The Electrical Worker online
October 2019

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to
Delaware, Oregon Step In to Protect Public Employees

The IBEW joined with other unions in two states — one on the East Coast, the other on the West — to pass legislation that strengthens public employee unions following last year's Janus decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The laws were passed and signed into law in Delaware and Oregon. Last year, in a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed more than 40 years of judicial precedent in Janus v. AFSCME, ruling that members of public employee unions no longer were required to pay membership fees even though they received all the benefits of a collectively bargained contract.

In Delaware, Wilmington Local 2270 helped other unions and allies pass legislation that gives greater protection to public sector unions and allows more state employees to collectively bargain. It was signed into law by Gov. John Carney on May 30.

The IBEW does not have a large public employee presence in Delaware, but Local 2270 represents about 60 mechanics and service personnel at the Delaware Transit Corporation and 125 school crossing guards in New Castle.

"Every little bit helps," Business Manager Frank Gentry said. "The [state AFL-CIO] really supported this legislation and we were happy to help out."

The leadership of Wilmington Local 313, the largest IBEW construction local in Delaware, also assisted in the passage of legislation that provides training for workers employed by contractors and subcontractors on public works projects. Carney signed that into law during the Delaware Building and Construction Trades Council's apprenticeship graduation banquet on June 7.

Oregon legislators also took action in response to the Janus decision, passing greater protections for public-employee unions. Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law in July. Portland Locals 48 and 125 and Medford Local 659 all represent public employees in the state.

The law would require public employers to grant "reasonable paid time" to union officials in the bargaining unit to conduct union business; make it easier for employees to opt into union membership by either email or telephone; and require employers to provide union representatives with employees' contact information.

On the national level, House and Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would give public-sector employees collective bargaining rights under federal law — something the 21 million government employees currently do not have. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania introduced the bill, called the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act.

"Our public employee members are a vital part of the IBEW, and I'm pleased that states around the country are providing tools that allows us to represent them in a first-class manner," Government Employees Director Paul O'Connor said. "The Janus ruling was a blow, but the IBEW has thrived for more than a century because we meet the challenges in front of us. This is no different."


Delaware Gov. John Carney signed legislation that strengthens public unions in response to the Supreme Court's Janus decision.

Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user DelDHSS

Study: West Virginia's Prevailing Wage Repeal
Lowers Wages, Not Costs

Students at Mountain Valley Elementary School in southern West Virginia's Mercer County were forced to wait more than a month beyond the start of the school year for their facility's grand opening. Construction delays were at fault, the state's Affiliated Construction Trades reported in August.

At Ravenswood High School, along the state's border with Ohio, not even a lapsed license could keep a million-dollar renovation project away from the low-bidding subcontractor, who also had failed to keep current on workers' compensation and unemployment insurance coverage.

Before 2016, public works projects in West Virginia stood a better chance of being finished by qualified contractors on time and on budget thanks to the fair wages and standards demanded by the Mountain State's prevailing wage law. But that year, the state's overwhelmingly anti-labor Legislature repealed the 80-year-old law, and perhaps unsurprisingly, problems with public works projects have been multiplying ever since.

"Too many businesses and politicians claim that prevailing wage laws prevent them from saving time and money on public works projects," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "But over the last 20 years, study after study has found that prevailing wage laws actually prevent expensive delays and costly do-overs by putting those projects in the hands of fairly compensated and highly trained construction trades workers."

Prevailing wage laws set a fair standard of pay and benefits for contractors and workers that stays in line with what local businesses normally would provide for similar private sector work. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have prevailing wage laws for public works projects. Most are modeled after the U.S.'s Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which calls for such wages on federally funded projects.

In West Virginia, a recent study published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City looked at dozens of public works projects there over the past three years and concluded that the 2016 repeal of prevailing wage "has had negative impacts for West Virginia's construction workers, contractors, and communities while failing to deliver any meaningful cost savings."

Having witnessed the effects of prevailing wage repeal around the country, construction trades activists from the IBEW and other unions in West Virginia fought for years against business interests that lobbied lawmakers and backed the election campaigns of anti-labor candidates who pushed repeal in the Mountain State.

"When all the talk of repeal was going on, we were warning everybody that lower wages and benefits would make bad contractors more competitive," said Charleston, W.Va., Local 466 Business Manager John Epperly.

Not only did Epperly's prediction come true, after prevailing wage was repealed in 2016, the study found that scores of skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen chose to drive hours away in pursuit of more lucrative prevailing wage jobs in neighboring Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania. (Kentucky repealed prevailing wage in 2017; Virginia has never had it.)

The study further found that, since 2016 and accounting for inflation, average wage growth in the trades slowed by as much as 8% when compared with similar salaries in those bordering prevailing-wage states. Apprenticeship enrollment dropped by nearly 28% in the same time frame, with low-bidders reluctant to invest in training for low-skilled, out-of-state workers. Worse, the on-the-job injury rate among West Virginia's construction workers shot up by 26%.

