The Electrical Worker online
August 2019

Two Decades' Effort Pays Off
First Contract Ratified by BGE Workers
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After four failed organizing drives and two years of negotiation, the more than 1,400 members of Baltimore Local 410 ratified their first contract with Baltimore Gas and Electric in late June.

"Congratulations to the Local Union 410 bargaining team, and welcome to the IBEW," said Fourth District International Vice President Brian Malloy, announcing the conclusion of a 20-year campaign for the protection of a negotiated and democratically approved collective bargaining agreement.

The members of Local 410 now officially become members of the IBEW, the largest single-day growth of the Brotherhood in more than a generation, said Director of Professional and Industrial Membership Development Jammi Juarez.

"I am extremely proud of the work of the negotiating committee," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, congratulating Business Manager Eric Gomez, Vice President Ben Ferstermann and members Marvin Austin, Andrew Aziz and Mark Dill.

Stephenson and Malloy also thanked Fourth District International Representatives Gina Cooper and Chuck Tippie.

"Chuck and Gina have dedicated themselves to this effort for over two years," Stephenson said. "Their professionalism and tireless work on this agreement has made me proud. I can't thank them enough for the job they do every day."

BGE workers had tried and failed to win organizing elections for times over the years: 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2010. Many of the workers wanted the protection of a contract, but wages were pretty good, and while the small company may have had its problems, many workers said it still felt like they were family problems that were either solvable or bearable.

The utility's management at the time was also virulently anti-union and spent more than $50 million fighting off the first organizing drive in 1996. 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 former Utility Department Director Jim Hunter, who led that campaign as then-business manager of Washington, D.C., Local 1900.

"They scared everyone," said Bill Riale, a 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."

The next two organizing elections, in 2000 and 2010, lost by more than 2-to-1.

But then the company was bought in 1999 by Constellation, which was acquired by Exelon in 2012. That "mom and pop" feeling began to fade away.

"That company from the last organizing campaign [in 2010] is gone," Ferstermann said at the time. BGE was also the only Exelon-owned utility without an IBEW-negotiated contract. Wages and benefits began to fall behind the other units, and BGE workers noticed.

"It's not a bad company. Everything I have is because of my job at BGE, and I want them to do better," Gomez said in 2017. "We just want to do better too."

In 2015, more than two dozen BGE workers approached the IBEW to ask for another shot. They formed the core of a volunteer organizing committee, and the IBEW assigned two full-time organizers, Regional Organizing Coordinator Bert McDermitt and Membership Development International Representative Troy Johnson, to the campaign.

With the workers in the lead, and the support of then-Fourth District Vice President, now-International Secretary-Treasurer, Kenneth W. Cooper, they developed a campaign timeline. Starting in 2016, they would collect cards and hold meetings to answer questions. 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. The target was an election scheduled for Jan. 11, 2017.

On the night of the vote, members of the V.O.C., Cooper, McDermitt and Johnson gathered in the National Labor Relations Board's Baltimore office to watch the three-hour vote count. In the end, the vote wasn't close.

Three months later, Stephenson, Cooper and then-international representative Malloy traveled to Baltimore Local 24's hall to charter the new union, Baltimore Local 410, chosen because it is the area code of the region serviced by BGE.

"I've been in the IBEW for 41 years now and I have never been as honored as I just was to do that," Stephenson said that night, his voice cracking. "I have not had the pleasure or opportunity to sign a charter for a new local union. So, this was a big event not only for you but for me."

A parade of Baltimore politicians attended the chartering celebration in March of 2017 including Rep. John Sarbanes, city councilor John T. Bullock and then-state delegate and Local 24 assistant business manager Corey McCray.

There were hopes at the time of the charter that negotiations would go smoothly, Gomez said.

"It took about a year and half longer than I thought it would," he said.

There were times, toward the end of negotiations, where the committee was meeting 15 hours a day, two to three times a week, Tippie said.

"The committee was very supportive and active, coming up with ideas and arguments, looking up policies and procedures to assist the negotiating committee. You cannot underestimate the support of the membership," Tippie said. "Their patience, solidarity and hard work paid off in a strong agreement."

Most importantly, Cooper and Tippie said, they are no longer at-will employees. There is a grievance procedure to protect workers from favoritism and managerial caprice. Job bidding has been transformed to reward good workers and length of service, not just relationships with supervisors.

The on-call system was also reformed, honoring the utility's responsibility to keep the power on while respecting workers' family responsibilities.

"This is a great foundation, a great first contract," Tippie said.

Gomez said the overwhelming approval by the membership was validation of the long struggle and testament to the solidarity of the new members. Now, BGE workers can continue to provide the best service for their customers, confident that they've got on paper what they've been seeking since the mid-90s: a voice on the job that ensures good work is fairly rewarded and a relationship with management that puts BGE in a position to thrive.

"Now we've got nothing left to do but work for a living," Gomez said.


International President Lonnie R. Stephenson signed Baltimore Local 410's charter in 2017 with International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper.