Speaking at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, IBEW International Vice President Lonnie Stephenson, left, and TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson announce a historic Code of Excellence partnership. 

Embracing the IBEW’s Code of Excellence, the Tennessee Valley Authority and its union workforce announced a historic partnership Feb. 6, intended to strengthen shared values and inspire new levels of cooperation between labor and management

A TVA official leads IBEW leaders on a tour of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, where officials rolled out a Code of Excellence program Tuesday, Feb. 6. Directly behind him are IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson, right, and Tenth District Vice President Brent Hall.

“I’ve had the chance to see the Code implemented at workplaces across the country,” said IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson, announcing the COE agreement. “And I know it works because I’ve seen it in action. I’ve seen how it brings employers and employees together to not only increase productivity, but to increase pride and respect.”

Joined by TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson and representatives from the Laborers, Pipefitters, Boilermakers, Machinists, Teamsters and Operating Engineers, Stephenson made his remarks (See video here) at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in eastern Tennessee, one of approximately 60 TVA worksites spanning seven states from Virginia to Mississippi.

The nation’s largest government-owned power provider, TVA employs about 2,500 IBEW members as permanent employees at worksites that include nuclear, oil and gas, hydroelectric and solar plants. Thousands more IBEW members do short-term work each year for TVA upgrading infrastructure and performing regular maintenance.

Johnson said TVA has had a “really good partnership” with labor for more than 80 years, and the COE can make it even better. While he expects trades and crafts journeymen to continue to strive for the highest quality and greatest productivity, he also expects his “professional managers at TVA to make sure we have the resources, plans and environment where people can do their best work.”

A committee will hammer out COE language specific to TVA, but the core of the Code is well known to IBEW members: an unyielding commitment to the highest standards of safety, professionalism, accountability and quality, and to forging labor-management relationships that open lines of communication and help everyone excel.

“The Code’s values are the values we all share as IBEW members, the values we share as members of the labor movement, and the values held by every member of the TVA Annual Council,” Stephenson said.

The process leading to February's rollout began about a year ago with discussions between Tenth District International Vice President Brent Hall and TVA executives about various workplace issues, including a backlog of grievances.

Hall urged TVA to look into the Code of Excellence adopted by Florida Power & Light in 2011. After implementation, the utility saw reportable accidents drop sharply, its pile of grievances shrink and workers’ morale rise.

That’s what can happen, Hall said, when you empower lower-level union and management representatives to try to resolve problems without starting higher up the chain of command.The process can be applied to individual cases – a chronically tardy employee, for example – as well as to larger issues such as safety and shift assignments.

“It’s been our experience that when you have onsite labor relations, with mid-level management and the union working together at that site, the problems don’t end up downtown,” Hall said. “It’s better for management, and it gives workers a voice in the decision-making. It’s not some mandate from some office in some building far away.”

That’s especially valuable, he said, for a multi-union workforce at so many TVA worksites spread across 80,000 square miles.

“Each site has its own specific issues,” Hall said. “A plant manager may be fine letting his guys have a say, except that he’s handcuffed by some company-wide letter. We’re trying to get back to letting management and local union representatives fix their problems at home.”

The Code won’t usurp the authority of top-level corporate or union leadership, and some issues still inevitably end up in their hands, Hall said – just not as many, as he explained to TVA management.

“I told them my goal for this program is for all of us not to have a job,” he said with a chuckle. “They had a look of horror. But I explained myself – that it’s great when problems don’t have to reach our level, to see guys working through their own issues. When they don’t agree, that’s when we step in.”

Once the committee of TVA and union representatives work out the nuts and bolts, the IBEW will conduct COE training for members of all seven unions involved. “That will be a road show that will probably go on for quite a while,” said Keith Craig, an international representative in the Tenth District who spent 24 years at TVA. “There will be trials and errors and lessons learned and they’ll tweak it as needed.”

If the COE is a success, Stephenson said, “labor and management across this country will look to the TVA to see what you’ve built and draw inspiration.

“They will see a workplace where unions and management aren’t adversaries, but partners, a workplace where management respects its employees and listens to what they have to say,” he said. “They will see that a joint commitment to making our jobs and our workplaces the best they can be produces real results – for employers, employees and the communities we serve.

“When they witness what you have achieved– at one of America’s most celebrated institutions – your example will raise the bar for excellence at workplaces across this nation.”