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From the June/July 2003 issue of UDR #147

IBEW roundup: electricians rally at international headquarters, a message from Herman Benson, and IBEW officers thumb noses at convention decision

Electricians rally demands action by IBEW
by Andy Piascik

They came to Washington, DC from all along the Eastern seaboard, from New England and the Deep South, from the Midwest and from as far away as Arizona. Some drove early that morning while others flew in and made a weekend of it. Some came on their day off while others had been out of work so long, it was just another of far too many days off. Some came from small towns where work is scarce, while others came from Cincinnati and Chicago and Washington itself, cities with big locals where a disturbing amount of electrical work is being done non-union.

They were members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 160 strong, rallying in front of their union's international headquarters on April 14. They came not at the call of their union, but as rank and file critics of IBEW international officials. Their demands were many, but boiled down to their simplest expression, the rally was a collective cry for democracy: Fight for us, or at least let us fight for ourselves.

It was already warm and sunny when the early arrivals began setting up the mini-stage and sound system. International President Ed Hill and other officers were there, welcoming the demonstrators, reassuring them that they had the right to be there, even providing coffee. And musicians who would perform throughout the day were there tuning their instruments - fiddle, guitar, banjo, and washtub bass.

The IBEW has a long and sordid history of pretending that everything is all right, of maneuvering the concerns of its membership to the sidelines, and of intimidating those who make too much noise. That these members who rallied April 14 saw fit to bring their demands to the union's international headquarters - the first such rally in IBEW history, according to veteran members who were there - is an indication of the severity of the problems within the union. They did so despite the very real possibility of repercussions back in their union halls, a clear sign that things have become intolerable. So intolerable, in fact, that these electricians decided that the risk of such repercussions was outweighed by the need to stand up and defend their livelihoods.

Joe Zeiner of Local 212 in Cincinnati put it this way in his address to the crowd: "We're tired of being ignored. We're not going anywhere and, beginning today, we're getting together." Zeiner was one of several stewards removed from office by Local 212 officers last fall. He and others from 212, Dale McKee, Mike Wood, and Bruce Jones, helped organize the rally.

Many of those in attendance carried placards and wore tee shirts calling for direct membership election of all national officers, a subject mentioned by virtually every one of the many speakers who addressed the rally during the course of the day. The demonstrators also called for the right to vote on collective bargaining agreements, due process in all trusteeships and mergers, an end to sweetheart contracts, and health and welfare benefits reciprocity for travelers.

The issue of sweetheart contracts was a particularly sore point for some who spoke and, judging by the enthusiastic response, for many in the crowd as well. A large and growing percentage of electricians work under national contracts which are negotiated out of
Washington and imposed on locals without a vote of the membership.

IBEW travelers spoke with bitterness about their special problems. When they work on the road under other locals, the full health and welfare benefits they earn are not credited to their home local. With regards to pensions, they face roadblocks that prevent them from getting membership in the new local and from earning the right to preferred book 1 list in hiring. And if they fail to get a certain minimum of hours worked in a given period, they lose pension credits.

The demonstrators also expressed anger at not having the right to vote on contracts. Job safety, wages, the eight hour day and 40 hour week, and other conditions of work that electricians have fought for decades have been continuously eroded in contracts.
Yet such contracts are often rammed down the throats of members with a "take it or leave it" attitude from not just employers, but increasingly from the union as well.
But by far the demand that resounded most passionately throughout the day was for One Member One Vote for all union officers.

International officers in the IBEW, as in many other unions, are selected by delegates at conventions. Among those at the rally were members from Richmond, Virginia who have begun circulating a petition in their local calling for One Member One Vote. IBEW
President Ed Hill requested and was granted time to answer some of the demonstrators' demands. However, he declined to talk about direct elections. "Most of you know where I stand on that," he said on the issue of direct elections. "I don't want to get into a debate about it here today."

Where Hill stands, of course, is in opposition to direct membership elections. It is far easier, after all, to consolidate a long reign in office when international officers are elected by convention delegates who are often local officers and their allies determined to stay on the international's good side. By day's end, members of other locals left with copies of the Richmond petition with plans to begin a similar drive among their co-workers.

