They work side-by-side with IBEW members, but they don’t belong to the union. Delegates to the Membership Development Conference pledged last September to reach out to approximately 27,000 of these nonmembers in right-to-work states and convince them of the benefits of standing under the union’s umbrella.
In March, that’s just what happened as dozens of line clearance tree trimmers who maintain rights of way for Westar Energy Corp. and work alongside 1,300 IBEW members signed authorization cards to join IBEW.
| Asplundh workers in Kansas are saying “Union Yes,” joining hundreds in other states who want a more level playing field with the nation’s largest tree trimming company.
The trimmers will now enjoy the benefits of December Asplundh-IBEW contract negotiations covering members of Topeka Local 304 and Wichita Local 1523, which share jurisdiction at Westar, the largest energy provider in Kansas. And they join hundreds of Asplundh workers who have voted for representation over the past several months in elections held in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia.
Lead Organizer Chad Manspeaker says Local 304’s collective bargaining agreement with Westar mandates that onsite contractors must agree with the terms and conditions of the local unions. But, before negotiations on a new contract in December, neither local had more than 30 percent of the tree trimmers signed as members.
“We advised Asplundh’s nonmembers that by joining the IBEW they would make gains in retirement benefits and also in health insurance coverage through the Line Construction Benefit Fund [LineCo],” Manspeaker says.
Without a solid and growing bargaining unit, he told prospective trimmers, retirement, healthcare benefits and other gains would be more vulnerable to cuts.
The unprecedented string of successful organizing campaigns to the east, says Manspeaker, made the IBEW’s invitations to membership even more persuasive. “I told them they would become part of a bigger sphere. If they work on a utility right-of-way, they belong in the IBEW.”
Sixty-four new members signed up. They doubled the size of Local 304’s trimmer unit and brought new strength into Local 1523.The local union and the Membership Development Department followed up the signings with member-to-member training for line clearance stewards to help them build and maintain union density in the future.
While IBEW’s pact with Westar to employ union contractors is a plus for organizing, says Manspeaker, signing tree trimmers can sometimes be nearly as difficult in locals without similar agreements because Kansas crews are often rotated between different job assignments across the state, instead of working consistently out of one location.
“I’m so impressed with the work that Chad Manspeaker and Mark McCubbin, Local 304 business representative, did to develop contact lists and follow up on tree trimmers as Asplundh moved them around,” says Local 304 Business Manager John Garretson II.
Garretson and Local 1523 Business Manager Duane Nordick cooperated in keeping concerns over jurisdictional placement of new members from interfering with signing as many tree trimmers as possible.
“Our line clearance members really appreciated our efforts to communicate with them during contract negotiations,” Garretson says. Unprecedented outreach in person, by text and social media were essential, he says, because Asplundh was pushing for concessions, claiming that the Affordable Care Act was putting their LineCo benefit in jeopardy.
“We knew we had to do a better job contacting existing members of the bargaining unit and unsigned trimmers,” says Garretson. The issue was resolved with no added costs to members, but not without a fight.
“I told Asplundh’s personnel director the company actually helped us organize more members by arbitrarily moving trimmers from one show-up location to another to frustrate efforts to sign them and also by refusing to permit workers to speak to organizers during working hours,” Garretson says.
Those tactics, he says, forced the locals to work even harder to build solidarity and union density.
Membership Development Department International Representative Alan Freeman says organizing at Asplundh’s locations is continuing across the country.