Workers at Boston's convention centers have been dealing with subpar pay and poor working conditions for years. So when they got the chance recently to join Local 103, a group long known for its experience and for going to the mat for its members, they were all in.

Boston Local 103 recently organized maintenance workers at the city’s two convention centers, including the Hynes Convention Center, pictured.

When maintenance workers at Boston’s two convention centers decided that they needed stronger representation to fight for better pay and working conditions, they turned to Local 103.

"They wanted more, and they wanted better," said Business Manager Lou Antonellis of the 53 maintenance workers who signed cards to join the local this past winter. "They wanted 103 representation."

The workers, who work for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the Hynes Auditorium and Boston Common Parking Co., include electricians, plumbers, carpenters, HVAC technicians and others who do the wiring for all the trade shows, as well as day-to-day operations at the facilities. It's a diverse group of individuals, but they were unanimous in their desire to get better representation.

"We're just here trying to do better for our families," said maintenance electrician Colm McDonagh, who helped with the organizing drive.

Before Local 103, they were represented by the Firemen and Oilers Local 3, a small union without much experience in dealing with construction issues, said organizers Bob Sheehan and Bernie Sharpe, who led the campaign to bring the workers in. Local 103, by comparison, is the largest electrical union in the state.

"Our reputation spoke for itself," Sharpe said. "All the trades know 103."

The roughly 10,000-member local is a powerhouse in the Boston area, with more than 60 contracts outside of its main construction contracts, at places like hospitals, universities and stadiums all throughout the area.

Beyond its size and expertise, though, is the local's commitment to serve its members.

"We're very hands-on. We answer the phones and work almost 24/7," Sharpe said. "We know that when members have an issue, they want an answer."

Sharpe and Sheehan said the workers had gone years without seeing a representative from their former union, outside of when a contract was up.

"I think they saw 103 more than they saw their own reps," said Sheehan, who is also Local 103's president.

And, added McDonagh, the convention center made conditions so bad that people started getting dismayed.

"Everyone wanted out," McDonagh said.

But unfortunately, the workers didn't feel like they could turn to their union for all the help they needed.

Had this been a different time, they probably would have already been Local 103 members. From 1963 to 1988, Local 103 contractor Phelps Electric performed all the electrical work for Hynes, then the only convention center. But after it closed for renovation, through some political maneuvering Phelps was out and the Firemen and Oilers were in. Attempts were made later to get the workers, including when the second convention center was built, but they weren't successful.

Ultimately, what the workers wanted was the same as anyone: better pay, benefits and working conditions. Sharpe and Sheehan estimated that they were probably being paid about 20% less than what they should have been. And they had been working at one point without a contract for a year.

"What they want is basically the lifeblood of the IBEW," Antonellis said.

But before they could join Local 103, or any other union, they needed to deal with their current one. So about half of the members went to a unit meeting last fall to ask to be let go.

"Everybody stuck together," McDonagh said of the effort. "A lot of people spoke up at the meeting."

Surprisingly enough, the local voted to release them.

"We had never heard of that before," Sheehan said.

Once the legal coast was clear to start organizing, Local 103 jumped in and started talking to the workers. What they found was a group ready and eager for new representation.

"We didn't really care how long it took. We just wanted something better than what we had," McDonagh said.

Within a day, they had close to 100% of the cards signed.

"It showed an overwhelming desire to be represented by Local 103," Sharpe said.

For the workers, the choice was easy, said McDonagh, who had previously been a Local 103 member.

"I think we made the right decision," he said. "Everything Local 103 said they're going to do, they've done."

Contract negotiations began in late January, and Sharpe and Sheehan said they planned to start from scratch since the previous contract wasn't worth saving.

"The workers weren't happy with it, so we are essentially writing a new contract based off the input from what the members recommended," Sharpe said. "We're going to make sure they get fair wages and strong language protection."

As for the new members, McDonagh said they're hopeful.


"We have complete faith in Local 103," he said. "We know we're not going to get walked on this time."