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September 2020

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Colorado Gov. Signs IBEW-Backed
Apprentice Protection Law

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed an IBEW-backed law protecting the state's apprentices on July 7.

The signing ceremony had been scheduled to take place at Denver Local 68's hall as a special acknowledgement by the executive of the role unions play in training the state's skilled workforce, but the pandemic made that impossible.

The law requires sixth-year electrician and plumbing apprentices to take a license examination at least every two or three years until the apprentice passes the examination and forces employers to provide the training and the documentation that qualifies them for the exam.

"This will fix one of the main ways that nonunion contractors were holding people back in the state," said Local 68 Business Manager Jeremy Ross. "This law strikes at the heart of what they do. They didn't fight this hard last year when we passed prevailing wage on state projects."

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Jessie Danielson, who Ross said is an "unapologetic workers' ally."

To qualify for the licensure exam in Colorado, electrical apprentices need four years, 8,000 hours of practical experience and 288 hours of classes. But many nonunion contractors would disappear if an apprentice asked them to confirm the hours they had worked.

"How did it help them to help you stop being an apprentice? They would tell you they would get to it, but they never would," Ross said.

When Ross testified at the Legislature in support of the bill, two of the five witnesses he brought with him were former nonunion apprentices who had been unable to qualify for the exam because they could never get their contractors to verify the hours they worked.

The new law also will go some way to solving the problem of lifelong apprentices. By law, Colorado mandates a 3-to-1 apprentice to journeyman ratio. Some independents would work a lifetime as apprentices because jobs would be easier to get.

"A career as an electrician is 4-6 years as an apprentice, 35-40 in the trade. The state is now saying, 'You are not an apprentice. You need to take the test and stop screwing up the math,'" Ross said.

Ross said the idea for the bill came to him after his years as an organizer for Local 68. A year prior to his election as business manager, Colorado elected one of the most pro-labor legislatures in the state's history.

"We had to seize the moment," he said. "We passed prevailing wage for state construction first; now we wanted to build on that and get something more, something meaningful that would pay dividends for years."

Ross said opposition to the bill came from nonunion contractors who struggled to come up with a reason to oppose the bill that wasn't simply, "We like to exploit people, and this will cost us money."

Eventually they settled on the argument that forcing people to take the test would hurt apprentices with learning disabilities and non-native English speakers.

So, Ross brought a dyslexic IBEW member and two journeymen who spoke English as a second language to testify about the extra tutoring they received from the apprenticeship program and the accommodations available from the state testing board.

The nonunion opposition could only produce their own managers and not a single non-native speaker or learning-disabled worker who would say they didn't want to take the test.

"In every case where they tried to pivot, we were there and beat them up," Ross said. "There are a lot of stereotypes about LD and ESL and they rolled them all out, but it was bunch of [nonsense]. If you do the work and have the support you need, you can do anything anyone else does."

The bill passed on party-line votes in both houses. That's when Ross got his final pleasant surprise.

Danielson asked Ross if the governor could sign all the bills she sponsored that were passed into law that term at the Local 68 hall.

"COVID or not, if the sponsor wants the signing ceremony at your house, you say 'hell yes' and then figure out how to do it safely," Ross said.

In the end, it was not to be.

Ross said their legislative agenda is not done yet, but their focus is shifting sharply to the presidential election, of course, and the U.S. Senate election in the fall where Republican Sen. Cory Gardner is one of the most vulnerable and anti-union incumbents up for reelection in November.

"Colorado is not a purple state anymore and Cory Gardner is an anomaly for statewide races in Colorado's recent election history," he said. "The pressure is on him to show Coloradans that he is going to represent the working people of our state and not be a rubber stamp for Mitch McConnel and the Republican Party."


Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at a virtual signing ceremony attended by Ross (bottom left) for a law Ross helped draft to prevent the abuse of apprentices.

New NLRB Ruling Expands Employer Surveillance

The National Labor Relations Board has issued a new anti-worker decision that allows an employer to search an employee's personal items, including their cars, while on company property.

The ruling, issued June 24 and known as Verizon Wireless, gives an employer the right to search its employees' personal work space, locker or even an employee's own vehicle. In the decision, the board reversed a previous administrative law judge's ruling and used what's called the Boeing test to determine that a "reasonable employee" would not refrain from engaging in protected activity — like union organizing — if that activity could be discovered through a search of their personal property. In other words, the NLRB believes there would be no deterrent effect. The board further concluded that companies can do this because they have a business interest in protecting assets and ensuring a safe workplace.

"This decision will absolutely have a chilling effect on lawful union organizing, not to mention a person's sense of privacy while at work," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "We don't check all our rights at the door when we clock in."

The NLRB also upheld another decision by the administrative law judge that allows employers to search company-issued computers and email systems for "legitimate management reasons."

IBEW Lead Organizer Joe DiMichele was involved in a campaign in 2019 at Full-Fill Industries. Among the nine unfair labor practice charges filed against the company, two were for searching employees, and the NLRB at that time found merit in them. One was for threatening to search employees' lockers and the second was for searching an employee organizer's toolbox.

"Employers always use fear and intimidation tactics to discourage employees from organizing," DiMichele said. "This new decision completely takes away an employee's right to organize and contradicts the purpose of the NLRB, which is to protect employees' rights."

Ultimately, the employees at Full-Fill voted to join Danville, Ill., Local 538. Had the new standard been in place though, DiMichele says it could have significantly altered the campaign.

"If we would have had the current decision, the employees would not have felt safe and protected in their right to organize," DiMichele said. "It essentially allows the employer to harass its employees."

The Verizon Wireless ruling is the latest in a spate of decisions by the Trump administration board that favor employers at the expense of working people. Recent rulings have cracked down on union symbols at work, given employers a green light to eject union organizers from public spaces, to more easily withdraw union recognition, to discriminate against union members in the workplace, to thwart protests and to run roughshod over the rights of people working for subcontractors and franchises.

"Time and again this board has chosen the side of management, and working people are paying the price," Stephenson said. "We all need to remember these decisions in November when we cast our votes. We need an NLRB that works for working people, not against us."


Workers at Full-Fill Industries, pictured, filed multiple unfair labor practice charges while organizing last year. Two involving egregious employer searches were decided in their favor, but that might not have been the case after the NLRB's new ruling.

Credit: Lynn Arwood