The story of the “Ellensburg 6” almost seems scripted for Hollywood. Almost.
Six union linemen at a small utility in the eastern shadow of the Cascades face down an employer determined to outsource their jobs by making them miserable enough to quit.
Morale is at rock bottom. Their safety is at risk. So is the central Washington town that counts on its trusted, year-round crew to keep the lights on.
Then, as icy contract talks drag on, a movement erupts. “I stand with the Ellensburg 6” becomes a rallying cry.
Residents and union brothers and sisters far and wide flock to social media. Yard signs pop up everywhere. Shopkeepers line windows with placards. Farmers offer land to pitch jumbo signs along the road. A billboard on wheels rolls up and down the streets. Hundreds of people clamor for virtual seats at a City Council meeting. Drivers honk their salutes as supporters picket City Hall in campaign T-shirts and face masks.
Solidarity and kinship are palpable. In two months’ time, the linemen have a new three-year contract with raises the city had bitterly refused.
That’s where moviemakers would roll the credits.
The reality is more complicated for Seattle-based Local 77, its Ellensburg crew, and beleaguered members at other public utilities where turnover at the top has swept in rabidly anti-union managers.
In late 2019, the Kittitas County Public Utility District succeeded at browbeating its linemen to the exits and contracting out their jobs.
With the same tactics in play in Ellensburg, the county seat, Local 77 pulled out the stops to avoid an encore. The linemen won their community’s hearts, but the city is still waging war.
Now, a new front has opened up 95 miles southeast in Richland, where managers treated their dispirited, underpaid line crews with even more rancor during the pandemic.
In early June, as the unit’s 30 members geared up for a splashy mid-month launch, signs and banners were on order, flyers were being printed, and a social media offensive was quietly humming, ready to pop the day that workers planned to start knocking on doors.
Like their Ellensburg brothers, they want the people they serve to see them in the same light as police officers and firefighters — essential, local troubleshooters who guard against calamity.
“We want to make the public aware that it’s critical to stand up for local workers in local jobs that invest local dollars right back into the community — jobs that protect their families, their homes and their businesses,” Local 77 Business Manager Rex Habner said.
Brian Gray, an assistant Local 77 business manager who represents the Ellensburg six, at left, with journeyman line clearance tree trimmer Michael Young at the informational picket March 5, which drew honks and cheers from passing drivers.
FOR A STRETCH of time beginning in the 1990s and trickling off after 2010, many utilities around the country made a bad bet on outsourcing.
“For a hundred years, they’d use contractors for the hills and staff for the valleys,” Utility Director Donnie Colston said.
The valley utilities started to let attrition deplete their experienced, local workforces.
“They kind of thought of themselves as virtual, meaning they didn’t need employees, and started subcontracting these technical, highly skilled jobs to nonunion contractors,” Colston said. “What they found out is that it was costing them 1 ½ - 2 times what their own workforce cost.”
For example, he said, a utility might send a truck or two, with up to four linemen, to replace a damaged pole. Nonunion outside contractors, with training so subpar they’d been known to promote apprentices to journeymen in barely a year, would dispatch and bill for at least twice as many vehicles and workers.
Utilities wised up and began rebuilding their own crews. What’s happening in central Washington is “going against the trend,” Colston said.
Local 77’s bargaining agreements require utilities to use IBEW labor, whether in-house or through National Electrical Contractors Association signatories.
The industry requires both — itinerant outside construction crews and local utility workers rooted in their communities, familiar with every line, and available for callouts at all hours. Replacing them is a slippery slope that employers will exploit, Colston and others said.
“Any time you start subcontracting out fixed positions, they’ve now separated you from being a worker at the utility to being a line item,” said Dominic Nolan, a Ninth District international representative. “When you’re an employee you have a contract with the utility and a relationship with the community. Outsourcing erodes that.”
