The Electrical Worker online
August 2023

index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to
IBEW Members, Workers Nationwide
Reaping Benefits of Recharged NLRB

The vote to join the IBEW in 2020 was unanimous. All seven linemen at a small southern New Mexico utility knew that their only recourse against an autocratic boss was a union voice.

But the general manager who'd failed to derail the organizing drive at Columbus Electric Cooperative wasn't about to give an inch at the bargaining table.

"They wanted a grievance process that basically said, 'The boss is always right, and when you disagree, too bad, his word is final and binding,' along with other ridiculous proposals that no self-respecting union would accept," said Shannon Fitzgerald, an assistant business manager at Albuquerque Local 611.

Then the utility ran straight into the Biden-era National Labor Relations Board.

For the past two years, the rejuvenated NLRB has been flexing its muscles for the underdogs, whether it is deciding cases of bad-faith bargaining and fired organizers or stemming the myriad other ways employers violate their workers' lawful rights.

"We can't say it enough: Elections matter," International President Kenneth W. Cooper said. "There is no question that the outlook would be very different for our linemen in New Mexico without the people President Joe Biden appointed to the NLRB. And you can multiply our win by everyone else who is fighting for a voice at work."

No longer are management-side lawyers in control of the five-member board, a voting bloc during the Trump era that routinely let union-busting employers off the hook and chipped away at workers' rights.

Columbus Electric found out the hard way. Upholding a regional NLRB decision, the national board issued a sweeping and costly ruling against the utility in June that included compensating Local 611 for all its bargaining expenses — even lost wages for workers on the negotiating team.

"They have to make us whole for the costs of playing their game," Fitzgerald said. "In the past, the most we got was attorneys' fees. I've been doing this 38 years, and I've never seen a decision this complete."

Workers' interest in unions is soaring, with petitions for representation rising 53% last year. To help workers succeed, the board is seeking out cases to reverse bad precedents and rebuild worker protections.

In May, for instance, a 4-1 majority sided with a United Steelworker's member in Texas who'd been fired for protests about worker safety. In doing so, they overturned the previous board's ruling for General Motors that gave employers more leeway to punish workers for protected union activity.

NLRB Chair Lauren McFerran said the 2020 GM decision "broke sharply with judicially approved precedent and did not give adequate consideration to the importance of workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act."

But just resolutions after long battles aren't remedy enough for the new NLRB. In concert with the Department of Labor and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, or FMCS, the board is taking a holistic approach toward organizing and collective bargaining.

Their efforts are integral to the goals of Biden's Cabinet-level White House Task Force on Organizing and Worker Empowerment, which is restoring the principles of the 1935 law that established the NLRB — specifically language that states that it will be federal government policy to encourage the growth of unions.

A major initiative toward that end is designed to pave the way to first contracts by offering training and mediation services at no cost to either party.

Employers commonly stall bargaining in hopes of derailing new units before they have any contractual rights. Data published in 2022 shows that only 36% of units reach a contract within the first year after organizing, and only two-thirds succeed within three years.

Javier Ramirez, a deputy director at FMCS, said in April that the program already had assigned mediators to assist 700 newly organized units. "We help the parties build a constructive bargaining relationship," he said. "We have found that oftentimes [they] don't need a mediator right away — what they really need is training on the process."

Equally important is getting workers over the first hurdle — representation itself. The NLRB's agenda includes the Fair Choice and Employee Voice rule, now being finalized after a public comment period. It will restore safeguards to union elections and encourage voluntary recognition.

Other rules and stiff fines are meant to deter management from interfering in union elections, like general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo's call for a ban on captive-audience meetings. Enraged employers are filing lawsuits against her 2022 policy memo, fearing the loss of one of their most common anti-union weapons.

Abruzzo, who has issued a series of game-changing directives, argues that the board has tolerated the forced meetings for too long. "This license to coerce is an anomaly in labor law, inconsistent with [federal] protection of employees' free choice," she said.

A former union attorney, Abruzzo is hailed by labor and cursed by the business world as the NLRB's most progressive counsel ever.

Her predecessor, the virulently anti-union Peter Robb, orchestrated much of the damage the board did to workers' rights between 2017 and 2020. Biden fired him moments after taking the oath of office in January 2021.

Law-breaking employers who flourished are discovering what it means to have a new sheriff in town.

Columbus Electric is paying for its misdeeds in more ways than one. On top of its financial pain, the NLRB ordered it to post jobsite notices admitting to a litany of wrongdoing and spelling out its workers' federal rights.

"We will not fail and refuse to recognize and bargain [with IBEW Local 611]" is the first of 11 obligatory mea culpas. Another: "We will not in any like or related manner interfere with, restrain or coerce you in the exercise of the rights listed above."

The ruling was welcome news to Albert Munoz, a Local 611 outside lineman who helped organize the CEC unit and was on the first bargaining team. Although he and all but one of the original seven unit members have moved on to other employers, the utility's newer linemen are sticking with the IBEW.

"I was happy to see management finally held accountable," Munoz said, describing the misery of an uncompromising, top-down workplace. "We didn't have a voice to defend ourselves. There was no justice. But that's possible for the workers there now, thanks to the NLRB."

53% Increase in petitions for union representation in 2022