|More Than 1,400 BGE Workers Join the IBEW
After an 18-month organizing drive, a majority of Baltimore Gas & Electric's 1,418 gas and electric transmission-distribution workers voted for IBEW representation Jan. 12.
"This is a fantastic moment for our new brothers and sisters," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "This will transform not only their lives, but the lives of their families, and I think it will be an inspiration for working people across the U.S. and Canada."
BGE workers will now form a new local — Baltimore Local 410 — chosen because it is the area code served by BGE. It will be the first time Stephenson will charter a new local since becoming international president.
After four failed campaigns over 20 years, the fifth was a success.
"This is the biggest election victory for working families and the IBEW that I can remember in the last 30 years," said Fourth District International Vice President Kenneth Cooper, who was heavily involved in the campaign's design and execution. "This is a very big, a huge deal."
The Long Road
Victory was never assured. Many organizers on this campaign were there for the ones that had come before in 2010, 2000, 1998 and 1996. They knew the challenges only too well: management's vehemently anti-union culture, the paternalistic nature of a formerly local company, the reality that workers were already paid well.
Despite a more hopeful atmosphere this time around, the IBEW and BGE were bound by a past of loss and disappointment.
And word was, if it didn't work this time, there wouldn't be another.
But failure properly channeled holds lessons for success. IBEW leaders and organizers took a long painful look back at the opportunities that weren't seized and recent successful organizing campaigns elsewhere and came up with a winning blueprint.
The latest organizing campaign began in the spring of 2015 when Cooper, international representative and Lead Organizer Troy Johnson and Regional Organizing Coordinator Bert McDermitt met with BGE workers hoping for one more shot.
Some had been there for the first loss in 1996, when the utility spent more than $50 million on union-busters. There were months of delays as the company fought the composition of the bargaining unit, time they used to hold captive audience meetings with a single message: supporting the union would be a disaster for the company and for the workers.
"They scared everyone," said Bill Riale, 25-year overhead line worker and a member of the volunteer organizing committee. "We had over 600 cards signed in one election, but got fewer than 400 votes. They smashed us."
Union supporters were fired, threatened, transferred to units far from their homes and given the worst and least reliable trucks. The IBEW filed dozens of unfair labor practice charges against the company in 1996, said IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter, who led that campaign as the then-business manager of Washington, D.C., Local 1900. Two years later, the NLRB negotiated a rerun in 30 days. Out of nearly 3,000 votes, the campaign lost by just 120.
"It was heartbreaking," Hunter said. "We didn't get close after that."
The next two organizing elections, in 2000 and 2010, lost by more than 2-to-1.
"In the past, many of the workers saw this as a small, almost mom-and-pop company," Johnson said. "The men and women building and maintaining the BGE system knew the managers who were making the rules. They met with them regularly, and they felt taken care of."
Deregulation revolutionized the industry in the '90s. Utilities had to shed their power plants and new companies began growing and merging. What had been a sleepy, reliable and locally-based industry became a battle of giants. BGE became Constellation in 1999, and in 2012, the multi-billion-dollar utility conglomerate Exelon bought Constellation.
"That company from the last organizing campaign [in 2010] is gone, and we notice the changes and we don't like them," said BGE employee Ben Ferstermann.
New Company, New Rules
Exelon owned one utility that wasn't represented by the IBEW: BGE, and only one utility's workers were falling behind the rest: BGE. They watched as wages and benefits improved at the rest of Exelon's utilities, including Pepco, PECO in Philadelphia, ComEd in Chicago, Atlantic City Electric in New Jersey and Delmarva Power in Delaware.
"It's not a bad company. Everything I have is because of my job at BGE and I want them to do better," said underground lines worker and volunteer organizer Eric Gomez. "We just want to do better too."
BGE workers said they began to see more favoritism, arbitrary rules changes, unexplained disciplinary actions and more contractors on the job. It used to be, Ferstermann said, that when you went on a job with a trainee, you made a small amount more per hour. Then one day, the company switched it to a gift card to Subway.
But often, the changes were bigger. The company called it flexible scheduling, but workers only knew they couldn't plan ahead more than two days. New policies were handed down seemingly without any understanding of how work was done in the field, and no one could say where they came from.
"Our supervisors would say it was from headquarters, but we didn't even know which one — BGE, Constellation or Exelon — let alone who to ask," Ferstermann said.
For older workers, the main concern was retirement, said volunteer organizer and BGE lineman Dave Kelly. The company kept raising the cost of retiree health care, the 401(k) match was at its discretion and was smaller than other Exelon utilities. There were, he said, "no enforceable promises at all."