The cost savings repeatedly promised by repeal proponents never materialized. A School Board Authority analysis of 107 West Virginia school construction projects found that average school project costs remained roughly the same since repeal ($255 per square foot) as they had been before repeal ($252 per square foot), with expensive project re-do's and missed deadlines all but wiping out low bids.

Epperly said that a good number of Local 466's signatory contractors are merely surviving these days, instead of thriving as they had been before repeal. He believes, though, that as more stories like the ones out of Mercer County and Ravenwood come to light, it can only help electrical workers and others in the construction trades to bolster their case for bringing prevailing wage back to West Virginia.

The next opportunity to do so will come when the state's 2020 legislative session gets underway in January. Bringing back prevailing wage with the current, mostly anti-union Legislature in power could prove difficult, Epperly said.

"Democrats are out numbered 59-41 in the House [of Delegates] and 20-14 in the Senate," he said, "which gives you an idea how close we are."

But fortunately during the 2018 midterms, "Democrats managed to take back four seats in the House and two in the Senate," Epperly said, something that raises his optimism about the chances that more friends of organized labor and the construction trades will be rewarded with seats in the lawmaking bodies during next year's general election. "A lot more seats are winnable."

"Prevailing wages bring better jobs, better working conditions and a better quality of life for all of us," Stephenson said. "In places where it's been repealed or where it's threated to be, let your candidates know prevailing wage is a working people's issue, not a political one — and that electrical workers always remember on Election Day who's been in our corner, and who hasn't."


Education programs, like the "I'm In" campaign, where workers reaffirm their commitment to the IBEW, are helping locals that represent public sector workers fight against union-busting efforts in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision.

Union-Busting App Backed by Billionaires

It's an important signal that unions are working when the rich and powerful spend billions trying to silence them.

A new web tool claiming to allow public employees to opt out of paying membership fees with one click is the latest big-dollar attempt by anti-labor special interests to muzzle working people and starve unions of their power.

"Our enemies haven't found a way to beat us yet, but that isn't stopping them from trying," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "That they're so clearly threatened by any organization which works to balance power between working people and management should only strengthen our resolve to keep fighting."

The same anti-union groups behind the new web tool were buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court's Janus v. AFSCME decision in 2018. They predicted that the landmark ruling, which allows public sector workers to benefit from union representation without having to pay for it, would finally starve unions into bankruptcy.

Janus was a dangerous decision, but reports in the year following the ruling show that it has not actually spelled doom for public sector labor unions. Earlier this year, for example, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced that, from March 2018 to March 2019, it had retained 94% of all represented workers and actually gained more than 9,000 dues-paying members. A Politico review in May of nine other unions representing public employees found similar results.

Now that the predicted post-Janus exodus from public sector unions has failed to materialize, labor's enemies have turned to spending their money on technology to do the job for them. It's been happening in New York State, where an organization called Edunity recently launched a web tool targeting members of the state's public employee unions.

Edunity's website asserts that it is "an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan effort to educate public employees about their rights." But its ties to the same antiunion groups that have tried to kneecap labor for years go deep.

A news item on the website of the anti-labor State Policy Network links Edunity to a partnership of SPN affiliates led by the San Francisco-based Lincoln Group.

SPN is a national conservative and libertarian think-tank conglomerate backed by a host of well-known Fortune 100 companies. It also receives support from the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Koch family-funded Americans for Prosperity, among others. The Chicago Sun-Times noted that another SPN-affiliate, the Illinois Policy Institute, not only supplied the cash behind the Janus lawsuit, it hired plaintiff Mark Janus after the decision was handed down.

From the start, the Edunity web tool requires would-be users first to trust the organization with their names, phone numbers and email addresses "to verify your identity." Users' privacy is important to Edunity, the website states, but it's unclear whether, or how, the organization might use that contact information once it has it.

The main basis underlying Edunity's argument for leaving a union is that members could save around $700 annually by opting out. Further down the web page is where Edunity admits that workers who freeload, rather than pay their fair share, cut off their access to union representation and participation.

Ongoing education remains among the IBEW's best weapons in its fight against the effects of the Janus decision.

"Most of our public employee members understand that the IBEW is so much more than the dues-collecting organization our enemies make us out to be," said Paul O'Connor, Government Employees Director. "We can keep winning our fights against every anti-union misinformation campaign with fact-based education and member-to-member outreach."

Just ask the members of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245, who reported recently that less than 1% of the nearly 2,400 public employees it represents have stopped paying membership fees since the Janus decision. And in Newark, N.J., Local 1158, where most of the members are public employees, a concerted outreach campaign has helped the local boost its membership numbers.

The IBEW, meanwhile, continues its own embrace of technology that helps organize workers and workplaces. Since it was launched in March, has helped connect thousands of electrical workers with quality union construction jobs, while the recently refreshed provides tools to help government, professional and industrial workplaces organize. Plus, the smartphone-optimized Action Builder web tool has helped make face-to-face organizing run more smoothly and efficiently.

