Or is it Organize vs Represent?
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, like the majority of unions, has a tremendous focus on organizing workers into their Union under the premise of building market share. With new membership comes a greater share of the market, increased dues collection, and increased worker strength in contract negotiations. These characteristics hold true in an environment where employers are forced to be closed shops. Meaning that all of their workers who fall under the scope of the contract agreement with the Union, are required to be dues paying members.
In Right to Work (RTW) States, organizing an employer does not necessarily mean that all of the members will pay their fare share, and the ability to keep an employer signatory to a contract agreement is in constant peril. RTW States do not require employees to pay their fair share and they have recertification procedures which create huge hurdles for the Unions who are operating there. This dynamic leads Unions in these locals to the question of how to attract workers and win them over to being full dues paying members.
Do you focus your energy on Organizing new workers to account for attrition, or do you develop higher quality representation to turn those workers into dependable members?
If the 9th District Progress meetings of the past have been any indicator, the focus is on organizing new members and signing new contractors. All of the metrics which account for “progress” in the 9th District are focused on the organizing success and or failure of the constituent Locals. Numbers reflecting member engagement, such as participation levels at meetings or during votes, are absent from the powerpoint presentations and speakers. The focus on Organizing is of seeming paramount importance in the struggle against member attrition and market share development.
Unfortunately, this focus on organizing will not hold up when RTW makes its way into the remaining states which have yet to adopt it. When workers are given a choice of paying dues or not they will ask themselves, “What am I getting for my money?”. Currently the answer to this question is ultimately a lack of representation, an unenforced contract, and more organized workers to compete against for the next job. How many times have you seen a representative come out to your workplace when an election wasn’t right around the corner? Are the terms of the agreed to contract violated on a daily basis, by you, your coworkers, and or your employer? We need as many workers as we can get right now, so the third item listed above doesn’t play out currently, but be assured some will be thinking about it when times get lean again.
According to http://www.ibew46.org/our_team.html there are currently seven representatives in Local 46 for 5200+ members. That is over 740 members for every 1 representative. It is not possible for the number of representatives that we have, to be able to handle this many members effectively. The current membership is under represented, and there is an underlying resentment for paying dues without a justifiable level of representation on the jobs. This does not appear to be changing dynamic either, as the number of unpaid representatives (Stewards) remains in the single digits, and as the Leadership is focused on extending Organizing dues for another three years. The current representation model that has been implemented will be hard pressed to keep those that are concerned about being represented paying dues when RTW becomes a reality. There will be a dramatic cut off in the amount of dues collected as the membership is disenfranchised with the level of representation, tired of unenforced contracts, and fearful of having to compete with more workers for the same jobs.
Ultimately, the members are the customers that the Hall is in place to provide services for. The Hall has agreed to provide members with contract enforcement through representation and job opportunities through organizing. If the product that the Hall is producing only includes job opportunities, then the members who are buying for representation, will stop paying dues when given the choice. They will question what is the point of paying dues to an organization which is focused on bringing in more workers for them to compete against, when the Hall won’t provide significant representation and fight for the fair treatment of the members they currently have.
The end product of Local 46 has been too focused on organizing and needs to shift to representation as its primary focus. RTW is on the horizon whether workers and their unions want it or not. If the Local continues to focus the majority of its dues on organizing, then it will not be able to provide justification for those that question the level of representation they are buying with their dues payments. To remain competitive and to keep the funding up so LU 46 can afford to pursue organizing efforts, they must increase representation and turn the focus to customer satisfaction. The membership must become the primary focus of their Hall, and the quality of the representation must be increased substantially to keep them.
The costs of providing representation at levels more reasonable than 740 to 1, does not have to be substantial. There is a huge opportunity to drastically change the amount of representation that the membership experiences by simply appointing Stewards. At the time of this writing there is 7-8 currently appointed stewards for the Inside Wire unit of LU 46. There is way more than 7-8 job sites, which leaves thousands of members without daily representation on their jobs. By appointing Stewards, the Business Manager of LU 46 could show the membership that he too is concerned about providing the membership the representation it deserves, while keeping costs in check by hiring more and more staff to try and address the issues.
IBEW LU 46 should appoint Stewards on every job possible, and put more of the memberships dues money into providing the representation they are paying for.
In early December while volunteering at the hall I heard yet another version of a story that seems to be pretty common in our local. It was what I call a “Good Brother” story. These are stories about how great a specific brother was/is that usually ends with some kind of cringe-worthy exception to the member’s greatness. Now I understand that everyone is human, and we all have flaws but if we remember these members simply as Good Members, then we are likely to continue to have the same problems generation after generation. We should remember that as late as 1969 out of the 2700 members of IBEW local 46 only two were “non-white”, and none were female.
