More than 500 Long Beach, Calif., municipal workers are newly represented by Diamond Bar Local 47 after a multi-year effort to join the IBEW.
|The new members fill nearly every job that keeps the city of nearly 500,000 and one of the nation’s busiest ports going from gas to fleet to road work.
The members of the Association of Long Beach Employees chose in July to affiliate with Local 47 by a nearly 95% vote. That same day, nearly half of the workers who had not been paying dues but were represented by ALBE, nearly 50 in all, signed cards to become full members of the IBEW. Today, more than 90% of the unit are members of the IBEW, up from a low of 65% after the Supreme Court's Janus ruling made every public workplace in the U.S. a right-to-work shop.
"People are willing to pay for it if they feel like they are getting good representation," said Mike Clark, president of ALBE and senior equipment operator for the Long Beach municipal utility. "In the association, we were only getting so far, and people weren't getting what they need."
ALBE had been an independent employee association, unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO, representing workers in 11 departments including gas, water, sewer, street lighting, public works, fleet and general maintenance as well as at the harbor and the port. They'd hired a law firm to handle grievances and negotiations, but only part-time, and the association wasn't developing relationships with the city, the mayor and the city council.
"We did the best we could, but in the next negotiations, the city was going to eat us up," Clark said. "Without those connections, we became an adversary."
Clark developed a relationship with Local 47 assistant business manager Dick Reed years back, when Reed was president of Los Angeles Local 11. But it wasn't until this spring that the association's leaders were in a position to make the final case to the membership.
They reached out to Ninth District International Vice President John O'Rourke, who decided that Local 47 was the logical future home for ALBE because, in addition to its thousands of utility members, it represents public workers in nearly a half-dozen municipalities, including Anaheim, Banning, Big Bear, Vernon and Riverside. Plus, business manager and International Executive Council member Pat Lavin has, O'Rourke said, "a voracious appetite for organizing."
With O'Rourke's support, Lavin hired Reed to work under Local 47 Organizing Director Colin Lavin. Reed had shepherded four municipal associations into affiliations with the IBEW previously, including the 2015 drive when 4,200 members of the Los Angeles Engineers and Architects Association affiliated with Local 11. Lavin had overseen the affiliation of the municipal workers of the city of Irvine.
"I am not interested in going after associations that don't want to affiliate, but we have something to offer," Lavin said. "We are unions of attraction, not promotion. We have success because people see our results."
But the past record bringing independent associations into the IBEW was no guarantee of success. ALBE may be small, but it was theirs, Clark said. Not every member of the ALBE leadership was convinced at first about the wisdom of affiliating with the IBEW.
"Other associations take note when people come to us, but let's not think they didn't look around at other groups," O'Rourke said. "Dick is the consummate organizer, and I give all credit to Pat for bringing this team together and bringing this home."
Reed said they made a four-part pitch, and, even though state and federal labor rules did not require a vote of the membership, he insisted that a vote be taken before the agreement was sealed. He's done the same with every affiliation drive he has been involved in.
First, Reed said, the IBEW has the kind of political relationships that make a difference. Second, it is simply large enough to be more efficient at providing services to the membership. Third, that scale also allows the union to have a national perspective on work outlooks, wages and benefits, and Local 47's decades of political involvement means members also sit on water boards, public utility commissions, state bodies and other standard-setting boards that decide on policy.
Finally, Reed said, Local 47 and the IBEW in California can't be intimidated in negotiations for a simple reason: "Our negotiators can't be fired by the city because they don't work there," he said. "We have the time, the energy and the expertise to be formidable counterweights to the city itself."
Clark said even his father, a now-retired lifelong member of Operating Engineers Local 12, supported the decision to go with the IBEW.
"He said 'You can't go wrong with the IBEW. They get us every time we have a fight,'" Clark said.
Under the four-year affiliation agreement signed between ALBE and the IBEW, 99.5% of dues go to the IBEW, and ALBE itself can be dissolved at any time during the duration of the agreement. But, while contract negotiations are underway with the city, ALBE will remain.
|Independent associations like ALBE represent nearly 5 million people nationwide, and many of them are facing the same difficulties representing their member post-JANUS.
"If we were to be full IBEW members and dissolve ALBE now, the city would see it as a decertification and push negotiations for eight months to a year," Clark said. "They are always looking for a reason to slow things down."
Clark, Reed, O'Rourke and Lavin all said they have been contacted by other independent employee associations since the election results were announced. There are more than 5 million people in independent associations in the U.S. and more than 200,000 in California alone. O'Rourke said he sees a tremendous opportunity.
"Post-Janus, a lot of these associations are looking for help. They see how strong we are as an organization, and they are looking for someone who will stand with them, who has the structure and ability to meet their needs and help them with internal organizing," he said. "If we want to get back to a million members, every opportunity needs to be chased."
For Clark, one of the best parts of joining the IBEW was being given the choice.
"It was actually really nice to pick a union, the one that was the best for our group," Clark said. "And of course, go with the strongest one."