there were problems, said Stanley Reese, the head of the volunteer organizing committee. Many people applied for jobs and started taking courses specifically for jobs at Electrolux after they were promised starting salaries of at least $15 an hour. But when they started work, they made closer to $12, sometimes only $11 an hour.

Supervisors told workers to come in before their shifts were scheduled to start and punch in at the normal time, Reese said. People who missed work because their children were sick were written up even if they had a doctor's note. New hires, promotions and job transfers were distributed by favoritism, not the quality of work or seniority. Unscheduled overtime was compulsory and often assigned with less than 12 hours' notice, leaving parents scrambling for childcare.

"One lady was told to be in by 6 a.m. the next morning and her child's daycare didn't even open until 6," Reese said.

Reese, who had worked at Chrysler's Memphis plant until it closed in 2010, started talking to his co-workers about how different things were when he had been represented by the United Auto Workers.

Eventually they asked him when he was going to stop talking about it and do something.

The First Campaign

Reese approached the IBEW on the recommendation of a union organizer who was a customer at his second job, a liquor store.

"She said we should come to the IBEW because we make electrical components. So I called," Reese said. He never got the woman's name.

There is a playbook companies follow to fight off a union drive. A company holds closed door meetings where unions are bad-mouthed. In-house organizers get increased scrutiny, leading to suspensions and even firings. Companies lie about the financial state of the union and radically overstate the size of future dues.

In that first election, Electrolux followed the playbook and more.

The factory is divided into three departments. Higher skill workers in the press department made more money than the workers in the materials and assembly departments. Electrolux managers told workers in the press department that they would lose money if the other departments got raises.

Management also situated contract workers, almost all Latino immigrants who spoke English poorly or not at all, between the mostly African-American full-time Electrolux employees, Reese said. Not only did the Spanish speakers have a language barrier that made organizing more challenging, they were literally placed as barriers, preventing the English speakers from talking with one another at work.

The final blow may have been when the Electrolux managers found out the date of the vote. A few days before the ballot, the company hired more than a hundred of the contract workers, presumably to throw the result, Thomas said.

All of that happened despite a global neutrality agreement that Electrolux had signed with their home union, IF Metall, in Sweden.

The organizing drive lost by 59 votes.

"They promised to raise wages and end the favoritism. 'Give us a year,' they said 'and if we don't get it done, have another vote,'" Reese said. "And when we lost the vote, they didn't do a thing."

The Rematch

"There is no shame in being beat, only in quitting. And we never quit," said Carl McPeak, the lead organizer for the IBEW on the campaign. "From the minute after the vote was lost we were looking at the game tapes to see what we could do better."

One of the big changes they made was expanding the organizing committee. Two workers from the press department — Renita Leath and Jocko Williams — joined Reese, Victor Jones, Larry Chatman and Tina Mull in materials and LaRoderick Wilson and Marquita Martin on the assembly line.

The employee organizers inside the plant were joined by IBEW organizers from California, Kansas City and Houston. Thousands of pamphlets were handed out during shift changes. They ran a targeted social media campaign to educate workers about the benefits of uniting together. Dozens of educational meetings were held at a nearby church and, in the weeks leading up to the vote, organizers made more than 400 house calls.

The biggest challenge this time was making sure everyone understood what a union was, Reese said. Many people thought because Tennessee was a right-to-work state that unions were illegal.

"I told them all right-to-work meant is that we are a union-by-choice state," McPeak said.

Reese said he started making and wearing T-shirts that read "Albert Einstein Supported Unions" and "Unions Built the Middle Class."

"I had people ask me what unions were. They had no idea. One guy asked me what the middle class was. And I told them all to Google it or ask their grandparents what a union was," Reese said. "Don't take my word for it. Look for yourself and you will see what unions have done."

In some campaigns, having organizers who are not locals has been counterproductive, but Local 474 Business Manager Paul Shaffer said, in this case, it was a help.

