As the president of El Paso, Texas, Local 960, Rene Ortega has been ushering in a lot of changes. The union is more active in the community, and it even won a ballot initiative in 2022 that was crucial to its members. But the one thing he might be most proud of is organizing his mom.
|Local 960 President Rene Ortega swore in new members on Nov. 2, including his mother Norah and her fellow streetlight analysts.
"None of this would have been possible without her," said Ortega, who's been a lineman with El Paso Electric for nine years and also got his nephew to join the trade. "She's the reason I'm in the company. She put me on the right path, and now I can repay her with representation."
Ortega's mother, Norah Jeddery, works as a streetlight analyst. She and the others in her unit — all women — are responsible for acting as liaisons between the company and residential customers, government agencies, contractors and engineers. The unit works on securing contracts, preparing design work, and coordinating the construction and installation or removal of security and street lights.
"They go above and beyond with the customers," Ortega said. "They're the ones with their hands in the communities."
Despite the importance of their work, management wasn't always on their side. Job duties and descriptions were changed without their input, there was no grievance process, and wage increases seemed to be arbitrarily doled out. One woman even had to write a letter justifying why she should get a promotion, said Business Manager Eddie Trevizo.
"They were bullied instead of being taken seriously," he said. "I know we've come a long way, but there are still a lot of hurdles that women encounter. It broke my heart when I heard their stories."
Last spring, it wasn't just the streetlight analysts looking for representation. Employees from other departments were interested, too. But like a lot of workers in an organizing campaign, things got in the way. Some couldn't commit the time. A lot more were scared of losing their jobs. But Jeddery and her fellow analysts stuck with it, even though they harbored doubts as well.
"It was stressful for all of us," Jeddery said. "At times we asked ourselves if we were doing the right thing. But through it all, we remained strong and united, and we just kept going."
By all accounts, it was that solidarity, that strength of sisterhood, that assured Trevizo, Ortega, and organizers Letty Marcum and Robert Sample that these women were in it to win.
"There was a lot of frustration and a lot of phone calls. But the more I listened, the more they made me want to fight for them," said Marcum, who is now the business manager at El Paso Local 583. "Those guys tried to intimidate them, but they stood their ground."
At one point, they even reached out to the National Labor Relations Board about the actions of some supervisors. Fortunately, Trevizo said, once they did and the company found out, the actions were shut down.
"We were ready to file for an election or use the Cemex decision from the NLRB, but it never came to that," Sample said of the recent ruling that makes it harder for employers to interfere in organizing campaigns.
In the end, they got voluntary recognition. The entire campaign took about six months.
"This campaign should be an example to all that when there is an IBEW contract already in place and there are other departments that aren't represented, there is always the potential to organize those groups into the existing contracts," Sample said. "If we keep educating workers at these locations, we can guide them to the representation they deserve."
Thanks to that education, Jeddery and her fellow unit members now have a voice on the job and the power of the IBEW behind them. As Sample and the others noted, the bulk of the credit goes to the women who stood tall in the face of fierce opposition.
"As a woman in a male-dominated field, it was great to see them with an attitude of 'They are not going to break us,'" Marcum said. "I love these girls. I am so proud of them."
While negotiations for Jeddery and her fellow analysts were ongoing as of press time, there's hope for a strong contract. Trevizo and Ortega negotiated theirs for linemen last year and came out with no losses in vacation time and a 24% raise over the next five years.
"It's the best we could have gotten by far, maybe in the last 40 years," Trevizo said.
Jeddery's unit, while small, may have started a domino effect. Already there's been talk among other employees about joining.
"I really give it to these ladies. They've shown everyone what's possible," said Ortega, who had the honor of swearing in his mother at their November meeting. "Now our goal is the whole company."