The Grant County Public Utility District already had a reputation as an enviable place to work: a strong union contract, increasingly open lines of communication between employer and employees, and relatively few grievances. Not to mention its scenic perch along Washington state’s majestic Columbia River.
|IBEW linemen at work in Grant County, where the PUD delivers locally generated hydroelectricity through 4,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines.
But management and labor both believed it could be even better.
Last fall, after several years’ work and pandemic delays, a Code of Excellence agreement between the PUD and Seattle-based Local 77 made it official.
More than 550 employees — nearly all full-time managers, staff, and crew — attended the virtual roll-out Sept. 30, where speakers included a slate of Local 77 members.
“When we started this endeavor, I think we saw each other as union and management,” said Scott Elliott, a journeyman lineman, foreman and COE team member with 22 years on the job at Grant PUD.
“As the team has met and planned over the last two years there’s been an increased feeling of cohesion,” he said. “I think I can speak for all and say that we now feel more like ‘Team Grant’ than union and management.”
The IBEW launched the Code of Excellence in 2007, a shared commitment to high standards and mutual respect that’s been lauded by utilities, manufacturers, and other participating employers.
“Grant County is one of those contracts now,” Local 77 Business Manager Rex Habner said, praising the leadership of CEO Kevin Nordt and reflecting on the Code’s core humanity.
“We’re not robots. We’re not meant to be robots,” he said. “We can improve the experience of everyone here. I speak on behalf of the represented folks, but this is an opportunity for every last employee at Grant. There is no separation.”
Nordt agreed, introducing Habner and Assistant Business Manager Brian Gray — who has represented the Grant PUD unit since 2014 —as “two good friends.”
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to talk about (the Code),” he told his employees. “As I always like to say, ‘One team, one family, better together.’"
The pandemic strengthened those bonds, as well as the shared pride in being essential workers. Some even volunteered to sequester at the PUD’s dams for days or weeks during quarantine to ensure customers didn’t lose power.
It’s one way the crisis led to greater flexibility and teamwork, key elements of the COE, as Local 77 member Bross Holland observed.
“Just because things have worked in the past, that doesn’t mean those same things are going to work now or in the future,” said Holland, a fleet utility technician and Local 77 steward for most of his 15 years at the PUD. “As a company we need to be able to adapt and evolve.
“We’ve seen this work over the last year and a half or so with COVID-19 as an example. Everyone came together to come up with creative solutions on how to stay safe while still performing our duties in an efficient manner.”
He said it underscores “that the best ideas usually come from those that are closest to the work. We need to have a culture where all employees have the ability to identify solutions and influence positive outcomes.”
For years leading up to the 2020 rollout, Nordt had heard International President Lonnie R. Stephenson and others talk about Code of Excellence. “It was something that came on my radar screen being out and about in the industry,” he said.
But it wasn't until December 2017 that he and Gray discussed it. “It was the proverbial dark and stormy winter night,” Nordt said, recalling a late-day knock at his office door.
Gray had been out in the bitter weather visiting worksites at the PUD, where everyone from outside linemen, service technicians, office staff, dam maintenance, fishery workers, and more — more than 30 units in all — are covered by the Local 77 contract.
“Brian had some concerns,” Nordt said. “Morale could be better. Safety could be better, other things. I was saying kind of the same."
Had their dynamic been different, "We could have easily fell into, ‘Your guys could do better, and I got it right, or vice versa,'" he said.
Recognizing their common goals, the conversation turned to the Code. Each credits the other with being the first to bring it up.
|Longtime steward and fleet utility technician Bross Holland, a member of the COE committee from the start, recently was promoted to a Code-related position as a training specialist.
Gray was pleased but not surprised by Nordt’s interest. In a region of Washington state where he’s had battles with public utilities, Grant County is one of his outliers.
“We have an outstanding relationship with them,” Gray said. “We’ve had our hills and valleys, but we’ve always come to an agreement. The Code of Excellence is another tool to help us work collaboratively on issues.”
Within a few months, the project was in the hands of a committee of union leaders, executives, managers, and workers. In 2019 — pre-pandemic —they took a fact-finding trip to Nevada, wanting to see how a COE worked in practice.
Las Vegas Local 396 and NV Energy put out the welcome mat. They’d signed their agreement in 2016 but had been making progress for several years under new ownership. An era of high tension and endless grievances was giving way to better communication, less micromanagement, and more trust.
“What struck me most was the enthusiasm I saw coming from the management side,” Gray said.
“They gave us a foundation of why they wanted to do it, where they are today with employee engagement, settling disputes at the lowest level possible… It’s been very proactive for them.”
By all accounts, the challenges were never as steep in Grant County. But a near-fatal accident at a hydro plant in 2015 was a clear sign that they needed attention.
Holland said it was a turning point. Management brought in safety consultants and involved workers in what they call Continuous Improvement Teams.
“Every team was assigned a different topic — safety-related issues that needed fixed,” he said. “It gave members, being front-line employees, a say in how things needed to be done. That was a huge improvement.”
It opened the door to other progress, laying a solid foundation for the Code.
“We can make this an awesome place to work,” Nordt said. “This isn’t just a program that got rolled out with some doodads, it’s not the flavor of the month. This is something that’s going to last.”
With any new initiative, there are skeptics. Holland, who recently was promoted to a COE-related position as a fleet utility training specialist, is committed to winning them over.
“We’ve had a little bit of pessimism about it, a lot of questions,” he said, citing virtual break-out sessions the day of the rollout and ongoing efforts to talk one-on-one with workers who have concerns.
“For the most part, people are optimistic. They see it as a good thing, and why wouldn’t they?” Holland said.
“The biggest thing we have to do is continually talk about it. We have to bring it up in everyday conversation to keep it alive and relevant and keep moving forward.”