Terry Waters and his fellow Frontier technicians in southwestern Alabama and western Florida weren’t upset with their employer or working conditions. They did, however, think they could do better.

A group of Frontier technicians in southern Alabama and western Florida voted to accept IBEW representation and recently approved a first contract.
Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Mike Mozart.

That’s why they turned to the IBEW and Pensacola, Fla., Local 676 for help. It ended up being the right move for all involved.

The Frontier workers’ bargaining group was certified by the National Labor Relations Board in March of last year and ratified its first agreement on April 18, adding 26 new members in a part of the country with a reputation for being notoriously difficult to organize.

“Here we are in Alabama, and not only did they want to join a union, they hung together for 13 months to fight for a contract,” said Robert Prunn, an international representative in the Telecommunications Department. “That proves what [International President Lonnie R.] Stephenson has said all along: ‘We can win in the South.’”

Everyone involved in the successful effort – including Prunn, Local 676 Business Manager Dale Cope and Fifth District International Representative Clay Leon – gave Waters a lion’s share of the credit. He’s nearing retirement after working 37 years in telecommunications, including for companies that preceded Frontier’s takeover of his division. But in an act of solidarity, he was determined to improve conditions for his colleagues before he left.

Waters had a plenty of help from his co-workers, adding that convincing them of the need for union representation was “an easy sell.”

“To be honest with you, the company has always treated us well,” said Waters, who will serve as a steward in the new bargaining unit. “But we have noticed that when some of our people were sent to different parts of the country to work because of storm damage or whatever, they would come back and say, “Man, a lot of guys we worked with were union and they were awesome.’ ”

So, Waters and the other employees did some research. They learned the union-represented employees had contracts that included a grievance and arbitration system. Those contracts included guidelines on how to handle layoffs in a telecommunications industry that continues to downsize. They realized such protections would be nice to have in Alabama, a right-to-work state that allows employers to hire and fire employees at will.

Pay overall was competitive within the industry, but they were frustrated Frontier would not agree to a written wage scale. Employees with the same level of experience received different levels of pay, with no explanation from the company.

“We’ve never had a seat at the table to negotiate health care or layoffs or anything to protect us,” he said.

Waters said he contacted the IBEW because it has a long-standing relationship with Frontier. A representative from the Telecommunications Department replied to his email within minutes, he said.

“They were Johnny on the spot,” he said.

Waters and the rest of the Frontier employees voted 23-4 for representation (the unit had 27 employees at the time), but the nearest telecommunications local was more than two hours away.

Local 676 was just 45 minutes to the south, but it is a construction union. Cope’s role primarily has been finding work for his construction members. He said he knew he and Leon – who also comes from a construction background – would need some help in securing the contract. Prunn made several trips from the International Office in Washington to speak with the Frontier workers and lead negotiations.

“My attitude was, if I can help the cause and bring our brothers into the labor movement, I’ll welcome them with open arms,” Cope said. “We’ll do what we can.”

It’s safe to say the effort was a success. The newly-organized Frontier employees agreed to a 4-year contract that guarantees them a voice on the job. Among the items addressed were seniority, short and long-term disability, just cause for discipline, grievance and arbitration.

The vote to approve was 21-0 with five employees not voting. The newly-organized Frontier employees work out of the Alabama cities of Atmore, Camden and Monroeville and Molino, Fla.

“After all the hard work you put into it, when you have a unanimous vote like that, you really feel good,” Cope said. “The message came across and they clearly understood it. It was such a great pleasure to work with Robert. I learned a lot and it’s helped me become a better business manager.”

Leon, who previously served as business manager at New Orleans Local 130, noted the main responsibility for a construction business manager in negotiations is to find work for his or her members. They normally aren’t involved in negotiating items like seniority, and they’re usually dealing with several different companies at once.

That’s why having someone with a telecommunications background like Prunn was crucial, he said. So was having an engaged potential membership led by Waters.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get him into the IBEW earlier,” Leon said. “He’s a very sharp guy and just a credit to the industry. He would have been a great leader for us.”

In the end, that teamwork led to a win in the South.

“This win is especially rewarding to me,” Stephenson said. “A group of employees determined to make things better for themselves and their families came together and our staff and a local business manager stepped up when they asked for help. It doesn’t get much better than that. I want to thank everyone involved and welcome our new brothers and sisters to the IBEW.”