For those who had been on the fence about organizing in the past or young workers making good money and not particularly worried about retirement, the rise in arbitrary disciplinary actions was changing minds, said Mike Niland, a 10-year overhead line mechanic.
"The main thing is job security. I've never worked anywhere where so many people quit or got fired," Niland said. "We had a buddy get fired. He was in a room with HR and security. Just him. He's out the door next week and nobody is sure what happened. Guys see that, and it opens their eyes."
Getting fired from BGE, Ferstermann said, isn't just losing a job. It meant you couldn't work on any Exelon property for at least five years and nearly every utility within 200 miles was owned by Exelon. And because the training program at BGE wasn't coordinated with any others, none of the linemen were licensed or had journeyman cards they could take on the road.
"If you get fired, you got nothing, so… what? You have to just hope your supervisor likes you?" Ferstermann said. "If we get a contract, we can negotiate a standardized training program so that we can have a journeyman ticket and go anywhere."
It was the steady drip of changes — usually for the worse, always without asking — affecting linemen, gas workers, transmission and substation workers and clerical staff.
"These are some of the best blue-collar jobs in Maryland and they are being eroded, slowly and constantly," Kelly said. "Without collective bargaining, we are just sitting on the bench, watching the game in front of us."
A Plan for Success
In May of 2015, Kelly, Riale, Niland and more than two dozen other BGE workers returned to the IBEW.
Cooper, Johnson and McDermitt came back to them with a plan that would involve a huge investment of time and resources from the IBEW, but in return, Cooper said, BGE workers had to agree to a substantial change from the failed campaigns of the past.
"We were clear from the start. We were not organizing them. It was their campaign and we would do everything we could, throw everything we had, at supporting them. But they had to do it," Cooper said.
Gomez said it was a welcome change.
"It always felt like the union was trying to organize us, and I think that played into the hands of the company. The union was 'them,'" Gomez said. "Troy's initial approach was, 'This is about you. You have to want it. I am not going to do it for you. Here is my information, you guys go out and do it.' And that worked."
The plan had multiple fronts and lots of moving pieces. The IBEW took Exelon to two NLRB hearings to determine the unit before things got under way. With the help of IBEW attorneys Jon Newman and Lucas Aubrey, a stipulated election agreement was reached that reduced the unit from 1,468 to 1,418.
"Although it meant we didn't have exactly what we wanted, we could live with it and there would be no more hearings," Johnson said.
Then they set a timeline. Starting in 2016, Johnson and McDermitt, with the volunteer organizing committee, would collect cards and hold meetings to answer questions until the first weeks of December. Then the IBEW would bring in dozens of volunteers to conduct a two-week blitz of site and home visits, phone-banking and a final push to collect cards.
Then a break over the holidays, when many BGE workers were taking time off to be with family, and those on the job would be needed at their posts, making forced anti-union meetings unlikely.
The target was an election that would be held in the first weeks of January when everyone was back from vacation, the blitz would recommence with outside IBEW organizers flooding back into Baltimore focused this time on getting out the vote.
"It was a great strategy for this campaign and Kenny, Troy, Bert and the BGE workers delivered," said Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland.
The campaign also fit into International President Stephenson's directive that organizing campaigns focus first on companies where we already represent some part of the workforce.
"We have a good relationship with Exelon and plan on continuing to have a good relationship. We believe that by these workers electing to have a voice in the workplace, they will make Exelon a better and more successful company," Cooper said.
Cooper said that in 2012 when Exelon bought BGE, the IBEW was one of the loudest public voices in favor of the merger. Two years ago, when they purchased Pepco, they also received IBEW support, with a condition.
"We said we would like a commitment that if the BGE workers want to organize, we won't see the union busters," Cooper said. "We got that commitment."
That was the plan. But there were significant hurdles to overcome. Senior management may have gotten the message from Exelon, but two decades of anti-union culture was a hard habit to break. Could they get enough cards? The bargaining unit included some clerical workers. Would they feel common cause with linemen, gas workers and mechanics? And those workers were spread across nine service centers in Maryland, doing very different jobs. Finally, would falling behind other Exelon workers be enough of an incentive for people who were doing pretty well?
The Christmas Blitz
Dec. 6 was a bitter day in Baltimore to be standing outside for hours in a frigid rainstorm. Yet, out in the cold, smiling and cheering, hour after hour, was an undaunted army of IBEW organizers nearly 50 strong.
For the next two weeks, they rallied every day at the gates of BGE's service centers, waving signs, handing out leaflets, answering questions and keeping up morale as one shift turned over into the next. They called every person eligible to vote at least once and made hundreds of house calls across the state and into Pennsylvania.