Now this particular story was a perfect archetypical “good brother” story and I think that is why I found myself needing to write this. In a nutshell the story was about a brother that was one of the finest the storyteller had ever known. This brother was always the fastest, hardest worker on every jobsite. He always stuck up for the contract and he always stuck up for the brotherhood. I emphasize the brother because this particular member’s flaw was that he always said that women don’t belong on the jobsite. Upon revealing this flaw the storyteller quickly followed by saying “but he was a good brother,” that was animated with a shoulder shrug that implied that this members’ flawed understanding of solidarity should be looked past, because he was a hard worker, a fast worker, and he worked the contract.
For the sake of our union moving into the 21st century this attitude must be challenged. We must begin to truly understand what a good brother, what a Good Member, really is. The pace they work does not define a Good Member, but the quality of the work they produce probably has something to do with it. They are not defined by the amount they sweat when they work, but by how intelligently they get work done safely, and lastly defending the parts of the contract a member likes, only for the members one likes also does not make one a Good Member.
The status of Good Member can only be earned as the result of good actions. At his or her very worse a Good Members’ actions hurt no other member. On average their actions are thoughtful and considerate and serve members. When a Good Member is at their very best their actions work to inspire other members to become better. Now it should be understood that being a good member is not like being a Seahawks fan or a member of the NRA, you can’t just pay dues or initiation fees or declare that you are a Good Member. In a strange way being a Good Member is kind of like being an alcoholic. You could be sober for one day or for one decade but you will always be an alcoholic and just the same you could be a Good Member for one day or for one decade but you will always be a human being with ingrained prejudices and selfishness that you must consciously and deliberately decide not to surrender to every single moment of every single day.
When this becomes the standard of Good Membership in our local our union will win every contract, we will have dignity on every jobsite everyday, and we will leave behind a union, a trade, and an industry that we will be excited to hand off to the next generation. “An injury to one is an injury to all” has been a fundamental rallying cry for unions since they began and it is as true today as it was in 1891, whether that injury is physical, economic, or psychological.
Less than a week to go until our Organizing Training with SEASOL! We have an event page up on Facebook. Please RSVP if you can make it!
How does your trade’s wages and benefits stack up when compared to the other trades? The package information below includes all wages and benefits paid per hour. The training column is the number of hours required to complete apprenticeship. The figures for training were collected from the applicable apprenticeship programs and building trades websites.
NECA must increase wage package, drop its Occupied Premise language
They kept streaming in.
Nearly 200 members of the Sound & Comm unit, or nearly one out of every four unit members, attended a standing-room-only contract vote meeting on Thursday, August 17th. The meeting started late due to the large number of Sound & Comm members who needed to sign in.
Of the 174 members who voted, 173 members saw the negotiating committee’s Tentative Agreement (TA) for what it was: simply not good enough.
The high vote turnout was significant for a unit membership that has been given precious few opportunities to participate, or even be informed, in its own contract negotiations.
The Sound & Comm unit has been working under an expired contract since July 31st. Negotiations between our union and the Puget Sound chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) began over two-and-a-half months ago on June 7th. Since negotiations started, there have been no surveys sent to gather member input and no updates requesting their feedback. Many members say they only found out about the vote meeting through other vigilant coworkers.
Negotiations have not been easy, according to the negotiating committee. NECA has stubbornly resisted our union’s proposals, at first rejecting all of the union’s proposals outright during the second bargaining session (except for Tentatively Agreeing early on to a 3-year contract).
So when the negotiating committee was eventually offered $6.75 over 3 years by NECA, they understandably must have felt like they had made progress. When added to the fact that member opinions were not collected in advance, this could explain why the entire five-person negotiating team unanimously recommended that members vote “yes” on the TA. This recommendation the membership soundly rejected, with nearly equal unanimity.
Since the recently elected Business Manager added extra members to the negotiating committee, the committee has dropped key issues that the former unit’s Business Rep and his negotiating committee members had proposed.
The union’s dropped proposals included a pay differential while working in downtown Seattle to help defray the cost of parking and guaranteed upfront travel pay when working outside of the 35-mile zone.
