The Swedish company Electrolux opened its Memphis factory in 2014. The election victory last September was one of the largest in recent memory below the Mason-Dixon line for organized labor.
Winning a first contract less than a year later proves that labor can win in the South.  

The three-year first contract that will bring 710 new members to Memphis, Tenn., Local 474 was negotiated by Business Manager Paul Shaffer, Marvin Grant, Victor Jones, Stanley Reese, Jocko Williams, Manufacturing Department Director Randy Middleton and, in front, Jaquita Ledlow.

Less than a year after one of the largest organizing victories in the South, the workers at the Memphis, Tenn., Electrolux plant overwhelmingly voted to accept a first contract. 

The Sept. 16 acceptance of the contract means Memphis Local 474 will add 710 new members.

“It’s a huge victory,” said Business Manager Paul Shaffer. “It’s great for our new members who’ve had zero voice on any issues on the job and it is great for workers in the South because it means this is possible for them too.”

The three-year contract was negotiated by Electrolux workers Stanley Reese, Jocko Williams, Victor Jones, Jaquita Ledlow and Marvin Grant as well as Manufacturing Department Director Randy Middleton, Shaffer and Local 474 Assistant Business Manager Kenneth Ingram.

“I give a lot of credit to the negotiating committee,” Middleton said. “None of them had been part of a negotiation before. Only one had been a member of a union. But from the very beginning, with the company and with their co-workers, they presented themselves very professionally and earned the respect and credibility to get a deal.”

The southwest Memphis plant makes high-end commercial and residential stoves and ranges that cost from $2,000 to more than $10,000 for the Swedish company. It was one of the highest profile economic development projects in the city when it opened three years ago. The company received state and local subsidies worth nearly $180 million to build the factory, according to an investigation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

The new members of Memphis, Tenn., Local 474 build high end stoves that cost from $2,000 to $10,000. In addition to defining wages, benefits and the grievance system, the contract creates committees to improve training, safety and labor-management relations.

The Electrolux workers voted to join in union last September, after a two-year, two-vote organizing drive involving dozens of Electrolux workers, IBEW organizers from across the country and union activists from Sweden to ensure victory.

The 2015 organizing drive was failed by 59 votes but the company was penalized multiple times for violating labor laws and the volunteer organizing committee never stopped working.

They found a new supporter in IF Metall, the union that represents Electrolux workers in Sweden. The leadership of IF Metall demanded the company honor the global neutrality agreement it had signed with the union and that local management cease interfering with the organizing drive. IF Metall’s leadership also recorded a video supporting the organizing drive that was distributed by the IBEW before the vote.

“I credit IF Metall a lot. They put pressure on the parent company and kept their finger on the pulse of these negotiations,” said Tenth District International Vice President Brent Hall.

Contentious elections often lead to difficult first contract negotiations. If a union loses an organizing election, it can very often turn around and hold another. It took two elections at Electrolux, five at BGE, the Baltimore utility organized this year.

Negotiating committee member and volunteer organizer Stanley Reese was one of the leaders of the successful organizing drive one year ago. Now, said Tenth District International Vice President Brent Hall, the challenge is convert the supporters into members in this right-to-work state.

But if a union vote is successful and the company resists signing a contract, it can kill future organizing attempts.

“If they beat you at election, it is a loss. If you win and they stall you on a contract, you can’t ever get out from under that. So, I give Electrolux credit for seeing that we have our members’ best interests and the company’s best interests in mind,” Hall said. “We want to be partners and they saw that.”

Shaffer, Hall and Middleton all said that the contract will not only transform the lives of the workers inside the plant, it has the potential to affect many more lives outside the factory walls.

First, for workers at other factories considering organizing, a signed contract is far more convincing than any election victory.

“Once word gets out that we got a deal, I expect to hear from people at other locations,” Shaffer said. “And soon.”

They also believe that there is a message that will echo through the IBEW.

“For a long time, we weren’t going after big groups. With this and BGE, it’s clear we can win anywhere with anybody. I give International President Stephenson a lot of credit for making that change and putting up the resources needed to win and we can thank Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland for creating the strategies to make it stick,” Middleton said. “We can aim big. We can win contracts, and, if we can do it in Memphis, we can do it anywhere.”