High-voltage line work comes with more than its fair share of dangers, from shocks and falls to hazardous underground conditions. But when IBEW lineworkers are up in buckets or working below street-level, they depend on professional flaggers to keep them safe from a lesser-known, but no less dangerous hazard: traffic.
Often, however, the men and women working on the roadways aren’t protected by a union like the men and women they’re there to keep safe.
That’s changing, and for a few dozen men and women in West Virginia who work for Area Wide Protective, it’s already making their jobs safer and improving their quality of life. Working with Charleston Local 978 and the IBEW’s Fourth District, the AWP flaggers from the Huntington and Parkersburg offices voted in March to join the IBEW, setting first-contract negotiations in motion.
“Their working conditions can be horrible,” said Fourth District Lead Organizer Dale McCray. Just like lineworkers, flaggers are on the job in every type of weather. They typically understand what they’re signing up for when they apply for these jobs, he said, but it can be very tough, dangerous work.
AWP, which has 60 offices in 20 states across the eastern U.S., provides traffic-management services to support a variety of infrastructure and utility projects. Members of Local 978, which primarily represents American Electric Power lineworkers in the Mountain State and southwestern Virginia, are well-acquainted with the role AWP’s flaggers play in keeping IBEW members safe.
“Their main issues were job security and the relatively low pay,” said Local 978 Business Manager Jim Richards. Right now, hourly rates typically start around $10 an hour, he said, which is not much more than some folks could make working at a fast-food restaurant or a big box store. “The turnover rate was 50% annually. Terribly bad.”
The two offices’ service area covers the counties roughly north of Interstate 64 and west of Interstate 79, up to the top of the state’s northern panhandle. They also serve nearby portions of Ohio and Kentucky, and McCray noted that Local 978 had received lots of support from nearby IBEW locals, including Huntington, W.Va., Local 317, Parkersburg, W.Va., Local 968, and Marietta, Ohio, Local 972, which is across the Ohio River from Parkersburg.
With such a large coverage area, and depending on a given day’s location, Richards said, workers might be forced to drive two or three hours just to get to work. That trip also might include a required detour to pick up co-workers who don’t have access to reliable transportation. The fact that these long, required trips went uncompensated, he said, helped motivate the workers seeking IBEW representation.
“Things got rolling when someone at one of the offices contacted the IBEW via the website,” said Regional Organizing Coordinator Bert McDermitt. “They reached out to us and we started interacting with them.” That was two years ago, the start of an often-contentious battle to bring new members into the union.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, AWP first brought in a union-busting firm out of Ohio, McCray said. Then it deployed an even larger, more expensive California-based company that boasted leadership by a former NLRB member.
That first vote, an onsite election, was an “absolute disaster,” McCray said. “AWP violated every rule in the book.”
“We lost that election,” McDermitt said. “During the ballot count, they tried to get the vote thrown out, and then they actually fired every supporter we had.” Immediately, the IBEW filed unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
McCray noted that, although the national-level NLRB didn’t exactly have a reputation for worker-friendliness over the last few years, the career employees out of the nearby regional offices were easier and more reasonable to work with. As a result, the IBEW was able to reach a settlement with AWP, and the NLRB ordered the company to allow a new election to be held.
But AWP’s notoriously high turnover rate further threatened the IBEW’s chances for success. “Between the first election and the second, half of the employees were gone,” McCray said. Even so, “the older employees that stuck around realized AWP didn’t keep their promises. They saw that the company didn’t seem to care.”
There were a few positive outcomes that helped keep spirits high among organizers and supporters. “One guy started out dead set against unionizing,” McDermitt said. “When he saw how he and his fellow workers were being treated, he became a true believer. That helped our cause.”
In the second vote, notably only 26 of the 60 eligible workers from the Huntington and Parkersburg shops cast ballots, a result of the company’s intimidation tactics. Nevertheless, of those 26 men and women, 20 voted to join the IBEW, and that’s all it took.
All of this has been happening in a state where, after a prolonged legal battle went all the way to the state’s Supreme Court, a right-to-work law officially took effect in 2019. Three years earlier, the state’s Legislature also repealed the prevailing wage laws that for decades had helped set a fair standard of pay and benefits for contractors and workers in line with what local businesses normally would provide for similar private-sector work.
Surprisingly, Gov. Jim Justice, in a virtual town hall meeting in February shortly after the start of his second term, admitted that neither of those moves have done anything to help the state’s economy or its workers.
“We passed the right-to-work law in West Virginia,” said Justice, who was elected as a Democrat in 2016 but switched his affiliation to the Republican Party a year later. “And we ran to the windows looking to see all the people that were going to come—and they didn’t come. We got rid of prevailing wage. We changed our corporate taxes and we’ve done a lot of different things. And we’ve run to the windows and they haven’t come.”
Now, the hard work of hammering out a first contract is underway, and the IBEW recently filed a formal request with the NLRB to begin bargaining with AWP.
Richards, who was elected business manager just two years ago, said he’ll lean on the help of experienced local leaders to guide things along. “I’m hoping bargaining will move quickly,” he said, “to raise the pay and benefits of every worker at AWP and help improve their job security and safety.”
The business manager also believes this could be the start of something good for the IBEW and for AWP employees across the Appalachian region and the U.S. “I feel like we’ll be working to bring the protections of a union to workers at the state’s other two AWP offices in Charleston and Beckley,” he said, and that the union will work to expand efforts to flaggers in other offices, too.