Oxford, Ohio, Local 2287 Business Manager Pam Combs works alongside fellow members at a Schneider Electric plant in the southwestern Ohio city. She doesn't have to go far to hear their concerns — and she has had a few herself.
It reached a critical point when the company said it would bring in a large, catered meal to incentivize employees to work overtime. It instead turned out to be a few Jimmy John's sandwiches, she said.
That may not sound like a huge deal to an outsider. But for a group of employees who felt disrespected and had the data to back it up, it was another slap in the face.
"I told [plant management] they needed to start treating people better," said Combs, adding she has a good relationship with the plant manager. "It's that simple.
"If you want people to come to work, you have to come up with better incentives than this," Combs added. "That's not going to float."
Not long after, they found a solution that should be a win for both sides.
Schneider and Local 2287 agreed to a memorandum of understanding that called for a temporary double-time incentive for all hours worked beyond 40 per week from Oct. 23 until the end of 2023. They previously received only time and a half.
The agreement put more money into Local 2287 members' pockets in time for the holiday season. It also allowed Schneider to meet the increased demand for products constructed at the facility and time to hire more staff. The company might even add a third shift, Fourth District International Representative Chad Donathan said.
"It's not only great for our members," he said, "but it shows just how far this relationship has progressed in the last couple of years. We've really been able to fix it."
Donathan said the employees and Schneider management both did a good amount of listening to each other's concerns and found a solution that works for both.
"The boom in the construction industry is really feeding this unit," Donathan said. "It's way behind on product. This is a pretty rural town, and 250 employees is not something that can be hired in the next day. So we tried to be creative."
The IBEW has had a long-standing relationship with France-based Schneider Electric, representing employees at many of its facilities in the U.S.
The plant in Oxford, however, is a unique case dating to 2004.
That's when company officials announced that they planned to close the plant. Employees at the time — with urging from local political officials — agreed to massive cuts in wages, vacation time and benefits to keep it open. They also agreed not to be part of the national coordinated bargaining the IBEW and Schneider traditionally conduct for new agreements.
"The feeling of being excluded or being treated differently than the employees at the other Schneider facilities was a pivotal point," Donathan said.
That was true for Combs, who has worked at the Oxford plant for 10 years and been the business manager for eight. The workers scored a victory in 2021 when the company agreed to a new contract that put wages and vacation time in line with employees at a Schneider plant in Huntington, Indiana, about 120 miles away, she said.
Then came news that Schneider was struggling to keep up with orders at the Oxford plant, which builds special products requested by customers that are not normally available on an assembly line.
"We had to present this idea to them," Combs said. "They kicked it around, and, as I told them, we were to the point of 'How bad do they need us?' They keep falling behind. They can't hire people fast enough for the second shift. For once, the ball was in our court."
Combs and Donathan both said they have a good relationship with plant management. Issues related to the 2004 agreement lingered, however, and sometimes slowed progress.
Fourth District Vice President Gina Cooper said the relationship with Schneider at the Oxford facility started to improve in January 2023. That's when the IBEW and Schneider met with representatives from the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service and devised a plan to better train IBEW's stewards and the company's front-line supervisors.
"I am really, really proud of how the relationship with Schneider has improved through better communication and respect," she said.
Local 2287 has about 230 members, and all are employed by Schneider at the Oxford plant. Combs said she hopes that will grow to at least 300 if the company follows through on hiring more employees.
Like business managers at many smaller P&I local unions, Combs' position is not full time. She continues working at the plant and finds time for her business manager duties beyond that.
"Pam has gone above and beyond," Donathan said.