Fed up with their deteriorating office environment, a majority of the employees at a utility call center in Connecticut recently voted to join the IBEW in a united effort to improve their working conditions.
“It was blatantly obvious there was no support structure up there,” said Meriden, Conn., Local 457 Business Manager Keith Harris.
“Up there” is Windsor, Conn., a northern Hartford suburb. It’s the location of a call center for Eversource Energy, New England’s largest energy company, providing electrical and gas service to customers in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts. More than 200 workers there field and answer a variety of phoned-in questions about customers’ services and bills.
“We had attempted to organize the call center in 2009,” said Harris, but a series of issues prevented it from happening. A second try a few years later by a nearby Utility Workers Union of America local also fell short.
But since then, “There was lots of movement [toward organizing],” Harris said. The workers were tired of being talked down to, he said. Disrespect was rampant.
A key complaint stemmed from Eversource’s pay-for-performance scheme. “It’s a horrible system,” Harris said, because it tends to incentivize call-volume quantity over call-handling quality — and that, in turn, can often foster unfair favoritism from managers.
There also were strictly-monitored limits on the amount of time workers could be away from their workstations, Harris said, and managers permitted only two bathroom breaks per day.
Eventually, someone in the call center decided enough was enough and phoned the IBEW’s International Office in Washington, D.C., to ask for help with a third run at an organizing campaign. The I.O. referred the caller to Steve Smith, the organizing representative for the Second District, who got in touch with center workers directly and set up a meeting.
“Steve jumped right on it,” Harris said, “and it just took off from there.”
Local 457’s Assistant Business Manager Scott McCoy collaborated with Smith to helped the center set up an e-mail list, and he enlisted assistance from the Membership Development Department to create a special website, ibew457callcenter.com, to provide center workers with information about the union.
“But as in every successful campaign, the workers were the ones who drove it,” Smith said. They held organizing meetings once a week for more than two months.
“Sometimes 10 people would come, sometimes 20,” he said. “And it seemed like someone always brought someone new with them.”
At the same time, Smith said, members from several other IBEW locals pitched in to help with door knocks and phone calls; some even offered the use of their union halls for organizing meetings.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said, “and the most remarkable thing is how we get help just by asking.”
Some of Eversource’s line and generation workers in other parts of the company are represented by IBEW and UWUA locals, which helped demonstrate to undecided call center workers the benefits of union membership. “They compared that with what they were getting in a nonunion world,” Harris said.
Not surprisingly, Eversource pushed back against the organizing drive, Harris said. “The company started an anti-union campaign,” he said. It brought in union-busters and mandated frequent meetings between organizers and some of the company’s vice presidents.
Eversource is a Fortune 500 company that earned nearly a billion dollars in 2017, Harris said, and the center’s workers easily saw through the company’s efforts.
“The direction the business is going drives workers into the union,” he said. “They wondered why the company was spending so much money trying to get them not to join.”
The company’s union-busting attempts also had an unintended effect: they made the IBEW’s organizing campaign a little easier. “After every meeting, more cards were signed,” Harris said. “It was the fastest campaign I’ve ever been a part of.”
When the call center workers held an election on August 14, nearly two-thirds of the 223 workers eligible to vote cast ballots in favor of petitioning the National Labor Relations Board to be represented by Local 457.
Harris cautioned, however, that the process is just beginning. “Our last contract with Eversource took three years to hammer out,” he said.
A meeting in September explained what stewards are and how they are appointed, how negotiations will work, how the negotiation committee will be chosen, and more. “We have been identifying leaders in the group,” Harris said.
“The mission isn’t complete until these folks are part of the membership of the IBEW,” he said. “That work is just getting started.”
The business manager was grateful for the amount of help he received from several key players at the district level. “Vice President Mike Monahan gave his Second District a mission to organize that was very effectively articulated,” he said. “It’s an ongoing push, and his drive and his leadership style are definitely inspirational.
“It works because we’re all in it together,” Harris said
Second District Organizing Representative Smith recognized the persistence of Local 457’s members and the assistance they received from nearby IBEW brothers and sisters at Hartford Locals 35, 42, and 1040; Waterbury, Conn., Local 420; Springfield, Mass., Local 455; Manchester, Maine, Local 1837; and Cranston, R.I., Local 2323
Smith also highlighted the work from Second District International Representative Mike D’Amico and District Organizing Coordinator Jeffrey Wimette, along with State Organizing Coordinator Scott Munson. And he recognized the contributions of Education Department International Representative Craig Duffy, Third District Local Organizer Maria Vooris and of Steve Rockafellow, regional organizing coordinator for the Second and Third Districts.
Chartered in 1972, Local 457 — now about 1,200 members strong — administers nearly a dozen different collective-bargaining agreements covering employees at public utilities operated by the towns of Wallingford and Norwich, as well as workers at several other gas, electric and water utilities aside from Eversource Energy, including FirstLight Power Resources and NRG Energy.