Flckr/Creative Commons photo by SD Dirk.
       A fall view of Dubuque, Iowa, and the home of Local 704, a construction local that successfully organized and negotiated a first contract for about 30 employees at a nearby hotel earlier this year.

Dubuque, Iowa, Local 704 Business Manager Tom Townsend won’t take any credit for a successful organizing effort and first contract for workers at the city’s Hilton Garden Inn along the Mississippi River.

Tiffany Trowbridge, left, and Pam Leitzinger work at the Hilton Garden Inn in Dubuque, Iowa. Both were leaders in a successful organizing effort and now serve as Local 704 stewards.

“This might have been the easiest organizing drive I’ve ever been a part of,” he said.

In a sense, it’s hard to argue. An employee from the hotel walked into Local 704’s hall one afternoon earlier this year, telling Townsend and organizer Pete Hird that he and his colleagues wanted a union.

Within a few days, they had enough signed authorization cards to turn into the National Labor Relations Board seeking IBEW representation. The vote was unanimous in favor of the union. A first contract soon followed, and about 30 hotel workers became the newest members of what is traditionally an inside construction, electrical manufacturing and cable television local.

“We’re a pretty small hotel,” said Tiffany Trowbridge, who works on the Hilton Garden Inn’s housekeeping staff and now serves as a steward for the bargaining unit. “We all talked, and we all wanted a little better [working environment] than what we were getting. That’s when someone mentioned the IBEW.”

While Townsend said the organizing drive wasn’t particularly difficult, he credits that to work done over a number of years. Local 704 has had a visible presence in the community for decades. Even people not involved with unions are familiar with it and understand it represents quality, he said. Members have long been involved in charities.

Like his predecessors, Townsend is active not just on labor committees, but with groups like the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation, where he’s developed contacts with the local business community – including leaders from the Hilton Garden Inn and the attached Q Casino, which are both owned by the city. The city hires an outside contractor to take care of the day-to-day operations at both facilities.

“It’s a small enough town (population 58,000) that everyone knows who you are anyhow,” Townsend said. “We’re so involved in so much stuff. I think that really helps, and it definitely helped with this.”

Townsend said the casino’s manager called him back within a few minutes of learning about the drive. He told him the company would remain neutral and honor the vote.

“The casino is a union facility,” Townsend said. “They deal with machinist operators and steelworkers all the time. The one question they had was, ‘Why didn’t [the hotel employees] pick one of the unions over here?’

“I believe 100% that’s because we’re here all the time. Some other unions don’t have a full-time staff or a full-time agent. We do. We’re here. We follow up on things.”

Hird was impressed that employees from across the hotel – from the front desk to housekeeping to maintenance – showed up for his initial meeting with them.

“That showed a true motivation,” he said. “Everyone really wanted it.”

He also brought along a representative from the University of Iowa’s Labor Center, who explained the importance of labor unions in a community. That also added credibility to the organizing effort.

The 3-year contract, which was negotiated with the help of Eleventh District International Representative Tad Gusta and went into effect on July 1, guaranteed an increase in wages and vacation and provided the staff with holiday pay for the first time. It also formalized grievance procedures and guidelines on when and why supervisors can change the work schedule.

Iowa is a right-to-work state, but nearly 90% of the covered employees have joined Local 704. Trowbridge said the staff’s morale has increased now that the employees know they have the power of union representation.

“We gained a lot more than I thought we would,” she said. “The holiday pay, we weren’t even expecting to get. Everyone is happy with the pay raise. I haven’t heard any bickering about it.”

Trowbridge, whose mother and an uncle were union members while working for the city of Dubuque, supported the organizing effort, but she’s surprised herself by how much she’s become involved. She agreed to serve on the negotiating committee and learned from Townsend and other IBEW officials just how many rights she has on the job.

Now, she wants to pass on that knowledge to her colleagues and others looking to unionize, she said.

“We have someone fighting with us so now if we do have issues, we have someone who can help us out,” she said. “That’s really great.”

The work of Trowbridge and others has led to even more new IBEW members. Hird said workers at a Holiday Inn Express in Dubuque heard about the successful organizing effort and contacted Local 704 about representing them. Last month, those employees voted for IBEW representation and contract talks are in the works. 

“Industries have changed,” he said. “With the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country, we have to organize workers any way we can, especially in an industry like this, where in our area, not a lot of workers have been able to find representation.”