The Electrical Worker online
April 2020

The Sweet Smell of Success:
Big Raises for Portland Wiremen at
Nabisco Bakery
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With a quarter-century of experience at the Mondelēz Nabisco plant in Portland, Ore., journeyman wireman Jim Smith knows it takes at least two electricians per shift to ensure that millions of Oreos, Saltines and other popular snacks wend their way from baking to packaging without major disruption.

But higher-paying jobs created by the region's construction boom began making it impossible for the industrial bakery to hold onto skilled electricians and recruit new ones.

Eventually, the maintenance crew represented by Portland Local 48 shrank to two. Smith, the unit steward, and a fellow journeyman worked alone, racing from one trouble spot to another on the 15-acre property.

"I was on one shift, he was on another and we were basically putting out fires as fast as we could," Smith said.

Then the local negotiated a game-changing raise. Hourly base wages for maintenance electricians soared from $30.30 an hour to $40.

"It made a difference almost immediately," Local 48 business representative Mike Bridges said. "Within two or three months we went from two electricians to eight."

The raise took effect in July 2018, even though bargaining dragged on for another rocky year and a half. High turnover on the management team made things more difficult, but solidarity on the union side — between the IBEW and a larger unit of Machinists — never wavered.

Ultimately, members of both unions rejected what the company claimed was a final offer, then voted to authorize a strike. Workers blew whistles entering and leaving the plant as a show of unity and donned union T-shirts. The back side of Local 48's read, "Lightning makes no sound … until it strikes!"

Mondelēz returned to the table for a final marathon session with a federal mediator. It was the 41st round of bargaining over two-plus years, a longer and more draining process than Bridges said he'd ever experienced as a negotiator.

But throughout, he was buoyed by the brotherhood on display, especially when it came to the 32% pay hike for IBEW members. While the Machinists also got sizeable raises — 9% over three years, with backpay — Bridges said they knew the electricians needed more to compete with market rates.

"They supported us in a big way," Bridges said. "Their point of view was, 'Yeah, we want more money, too, but we understand this is crisis mode. We can't effectively do our job if we've only got one electrician running around the plant.'"

Local 48 also won a new classification for electricians — instrument control technician — and nailed down the work that belongs to the IBEW and the Machinists at the plant, where Operating Engineers are also employed.

The other unions weren't the problem. It was the company, Smith said, that "was trying to blur the lines between us. Now we've got jurisdictional language to keep everybody in their lanes."

The management team's revolving door meant that only one of its six original negotiators still was there at the end. Complicating matters, Mondelēz tried to insist on oral agreements at the table.

Even if managers meant what they said one week, new faces could be there the next. "There was not a lot of trust with the company as far as them keeping their word," Smith said.

But solidarity prevailed again, and finally the company put its promises on paper.

The unions also fended off a shift change that would have cost workers a chunk of overtime pay and undermined a valued seniority system, expanded bereavement leave, added language providing for federal mediation to resolve disputes, and created firmer timelines for the company to respond to grievances, among other advances, Local 48 general counsel Diana Winther said.

Despite all the strides, battles lie ahead. Bargaining a new contract isn't far off, as the retroactive three-year agreement expires in December. Meanwhile, the plant's 210 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco and Grain Millers are working under expired contract language and imposed terms, as are units in five other U.S. cities with Mondelēz bakeries.

In Portland, the IBEW unit was 10-strong when workers ratified the contract in February, and Smith is hopeful that more hires are coming.



Local 48 Steward Jim Smith, right, and three of his Machinist coworkers served on the bargaining team at their Mondelēz Nabisco plant in Portland, Ore.