"It showed the true commitment of the entire Brotherhood. I think it was heartening for them to see so many people who believed in the value of the IBEW. I think they could see they were important to us," Shaffer said. "It might not have been the difference, but it made a difference that they got a sense of how large a group of people was behind them."

Jeanette DelaGarza, an organizer with Kansas City, Mo., Local 53 and a native Spanish speaker, was brought in to focus on the Latino contract workers in the factory who were not eligible to vote — as long as the company kept them as contract workers.

But as the organizers had learned from the first vote when more than 100 were brought on full-time just before the election, the Latino workers had to be part of the organizing strategy.

"We wanted to make sure that if any of them were made permanent before the vote that they would vote yes," DelaGarza said.

Her job was made easier by what Electrolux had done after the previous election. The 120 contract workers who were brought on as 'permanent' workers just before for the vote were all fired two weeks later, DelaGarza said.

In this mostly Latino community, her biggest challenge was also a lack of knowledge of what unions were.

"There are unions in Mexico, but they are for teachers and lawyers and the higher-ups, so when I talked about unions I mostly got blank stares," she said. "I was surprised at how few knew about us."

Doing house calls was also hard. Nearly all of the addresses for the contract workers were fake.

All organizers faced strong headwinds. The temporary agencies held closed door meetings, she was told. Managers told the workers they would be fired if they voted yes or helped pass out literature, actions in direct violation of labor laws.

"They were told they had no rights here," DelaGarza said.

One volunteer organizer, a legal immigrant from El Salvador, was fired for not showing up to work, even though she had evidence that she spoke to her supervisor about her absence, she said. But the worker would not pursue an unlawful labor practice charge because the NLRB office in Memphis is in the same building as the Memphis Immigration Court.

"The fear is real, and we need to be real about it when we are organizing in this community," DelaGarza said.

The contract workers were not the only targets of management disinformation and unfair labor practices. A maintenance worker was fired for a safety violation that McPeak said was standard practice. Reese's brother was fired.

And stories would drift back to Reese.

"People would come up to me and say 'I heard the union is paying you $40,000 to run this campaign.' Or the company would show them fake tax documents that the IBEW was broke and needed our $100 a week dues to stay open," Reese said. "If I heard it, imagine how far that must've spread before it came to my ears."

The IBEW filed multiple unfair labor practice claims against Electrolux, and the company was penalized multiple times for violating labor laws in both campaigns, Thomas said.

The unfair labor practice convictions got the attention of IF Metall, the union that represents Electrolux workers in Sweden, Thomas said. The leadership of IF Metall demanded the company honor the global neutrality agreement it had signed with the union and cease interfering with the organizing drive. The leadership also recorded a video supporting the organizing drive that was distributed by the IBEW before the vote.

"The video from our brothers and sisters in Sweden supported our message that the world is watching this and the world is supporting you," Shaffer said.

The Vote

To prevent the company from conducting another mass-hiring right before the election, organizers kept the election date a secret until the last minute, Thomas said. But in the days leading up to the vote, enthusiasm was clear.

"We were holding signs outside the hourly workers' parking lot and nearly every car was honking and giving us the thumbs up," DelaGarza said. "And we recognized that a lot of the people giving us the thumbs down were managers going out the workers' exit."

The next step, Shaffer said, is first contract negotiations early next year, making sure the nearly 500 contract workers at the factory organize and spreading the word that unions are rising in the South.

"It is awe inspiring," Thomas said. "This is a win for our new brothers and sisters, it is a win for working families in the South and it is a model of how the labor movement can confront globalized companies with a global labor movement."


Faces from the successful organizing drive at the Memphis, Tenn., Electrolux organizing campaign fill out a quote from its lead organizer, Carl McPeak.


Stanley Reese, head of the Electrolux workers volunteer organizing committee, wearing one of his many hand-made shirts and handing out fliers in front of the Memphis factory.


"It was heartening for them to see so many people who believed in the value of the IBEW. I think [the Electrolux workers] could see how important they were to us."

– Paul Shaffer, Local 474 Business Manager


The Memphis workers voted 2 to 1 in favor of organizing the high-end range and stove factory.