Photo by Robert E Weston jr.
       A view of downtown Boise, Idaho, home of Local 291 and its face-growing telecommunications membership.

About 3,000 employees at DirecTV facilities across 13 states voted for IBEW representation and approved contracts in 2016, a major organizing win for a telecommunications industry that has weathered remarkable change over the last decade.

For many local unions, however, the hard work was just beginning. Five of the new bargaining units were in right-to-work states, meaning that leaders like Boise, Idaho, Local 291 Business Manager Mark Zaleski not only assumed additional jurisdictional duties, but also had to recruit the new members. Adding to his challenge, Local 291 was primarily a construction local, so he also needed to learn the new industry.

That’s where Jason Taylor, a DirecTV installer, came in. Zaleski hired him as a telecom representative and organizer in December 2016.

“Jason was the ringleader of the organizing movement here in Boise,” Zaleski said. “He really was the architect.”

Boise Local 291 senior steward Amanda Miller leads an orientation for new hires for DirecTV’s call center in Boise.

They worked with the rest of 291’s staff and members to develop a recruitment strategy at the DirecTV garage and call center in Boise. Thurs far, results have been impressive.

As of late June, 43 of the 48 installers and technicians at the garage are Local 291 members (89.5 percent). About 300 of the 490 employees at the call center, where there is a much higher level of turnover among workers, are members (61.2 percent).

“If you had told me three years ago we would be at 50 percent membership, I would have said no way,” Zaleski said. “I knew it was going to be a long chore. I could not be happier about the way it’s moved along.”

Taylor didn’t grow up in a union household. His father owned a pipe-fitting company. But he had worked as a DirecTV dish installer for 10 years and thought he and his co-workers deserved to be treated better, so he did his research.

He liked what he saw from the IBEW and urged his colleagues to seek representation for nearly two years prior to the vote, taking IBEW organizing training classes himself. An opening came in 2015, when DirecTV was purchased by AT&T. The IBEW has a long-standing relationship with the telecom giant across the U.S.

“We were able to hit the ground running pretty quickly and not have too many roadblocks,” he said.

AT&T agreed to allow Local 291 officials to meet with employees for 45 minutes during the new-hire orientation. Taylor and others found they spent most of that time answering questions about benefits, especially health insurance, so company officials agreed to extend the time to 90 minutes. That was a key early win.

“The longer we’re in there, the better success we have,” he said.

Convincing new employees to join still wasn’t easy. Less than 6 percent of Idaho’s workers are unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, sixth-lowest in the country. Unionization in neighboring Montana, which is not a right-to-work state, is more than 11 percent. Many of the new employees have been taught unions are a negative influence.

“You expect to hear that,” Zaleski said. “The good news is Boise is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, so not everyone here now grew up here hearing that. But it’s still a fight. We fight that perception every day.”

Taylor said a way to counter that idea is having stewards lead the training. They’ll be working next to new hires on a daily basis. Hearing about the value of the IBEW from a colleague instead of a Local 291 official is more powerful, he said.

“We’re making sure the folks doing the work are spreading the message,” he said.

Amanda Miller, the senior chief steward at the call center, does just that.

Miller grew up in Boise and had little understanding of unions. But as the vote approached, a friend working in management told her union representation might be a good thing for both sides because there would be no surprises. Every issue would be guided by a written contract.

That caught Miller’s attention. She liked that a manager with an ax to grind would not be able impose discipline on his or her own. Procedures would be followed. There would be a scheduled pay-raise system instead of arbitrary raises being given.

“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had a great experience with the company,” she said. “But I also know there’s another side to that and not everyone has.”

Miller and other stewards lead a game when meeting with new hires called “Fact or Crap,” where stewards post a series of 25 scenarios about unions. The group responds by telling if they are true or false. Taylor said the mood is light and there’s plenty of laughter, but the exercise also is informative and counters any misconceptions.

“We usually don’t have a lot of questions after that,” he said.

By that point, many of the participants are ready to join. Taylor and his stewards tell the ones who aren’t they will contact them again. Sometimes, it’s the next day. Some decide to join when they see the majority of the workforce wearing Local 291 shirts.

“Education and being able to communicate effectively is so important to us,” he said. “You’re trying to inspire others to jump up and be at the front of the pack, not the back of the pack. You can’t organize from the back, you have to organize from the front of the pack. A vast majority of our success is that focus on getting that engagement from the beginning.”

If a new employee still decides not to join, Taylor asks him or her to return the membership package they were provided with because it cost Local 291 $16-20 to put each one together. That gives him and the stewards another chance to explain the value of Local 291 membership.

Miller said even if a fellow employee continues to hold out, she encourages members to treat them as valued co-workers and not as outcasts. Now, she’s seeing more longtime employees agreeing to join. Growth in numbers isn’t as dependent on new hires, she said.

“In order to get them to understand the value and find out why people might want to join, you have to make a friend,” she said. “You get to know them and maybe their families. You find out what they enjoy.”

Both Taylor and Miller said having a good relationship with management helps, too. Miller works as a customer’s solution associate, a role that allows her and others in her department to point out potential problems to employees before they get to their superiors. Management appreciates their role, she said.

Local 291 was featured in a recent IBEW Code of Excellence video. A panel consisting of Local 291 members and manager hears disciplinary appeals, including termination. Approximately 80 percent of Local 291 members who have appealed a dismissal have kept their jobs at the end of the process. Better yet, the company reports a 100 percent success rate for the employees allowed to return, Taylor said.

Taylor added that he’s learned plenty from the leadership of Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21, one of the IBEW’s leading telecom locals. Both Local 21 and Local 291 are part of the T-3 AT&T System Council.

“We’ve told the company that you’ll always know our position and we will not hit you with any surprises,” he said. “We’re always going to act with integrity.”

Because Local 291’s success hinges on a simple strategy of mutual respect between employees and peers and the union and management, it’s no coincidence, they say, that membership continues to grow.