All of the union coal mines are shut down shut down in Eastern Kentucky, once a stronghold of the United Mineworkers. Good paying jobs are scarce. But the courage and hard work that supplied a nation with coal remains. And some of the hardest working folks in those parts climb and trim trees for Asplundh Tree Experts, the huge family-owned business that contracts with power companies to keep their lines clear of foliage.
This year, as the Appalachian winter settles in, hundreds of those workers at Asplundh yards are choosing to rejuvenate the once-powerful union presence in the hills and valleys by voting for IBEW representation. They are hoping to join hundreds of union members who have negotiated decent agreements with Asplundh to properly reward them for their hard and potentially dangerous work.
|Thirteen winning campaigns at Asplundh offer hope to more than 500 tree trimmers for wage and benefit improvements and enhanced safety on the job.
Photo credit: Big Dream Photo Works
On Dec. 4, tree trimmers in Pikeville voted 70 to 3 for IBEW. The same day, their co-workers in Paintsville, adjacent to the birthplace of country music legend Loretta Lynn, voted 23 to 2 for the union. The wins add links to a chain of 13 victories that began in July in Ohio and rolled through West Virginia in the fall.
Since July, more than 500 trimmers have chosen representation with 80 percent of eligible workers participating and a winning percentage of 89 percent, an extraordinary accomplishment in today’s political and economic climate.
“The union is moving forward and looking to assist even more trimmers win a voice on the job,” says Larry Wendler, Louisville Local 369 organizer who helped coordinate the two most recent campaigns.
Wendler says the success of the earlier campaigns has established an information pipeline among trimmers, many of whom use social networking to talk about how to improve safety conditions, benefits and pay at Asplundh. Many of the trimmer crews have worked together for 10 years, he says. Some are predominantly composed of young folks just out of high school.
Wendler says many trimmers have worked side by side with the union’s linemen for American Electric Power and other utilities. Some of the linemen encouraged trimmers to seek a voice on the job.
In most organizing campaigns, hours are spent meticulously cultivating leads. At Asplundh, the leads are calling on the IBEW to come out and launch campaigns, says Wendler, who travels more than three hours from Louisville to meet with prospective members and soon expects to take the same amount of time to head to the western part of the state.
The density of trees in the state’s eastern, more mountainous sector is greater than in the flatter terrain in the west, requiring more manpower, says Wendler. But the pipeline is carrying the message that the more trimmers who join the union, the more leverage they will have with Asplundh, a company that already includes so many IBEW bargaining units.
Fourth District International Vice President Kenny Cooper said he is preparing a letter to the company requesting to open first contract negotiations.
“We are dedicated to seeing that Asplundh employees receive a fair and equitable contract,” says Cooper, who credits the solid teamwork between local union organizers and the International’s Membership Development Department for the mounting wins and the courage of the workers to stand together for change.”
“If Asplundh wants to talk yard by yard, we will,” says Cooper. “But we think it would make more sense to negotiate agreements across the company’s regions or the International’s vice presidential districts.”