Facing Opposition, Ill. Sears Techs Ratify First Contract
February 14, 2013
Years of management favoritism, lack of respect on the job and the threat of declining wages had been wearing on hundreds of Sears service technicians in the upper Midwest for years.
But times are changing. Following a dynamic organizing campaign that tapped the courage of employees and the know-how of seven IBEW locals in and near Illinois, 345 skilled workers are now covered by their first union-negotiated contract.
The new IBEW members – who voted to join Chicago Local 134 in September 2011 – ratified the two-year agreement Jan. 20 by a large majority.
“For me personally, it means I can now work with a little more security,” said Local 134 member Pierre Powell, who has 33 years on the job:
There’s more fairness now.
At the bargaining table, IBEW leaders said that Sears initially put forth a proposal that could have slashed members’ pay by as much as 40 percent.
“They played hardball,” said Local 134 Rich Murphy, who serves as special assistant to the local’s business manager. Murphy helped handle negotiations:
It was contentious. But we were able to keep wages at a fair level, introduce the opportunity for bonuses, get a grievance procedure in place and establish seniority. It’s a starting point for these employees.
Powell, who was part of the negotiating committee, agreed:
We had a good strategy and showed perseverance. We spent more than a year working on the contract. As time went on, there was less hostility, and now we have something we can build on.
Both parties agreed to go back to bargain over wages in one year, with rates remaining steady for now. All other tenets of the contract run until Jan. 20, 2015.
Maintaining momentum throughout the negotiation process proved challenging, as the employees are spread out across the top quarter of the state.
But a creative fusion of tried-and-true methods and cutting-edge technology bridged the gap and helped build community and foster dialogue between employees, who perform maintenance and service on everything from dishwashers and home appliances to heavy-duty tractor equipment and more.
Organizers and members communicated through online forums, chat rooms and over conference calls – meeting when they could at IBEW locals across the region for face-to-face strategy sessions.
“The most important factor in our success was the way we used modern technology,” Murphy said:
I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and despite the challenges, it was one of the finest campaigns and bargaining sessions I’ve ever had the fortune to be a part of.
Murphy said special help from Sixth District International Organizing Coordinator Jeff Radjewski, Region 3 Lead Organizers Mike Green and Steve Fosness and Indiana State Organizing Coordinator Jim Dotson was instrumental.
“From the very beginning, they were involved in this and helped make it a success,” Murphy said.
Cooperation and communication between the IBEW locals was crucial, too. Organizer Abe Rodriguez said that numerous locals in Illinois helped by offering places for workers to meet on weekends and by providing input on the contract’s legal language. “It was a team effort all around,” he said.
Powell said that in spite of management pushback, it was the unity of workers standing together on the job, during organizing and through negotiations that cinched the contract win. Numerous other Sears professionals in the U.S. and Canada have joined the IBEW and are waging campaigns for fair contracts – and Powell said that his bargaining unit’s victory bodes well for his fellow members’ efforts.
We’re professionals, and we want to be a premier company. I’m satisfied with what the IBEW has done for us.
We didn’t get everything we wanted, but I still think the vote was a big success. You’ve got to start somewhere. The point now is that we’re in the door, and we want to get as many of our co-workers involved with the union process. We’ve got to keep the momentum going.
Illinois locals contributing to the campaign's success included: Chicago Local 9, Elgin Local 117, Chicago Local 134, Waukegan Local 150, Aurora Local 461 and Lisle Local 701. Also participating was Louisville, Ky., Local 369.
Read more about the Sears workers’ organizing win in the December 2011 issue of the Electrical Worker, and watch video testimonies from workers here.