"Our enemies will never stop looking for ways to divide and destroy us, so they need to know that we will never stop fighting back," Stephenson said. "These outside groups want to divide workers, to turn us against one another instead of joining together to fight for better wages, benefits and treatment on the job.

"If they weren't worried that unions were helping tip the balance of power back toward workers, they wouldn't be spending billions to shut us up," Stephenson said.


Restoring West Virginia's prevailing wage would help public works projects, such as construction of Mercer County's new Mountain Valley Elementary School, avoid costly and inconvenient delays.

Credit: Mercer County Public Schools

Unions Step Up Fight to Block Executive Orders

In a fierce battle against anti-worker executive orders issued by the Trump administration last year, federal unions have asked for a hearing before the full U.S. Court of Appeals.

Unions filed the request the Friday before Labor Day weekend, six weeks after a three-judge panel upheld the orders corroding federal workers' rights and their unions' ability to fight for them.

Officially, the panel barred the government from enforcing the orders immediately, allowing the American Federation of Government Employees and allied unions time to respond.

In practice, unions representing federal workers, including the IBEW, say many agencies are already eroding their workers' rights, in large part by denying unions the time and physical space to assist employees on the job.

"While we're fighting the anti-worker content of these orders, we're concerned that a number of federal agencies have essentially been implementing them anyway," Government Employees Director Paul O'Connor said.

The IBEW is not part of the lawsuit but is working with a coalition of labor unions to oppose the orders and the recent court decision, while also fighting a barrage of other attacks on all working Americans.

The far-reaching federal orders would let agencies more easily impose unfair contracts, weaken employees' bargaining rights, slash the time for workers accused of underperforming to improve, and significantly curtail long-established "official time" that allows workers with union duties to represent their colleagues when issues arise.

"The anti-worker executive orders are in violation of the law and, if implemented, would send the federal workforce into disarray," AFGE President J. David Cox said. "This case is vitally important with far-ranging implications for every American and deserves a hearing before the full court."

The orders were issued in May 2018, but a federal district court judge struck down most of the provisions three months later. That decision was reversed in July by the three-judge panel from the D.C. Circuit.

In a small victory for workers, the panel in mid-August refused the administration's demand to lift the injunction immediately and allow agencies to enforce the orders on the books.

Whether the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit would agree to hear the unions' case wasn't decided by publication.

The administration's attacks on federal workers don't stop with executive orders.

Another target is the seven-member Federal Service Impasse Panel, established by the Federal Labor Relations Authority as a binding arbitrator when contract talks hit a stalemate.

The current panel is stacked with Republicans historically hostile toward federal workers and unions.

"FSIP decisions are having a sweeping impact on all federal employees, including members of the IBEW," O'Connor said. "The panel is siding with management at every turn."

For example, the union representing 14,000 workers at the Department of Health and Human Services recently lost the majority of its arguments before FSIP, involving telecommuting, leave requests and billing the union for office space that has always been rent-free.

In essence, the panel unilaterally rewrote large portions of the workers' contract.

"Union supporters say such changes are a bigger deal than they might seem," wrote Dave Jamieson for the Huffington Post. "Federal unions generally cannot bargain over pay and major benefits. If agencies succeed in chipping away at the matters the unions can bargain over — like the discipline process, telework arrangements and other work rules — then some workers might not see a point in being members anymore."

O'Connor said that IBEW members, who work in federal jobs and for federal contractors throughout the country, haven't been targeted as aggressively by agency overreach as other federal workers — yet.

"Within the IBEW's jurisdiction, we helped to clarify the intent of the ruling and minimize agencies' attempts to violate the district court judge's order," he said, referring to the 2018 ruling.

The July decision from the appeals court panel puts everything back in play, raising significant challenges for all unions, the IBEW included, he said.

But led by AFGE and the National Treasury Employees Union, labor is prepared to keep fighting — for workers and the public at large.

"This isn't just about federal employees and their unions," NTEU President Tony Reardon said. "This case is about preserving our merit-based civil service system and making sure that taxpayers can count on federal agencies being staffed by highly qualified employees who are treated fairly as they go about the business of delivering important government services to the public."

O'Connor urged IBEW members to see the connection between their votes on Election Day and the consequences for working people across the public and private sectors.

"The sooner working men and women realized the rights are being eroded, the sooner we can begin to repair the significant damage done by this and past administrations that have weakened the middle class with anti-labor, anti-worker legislation and court decisions over the past 40 years," he said

"It's not one party or the other either. There are some Republicans who understand the value of labor and there are some corporate Democrats who do not. But there's too much on the line to not be informed."


Federal workers rally in Washington, D.C., in July 2018 to protest the Trump administration's executive orders targeting their union rights.

Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user AFGE