Mike Kerrigan, a longtime activist from Local 313 in Delaware, spoke about the need for a national rank and file caucus within the IBEW. He spoke of the difficulties faced by so many reformers who work in isolation from one another. The proposal was well-received, but, while recognizing the need for such an organization, the electricians at the rally were under no illusions that it would be easy to build one. "Let's start with this today," one of them said on his way to his car after most everyone else had left. "Then let's see everybody who's here get five or ten more people to start doing something in their local."

A message to the electricians rally, from Herman Benson, AUD founder and Secretary Treasurer:

"I regret that I can't be with you today, but geriatrics and the inexorable passage of time has slowed me down. But Andy will be there to express the solidarity of the Association for Union Democracy with your campaign for more democracy in your union.

"A fair hiring system fairly enforced and an end to the employers' arbitrary right to reject even the most skilled union worker are critical for democracy and for strong unions. The IBEW convention delegates voted to get rid of that right to reject. Now it is up to the union leadership to follow through. And to get a leadership that is most responsive to the membership, you need the right to the election of officers by direct membership vote under a system that makes it possible for independent candidates to get on the ballot.

"What you are doing is not only for the benefit of electricians, it is good for all the construction trades. And more, it is initiative and action like yours that keeps the labor movement true to its ideals and makes it more powerful as a force for decency and democracy in America. You are on the right track. Good luck and keep up the good work."

IBEW officers thumb noses at convention decision

Bruce Jones, a member of Local 212, IBEW, can't get work in the Cincinnati area. He, like other good union electricians has obviously been blacklisted. In one instance, he was referred for work by the union hall but then rejected by the Mayer's Electric Company. When the union refused to process his grievance, it informed him, "Your grievance was denied because Section 4.03 of the current Inside Agreement states: 'The Employers shall have the right to reject any applicant for employment.'"

This provision for the right to reject is a mandatory clause in all IBEW construction contracts by direct order of the international office. For years, local leaders and active union members have chafed under this rule. It gives employers the arbitrary right to reject any job applicant, even those duly dispatched from union hiring halls, without specifying any reason. It has been wielded by contractors with devastating effect to blackball union loyalists and sometimes, in collusion with unscrupulous union officials, to freeze out independent-minded members who call for changes in union policies.

At the 2001 IBEW convention delegates, to enthusiastic applause, directed their international officers to get rid of the provision and to replace it with a requirement that applicants could be rejected only for good cause, a provision that would offer recourse against arbitrary employers through the grievance procedure. So far however, IBEW international officers are apparently ignoring the convention decision. National contracts negotiated by them still contain the poisonous provision.

Meanwhile, instead of improvement, Jones discovered that the situation has been getting worse. Up to 1994, Local 212 had the unilateral right to appoint its own job stewards. No longer. In 1994, it made a drastic change in the collective bargaining agreement: "The Business Manager shall appoint a working Steward on every job; this will be by mutual consent (Business Manager and Representative of the contractor on the job)...." Now, contractors have a veto power over the appointment of stewards; they have been granted a new right to reject, not only union applicants for employment but also union job stewards.

Jones is a typical union victim of the new setup. He joined Local 212 in 1992, and all seems to have been normal until March 1999 when he tried to process some routine grievances against an employer and felt that he ran into a brick wall when the local union representatives gave him a runaround. For the next many months, he and union reps were in conflict over the quality of grievance processing, until November 2001 when he discovered that an employer had compiled a blacklist of unionists, whom it would not hire.

He filed a complaint with the NLRB against the local chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association charging that the exercise of its veto rights over union stewards was an unfair labor practice. The NLRB dismissed the complaint, ruling that the union's agreement to the employers' veto power made it an acceptable contract. Jones persisted. In May last year, he sued Local 212 in federal court, charging that its agreeing to an employer's veto over union stewards is a breach of its duty of fair representation. The case is pending.

Now, Jones can't get work. Wherever the local sends him, he reports, it is the same story. "Rejected, no explanation." Mayer's Electric, which rejected Jones, is owned, he says, by Howard Mayer, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, the target of Jones's NLRB complaint.

He was rejected by The Wagner Smith company of Dayton Ohio and by the MEI Inc of Louisiana. They both cited the right-to-reject provision in the National Stabilization agreement negotiated by the international. He has never worked for any of these three companies and so has no record with them.

Meanwhile, he wonders, where is the international in the battle to get rid of that right to reject?

For more on the IBEW try our site search engine
See also our Bill of Rights for Building Trades Unionists

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