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November 2021

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D.C. Local's Winning Strategy
Solves a Problem then Adds New Contractor

How do you staff a job upgrading roads when the traffic is so bad none of your members want to make the commute?

This was the challenge facing Washington, D.C., Local 70 Business Manager Jim Horton.

Northern Virginia famously has some of the worst traffic in the United States — number No. 2 after Los Angeles according to Texas A&M's 2021 annual report.

A Maryland-based signatory contractor won a bid for the lighting and signage for a significant highway expansion project in Northern Virginia suburbs. The contract came after a slow period for Virginia work, and Horton was happy to see a few dozen Virginia members come off the books.

But he couldn't staff the big job with them alone. Local 70 is an outside local with about 1,700 members, fairly evenly split between Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

But in March, no one wanted to brave the Capital Beltway or the handful of other Potomac River crossings only to end up stuck in the area's eternal rush hour.

Horton, Local 70's organizer for six years before taking over as business manager in 2020, knew, like all good IBEW members do, that there is no problem so big that it can't be solved by organizing the top nonunion electrical workers and turning them out with a yellow ticket in their wallet.

"We did some stripping," Horton said. "A lot."

Starting in March, they stripped nearly four dozen workers from a single open shop, Virginia Sign and Light, a subsidiary of Lane Construction. Lane is a significant double-breasted contractor that competes with signatories for heavy civil construction jobs, union in some places, nonunion in others.

"We need good people for these federal jobs — where everything is under a microscope already — including crane-certified folks for placing those large exit signs, but it's even hard to find the guys with a shovel in their hand to do some digging with COVID like it is," Horton said.

VSL did itself no favors by paying a flat rate to 60 hours with no retirement and skimpy benefits, an arrangement that stretched the state's wage and hour regulations.

"After taxes, it was pretty easy math," Horton said, "If you could get them to listen."

While Virginia, especially Northern Virginia, today looks and votes a lot more like its blue neighbors than the former capital of the Confederacy, it's still a southern state skeptical of unions with a large pool of nonunion contractors.

The key was picking his targets.

"Find that influencer and, usually, it's the guys with the company pick-ups: their best workers and our best targets," Horton said. "We showed them our rates and our benefits and when they saw what it meant for their families, the floodgates opened."

By June, VSL was calling Local 70 inviting Horton down for a visit and telling him to stop stripping "their guys."

"None of this is yours," Horton responded, suggesting that if they wanted their former workers back, there was a simple way to do it: Sign on and pay competitive union wages and benefits.

"They asked if they signed on would we stop stripping and of course we would," Horton said. "But they never signed, and we never stopped."

In the end, four months after the campaign began, VSL reached the conclusion that the way forward was in partnership with the IBEW.

And the manager who kept calling the IBEW members "his" workers? He no longer works there.

But some of those superintendents and foremen that used to work for VSL are back.

"VSL made some adjustments, especially to overtime, and it's been a pretty good partnership," Horton said.

"They liked working there," Horton said. "They like working there a lot more now."


Washington, D.C., Local 70 Business Manager James Horton, Organizer Gary Helton and President Roland Carter ran a classic organizing campaign in northern Virginia, bringing in dozens of new members.