They had converged on the city from IBEW locals from more than a dozen states. Some were rank-and- file construction, utility, manufacturing and telecommunications members and some were international organizers pulled from regional and district offices. Some came from as far away as Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245. Some came from down the road in Washington, D.C., Local 26. Baltimore Locals 24 and 1501 played host for organizing meetings and provided office space and their hall for general meetings.
"It was the first organizing campaign that brought the full strength of the IBEW, all our brothers and sisters, construction, professional and industrial, together in one common cause," Oakland said. "International President Emeritus Ed Hill started building up this strength and President Stephenson is continuing that growth exactly so that when an opportunity like this comes along, we have the resources to win."
By those early weeks of December, the BGE workers had been collecting cards in support of an organizing election for more than a year. Volunteer organizers were starting to get questions.
"Every day, we heard, 'When is there going to be a vote,'" Kelly said. "And every day we told them, 'When the time is right. When the time is right.'"
30 Days and Counting
The night of Dec. 13, the workers and organizers held a meeting at Local 24. They had almost 900 cards, far more than they needed to get the NLRB to schedule an election. But you always get some people who sign cards even if they will eventually vote no. Was 900 enough?
The room was optimistic.
The company had so far kept to its word: no closed door meetings, no apocalyptic threats about what would happen if the union came through the door.
The IBEW organizers who had been phone-banking and house-calling told stories about the people they'd met.
West Coast Regional Organizing Coordinator Robert Brock talked to a 36-year BGE gas worker, a troubleman sent out to fix emergencies on BGE's grid. He had always voted no in the previous elections. He told Brock that during a snowstorm, he and another troubleman were out making repairs, and a local news crew interviewed them. The other guy, responding to a question about why repairs were taking so long, said he didn't know, they were busting their humps, it was the managers who were home warm.
"Six months later, this guy gets called into HR and they cut his pay 5 percent, and he didn't even say anything," Brock said. "This is a dangerous job, and for the first time, he felt like no one really knew or cared about what he did. He signed a card."
Fourth District Lead Organizer Dale McCray visited the home of a 74-year-old worker who didn't want anything to do with him. At first.
"But we set to talking and we ended up being there for near half an hour. It was a real privilege to be there, to listen to him, and make sure he knew we were listening," McCray said. "He may not be a yes yet, but the conversation went very well."
It was time for the BGE workers to decide whether to file the cards with the NLRB. When Johnson called for the vote, a roomful of hands went up and cheers began.
Then Bill Riale's booming voice cut through the noise.
"I appreciate all the promises from the company, but I still hear from a few of the younger workers that their supervisor is telling them they won't get scheduled raises, or that guy over there, his supervisor is saying they won't be able to talk to one another once the union is here," he said. "Now we file for this election, it is real, and the company knows we're for real. What I worry about is that we lower our guard and tomorrow they start punching us in the mouth."
President Stephenson stood up and addressed the room. "If anything like that starts, you get in touch with me and I'll be on the phone with the CEO of Exelon as soon as I get off the phone," he said.
After the meeting, Riale said "I'll breathe a lot easier when this is over."
The next day, Johnson and McDermitt brought the 900 signed cards to the Baltimore office of the NLRB.
By early afternoon, the word began to spread. After more than a year's work, the election was set for Jan. 11 and 12, two days so all shifts could vote, with a count the evening of the 12th.
The volunteer IBEW organizers returned home to their families. The campaign went quiet.
The New Year
After New Year's, the pause ended. More than 80, mostly new, volunteer organizers converged on Baltimore to finish the campaign in strength. They were, among others, local (Baltimore Local 24); regional (Washington, D.C., Locals 26 and 70); from neighboring Virginia (Richmond Local 666) and off airplanes (Los Angeles Local 11, Vacaville Local 1245, Aurora, Ill., Local 19 and Indianapolis Local 481.)
Of the nine service centers, Johnson and the BGE workers were most concerned about three: Rutherford Business Center, known as RBC, Front Street and Spring Gardens. They were the largest and had the most different classifications. Not gas pipeline technicians or overhead line workers or troublemen or truck mechanics but all of them, working out of the same building, but not often together.
"The message isn't different at different locations," Johnson said. "Everybody is worried about the same things: more contractors every day, more policies every day, more uncertainty about job security every day. The difference here is that personal connections aren't as deep, and personal connection between workers is more important than anything else in an organizing campaign: someone you have a past with talking about your futures."
So IBEW volunteers came in especially large numbers to those locations for leafletting and "honk-and-waves," where a line of IBEW organizers bearing signs of support stand outside the service center gates waving and singing.
President Stephenson joined lines twice. He was present throughout the campaign, at organizer debriefs after a day in the field, at open meetings for BGE workers and even hosting a barbecue for the BGE organizers.