The biggest issue for members at the contract vote was the insulting wage package (a measly $6.75 over 3 years) and a change (for the worse) in the already weak Occupied Premise language. NECA wants to be able to schedule Low Volt members during swing and graveyard shifts, for 4-day-10-hour (4×10) shifts at a flat rate. This would mean a giveaway on top of what has already been given away before. Currently, employers can waive the 17.3% and 31.4% pay differentials for Swing and Graveyard shifts if they claim that the shifts are due to occupied premise. If employers claim occupied premise, they only have to pay you 10% differential. With the TA language, the employer would be able to schedule occupied premise shifts as 4×10 shifts and get rid of all pay differentials entirely. The contractor would still get their 40hrs from you, and on the cheap.
A Change in Leadership Also Needs a Change in Practices
Our newly installed union leadership notified the Sound & Comm unit about the contract vote meeting in three ways; they mailed a small, easy-to-miss, 6” x 4” size postcard over the weekend, and they sent a robodial and “robo-email” less than 48 hours before the vote.
Many members received none of these communications. A tiny white postcard is easily overlooked as junk mail. And many members have not been added to the robodial and email list. This is unfortunately not different from the method of operating by the former unit leadership, which would repeatedly rebuff member requests to send negotiations updates out to all unit members.
Before June 7th, only one meeting to prepare members for negotiations was hosted by the Hall — on Mother’s Day weekend. No surveys have been sent to the over 650 members to encourage member participation, either before contract negotiations started or after.
“I came because I received a text from a coworker,” said more than a few unit members. This is as much a shining example of the power of members to mobilize each other, as it is an advantage for NECA over the negotiating committee and the union leadership for failure to effectively connect with hundreds of Low Volt members.
Given the lack of communication from our leadership, a near 25% vote turnout is nothing to sneeze at.
As the folks at Labor Notes have pointed out, members get a contract that they can be happy with when their leadership keeps them informed and engaged. Jason Ide, the president of Teamsters Local 814 in New York City, writes:
- Get members involved. Contract campaigns ask more of the members at every juncture, from wearing buttons all the way up to walking off the job. Asking members to fill out a survey is an easy first step that will help set the tone for wide participation in your campaign activities
- Gather contact information. Working cell phone numbers and emails are the foundation of any contract campaign. If you can’t reach your members, you can’t take action.
- Assess your strength. You should track how many surveys you get from each department, shift, or building, and use the data to assess where you are strong and where you need to do more organizing. If you can’t get members to fill out a survey, you certainly won’t be able to get them to wear a button or strike.
- Identify and evaluate leaders. You should also track what percentage of their group each steward, business agent, or committee member delivers. The people who can motivate their co-workers to fill out a survey now will be the most effective at motivating those same co-workers to take bigger actions later.
- Show unity. If you craft your survey correctly, you will have some questions that most members answer the same way. You can use the results at your union meeting as evidence of unity—building members’ confidence in each other.
The Tasks of the Negotiating Committee: Engage, Inform, and Empower the Membership
Going forward, the negotiating committee must work on the areas described above to successfully negotiate a strong contract that members can support. Otherwise, the leadership’s own practices could stymie our success. A few small things they could do right now:
- The negotiating committee could email the recently rejected Tentative Agreement to all Low Volt members who have given the union their email address. Members need to know what was voted down to be more informed about what has changed (and what hasn’t) at the next contract vote.
- The negotiating committee could post the recently rejected TA on our union’s Facebook page and website so all members can access it.
- The negotiating committee could create an online poll that Low Volt members can access to clarify what they’re willing to vote for, not just what they’d vote against.
- The negotiating committee could send out an update after each negotiation session to keep members up-to-date.
- The negotiating committee could make copies of the next TA available to all members days before the next contract vote so that members have more time to read, think about, and discuss the issues with our coworkers.
Next Steps: We Need an Active Rank-and-File
The best contracts are won when members get involved. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Electrical Workers (CORE46) is a grouping of local electrical workers who want to strengthen our union for the betterment of our members. We believe solidarity and action are some of the most important ways to do this.
Inside Wire members, support your fellow Sound & Comm union members. What happens in their contract will set the terms for your own negotiations next summer.
Low Volt members, there’s no more important time than now to start coming to unit meetings and voicing your opinion. This new contract will affect your life and livelihood for the next three years and many more years to come.
IBEW members, let’s demand $15 over 3 years for the Sound & Comm contract, and an Occupied Premise language that matches the Inside Wire contract.
Contact the Sound & Comm Business Rep, Mark Samuelsen (253-395-6528), to let him know: $15 over 3 Years No to NECA’s Occupied Premise Send NECA Packing!
The first meeting is on September 16th at 5pm, at the MLK Labor Temple in Seattle! Lets get together and discuss the game plan and strategy for moving this forward.