The Electrical Worker online
September 2020

IBEW Organizes Maine Screenprinting Shop
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Xtreme Screen & Sportswear is a small shop in Westbrook, Maine, a small town in an industry that used to be a behemoth in New England but had suffered greatly as America turned its back on manufacturing.

Owners, Geoff Sawyer and John Tibbetts made a living printing kids' sports uniforms and local companies' work shirts, but they wanted more for themselves and their workers and they just didn't see a way to grow.

Augusta, Maine, Local 2327 is a small local in the state's capitol city, a local that primarily represents the workers at Maine's largest telephone company. It used to be larger but the Bell company became Nynex, became Bell Atlantic, Verizon, Fairpoint and, now, Consolidated Communication.

The leadership of the local fights hard for its members, but those changes in ownership and the technology of the business have withered away that workforce. Business Manager Peter McLaughlin and assistant business managers Diane Winton and Julie Dawkins know that organizing is the only way that the local, their community and the workers who live there will thrive.

"The telephone business is really declining. We realized that to continue to be a good local we had to grow and part of growing meant we had to diversify," Dawkins said. "We started looking at what we needed. We were always ordering sweatshirts and we really had to look to find someone union. They were never local when we looked. In Maine we like to support Maine businesses."

One day last fall, Dawkins and Winton were talking. Winton wanted some embroidery done for the local and wished that she could get it done at Xtreme. She knew both Sawyer and Tibbetts.

Dawkins said she asked Winton, why aren't we there? Why aren't they IBEW? They had no good answer.

Winton called the owners, asked for a meeting and told them she thought there was a way for everyone to thrive. Would they meet?

"They gave us a meeting out of courtesy to Diane," said Second District Lead Organizer Steve Smith.

Because of Winton's personal connection, Dawkins and Smith were the leads, but at that first meeting in a local coffee shop just before Thanksgiving, Winton joined Dawkins, Smith, Tibbetts and Sawyer. It was novel for everyone. Smith said top-down organizing is rare, less than about 1% in his experience, and Dawkins and the owners were both new to organizing campaigns.

"They told us up front, 'We met with a few other unions and we can't afford to become organized,'" Dawkins said. "We said, 'Just listen to what we offer.'"

Dawkins told them how hard it was for them to get union embroidery work in New England. If it was hard for the local, it was hard for everyone, including every IBEW local in the Second District. Dozens of locals, and that was just the IBEW. New England is still a fortress for organized labor and every member needs a sweatshirt and a ski hat emblazoned with their local bug. If they were union, that market was there and could be theirs.

"We also know that we had something superior to most unions — our medical plan," Dawkins said, referring to the Family Medical Care Plan, which offers most smaller businesses better benefits and lower costs than what they can find on the open market.

"FMCP really opened the door for us," Smith said. "That's when they started listening."

The union was telling the business what they didn't expect to hear but should have: We want you to succeed. We want you to grow. We want to lower your costs and increase your sales, reward your investors.

All Dawkins and Smith were saying they wanted in return was a contract that gave the people who made it possible a just share of the reward: honest wages, good benefits and a dignified retirement.

"One said 'Are you for real?" Dawkins said. "He really didn't believe. He had heard that we were six-headed dragons."

Smith said that they should make no mistake: The IBEW would be there representing the workers and would only proceed if they asked and voted for representation.

"We don't leave that a gray area," he said.

After a few conversations with the owners, they sat down, alone, with the workers. Over the course of three hours they answered question after question.

By the end of the meeting they had vocal support from all but one worker and cards from more than half.

They'd gotten ahead of the owners at that point, Smith said. They were worried about losing complete control of the company, but when Dawkins and Smith handed them the voluntary recognition agreement that February, they signed.

"How else would you grow in Maine without making a calculated move to do it? Yes, there are risks, but they are minimal," Smith said he told them.

Negotiations for a contract began at once.

"It wasn't contentious. We weren't arm wrestling. Their concerns had to be addressed and Julie was great at that," Smith said. "It helped that she was a Mainer. They have to warm up to outsiders."

The contract was signed and ratified by mid-March and a week later, the pandemic closed the business down. It was closed for weeks. Then the spring Little League season was canceled and the uniform orders, a third of the company's income, vaporized.

"They didn't get a single order," Dawkins said.

They only opened again a few weeks into summer. They picked up some orders from the IBEW, SEIU and the Teamsters.

"It is coming slower than we anticipated, but they are grateful to get anything. This COVID was terrible. If they weren't getting union deals … If they hadn't organized, I don't know where their business would have come from," she said.

For Smith, the experience cleared away some of the bitterness built up during his last decade smashing his head against a wall named Comcast. He said there is an old saying among organizers, that no business gets a union they didn't deserve. Nearly always, the phrase applies to poorly managed companies that reward connections and friendships, skin workers and skim profits.

But if you squint at it, the same saying applies here too; they got the union they deserve.

"Here are a couple of good guys and now this union is coming along, and their business will grow. They will be able to offer much superior health care at a lower cost and soon they will finally get to offer their workers a 401k," Dawkins said. "They see the company as a family. They believe that if you treat your people decent, you will be successful, and they deserve to share in the success. We believe the same thing; they deserve this opportunity."


The Xtreme Screen & Sportswear team, Sam Molloy, Mike Phillips, Crystal Jordan, Geoff Sawyer (owner), Noelle Sawyer, Calvin Stanly, John Tibbetts (owner), Michelle LeBeau and Cathy Arre, with Augusta, Maine, Local 2327 Assistant Business Manager Julie Dawkins, left.


Crystal Jordan is a member of the IBEW's first fully-represented screenprinting and embroidery shop thanks to creative organizing, the Family Medical Care Plan and the power of a union contract.