"Those were some of the best days I've had as president," Stephenson said. "This is unions at their purest. Brothers and sisters reaching out and saying that improving your life is in your hands, and we stand here as proof of that. Men, women, black, white and brown, young and old, we are all in this together."
Eleventh District Lead Organizer Mike Knox drove through a snowstorm from Iowa to work on the campaign. He stressed the importance of that diversity.
"They got great folks that work down here, and a lot of them are black and Hispanic workers. And we know that to reach those folks, it helps to have black and Hispanic organizers," Knox said. "This is a lesson we learned too late on some past campaigns, but here, it was part of the planning and it is working to perfection."
Knox spoke with a 26-year BGE worker during a home visit. He had not only voted against the union before, he had volunteered to be a company observer when the votes were counted. This time, however, he was voting yes. Too many good people losing their jobs, too many times he watched as benefits shrank.
"We've been telling him this for years. We said without a contract, the company can change your benefits however they want. Why? Because they can. And we didn't change his mind. The company did," Knox said. "I've been around a lot of campaigns. This feels like a winner."
Three days before the vote, there was another general meeting at Local 24, this time with members from locals that represented workers at nearby Exelon-owned utilities in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington, D.C. More than 150 BGE workers filed into the hall.
As one after another spoke, a theme developed. BGE senior management were keeping their word. There were very few closed door meetings, no overt union-busting.
"We had a meeting with [BGE CEO] Calvin Butler, who made an announcement that there will be no union-busting. They will not spend any money trying to keep the IBEW out," said gas pipeline mechanic and volunteer organizer Marvin Austin.
However, many attendees reported that there were lower-level supervisors who did not get the message. Members from Locals 15, 614, 1307 and 1900 representing the other Exelon utilities took more than two dozen questions that started, in one form or another, "My supervisor told me if I vote for the union…
We won't get a contract for two years and raises will be frozen until then. I won't be able to talk directly to my supervisor without a union rep there. My dues will be $800 a month. The company won't ever sign a better contract. You will go out on strike. Relations between employers and the company will only get worse."
Riale, the "natural pessimist," was glad the company kept its word, but time was running out. He had collected cards from 100 percent of the workers at his shop in Perry Hall, 70 overhead line mechanics. He could see things were different from years past. But was it enough?
Niland, on the other hand, said the lack of union-busting from the company had made his pitch to workers still on the fence a lot easier.
"It is hard to argue that things will be hostile when the CEO of Exelon spoke at the IBEW's International Convention in 2011," Niland said. "The evidence is there to see. For people who want to see it."
As the meeting closed, Stephenson stood up.
"I can feel it. I have been around a long time and I got a feeling. The time is right. We are going to pull this off," he said. "I look forward to welcoming you into the Brotherhood soon."
Jan. 11 arrived and voting began. Over the next two days, nearly every one of the 1,418 eligible voters would cast a ballot.
As the core BGE volunteer organizers got off work Jan. 12, they made their way to the lobby of a downtown Baltimore hotel, a few minutes' walk from the NLRB office. They reported back what they had heard. Straw polls — really just the BGE organizers asking work crews if they voted and how — were passed around like good luck charms.
We're doing better than we thought at RBC and Cockeysville. Howard County is holding strong.
But none of it mattered but the count, scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m., and they knew it.
"I'm nervous. I didn't sleep at all last night," Kelly said before adding hopefully, "But that is just my nature. I feel good. I feel good."
A dozen people in BGE work blues including Ferstermann, Niland, Riale, Gomez, Austin and Kelly walked over with Cooper, Johnson and McDermitt. They were joined by IBEW lawyers in the beige conference room to watch the vote. As the boxes of ballots arrived, more BGE volunteer organizers arrived as their shifts ended and they made it through traffic.
Two decades of nerves filled the room as the tally began. The boxes were opened and hundreds of ballots were piled on four tables. At every table were two NLRB agents, a witness for the company and a witness for the union.
The silence in the crowded room was broken only by the NLRB agents quietly announcing the decision of each ballot as they held it up to the witnesses: yes for the union, no for the status quo. Some tried to figure out which way it was going with every "yes" or "no" announced.
"We're winning two-to-one at that table," said Kelly. "Can anyone hear the back tables?"
The tension held for three hours, until the final tally was announced. It was close, about 60/40, but all they needed was one more vote than the company and they got that. And more.
"We did it! Finally, we did it," Kelly yelled to no one and everyone.
After the initial elation, the members of the VOC poured out of the NLRB office into the building's lobby and stopped to take a picture, the very first of the founding members of Baltimore Local 410.