Brian Gray has long represented the Ellensburg 6 and many other utility workers in central and eastern Washington. He fumes thinking about how much harder it’s gotten for them in recent years under new city and PUD managers “who are all hostile to unions and all talk to each other.”
It’s not universal, the Local 77 assistant business manager said, citing utilities that are more work-friendly utilities. And he’s hopeful the outpouring in Ellensburg leads some of the other employers to back away from similar schemes.
But where union-busters and bean-counters are firmly in charge, he said more plots are afoot to replace hometown crews and curtail their year-round schedule of service and maintenance.
It goes to show how little they understand, said Habner, whose own job as a young journeyman was contracted out.
“They don’t know what it means to have a fire-hardened, winter-hardened utility,” he said. “Maintenance costs money, but maintenance is also what allows you to control your costs.”
Lana Straight, a Local 77 shop steward at Puget Sound Energy, was among many members who drove hours to show support for Ellensburg’s linemen.
THE CAMPAIGN in Ellensburg, population 20,000, went from zero to 60 with the speed of a blast text in early February that sent people to a Facebook page.
“I would be happy to put 100 signs in my yard if it helps!” one person posted.
“I don’t have a yard, but I have a window!” another said.
“People were liking the page, messaging us, asking what they can do to help. It got huge so fast,” said Local 77 organizer and campaign coordinator Sara Langus, hailed by her teammates as a cyclone of innovative ideas and strategy.
Initial calls for action led residents to flood City Hall with emails demanding the mayor and city manager do right by the linemen.
“It was the talk of the town,” said unit steward and journeyman Bryan Ring. “It felt like our support was doubling and tripling. I called up Sara and said, ‘You’re going to have to get us a lot more signs.’”
An army of union allies grew across the state, even crossing the borders of Oregon and Idaho. Some IBEW members drove for hours in March for an informational picket that was a socially distanced sea of “I stand with the Ellensburg 6” T-shirts.
But nothing was more fundamental, Ring said, than the linemen’s conversations with townspeople.
Those nameless men they’d seen up poles and in bucket trucks turned out to be neighbors and customers and class parents — dedicated, highly skilled workers doing perilous jobs to keep Ellensburg lit, powered and safe.
Hearing how they were being demeaned at work and insulted at the bargaining table with a 1-0-0 wage offer didn’t sit well.
A week after the first text went viral, the Ellensburg City Council faced an epic online audience. Early birds snapped up the virtual gallery’s 100 seats, a Zoom link that typically draws a smattering of observers. More than 700 other supporters spilled over to Local 77’s YouTube stream.
Council members effectively yawned at public comments championing the linemen’s cause. Ring could see some of them playing games on their phones — a sign of the disrespect that he and others say won’t be forgotten at the ballot box this fall, when three council seats are up for grabs.
Journeyman lineman and Ellensburg unit steward Bryan Ring.
THE BROTHERHOOD in Ellensburg is strong, but young.
Ring was one of nine employees when he arrived from Utah in 2016. Only one his five current coworkers goes back as far. The others have less than two years on the job, though one worked for the Kittitas PUD until his bosses made it unbearable.
“We had a bond with those journeymen,” Ring said of the Kittitas crew, which had its own bargaining agreement but was part of the Ellensburg unit.
The city linemen showed up whenever the county linemen needed extra hands, and they saw each other at unit meetings. “We always knew what was going on,” he said. “We saw it escalate. You’d watch them come in and you could see the pressure, the negativity, in their faces.”
The Kittitas workers lamented safety shortcuts, poor-quality gear and disputes over meal periods, callouts, equipment and more — torment that was all too familiar to the Ellensburg 6.
It was easy for the public to relate to the workplace battles. Talking to them about money was trickier. The linemen’s wages are below the comparable average, but high by Ellensburg standards.
Explaining the training, skills and risks their jobs involved was often persuasive, Ring said. With businesspeople, they were more blunt.
“We’re six guys and we make 70% of the revenue for the city,” he said, summarizing their argument. “Would you strip their tools and treat them like dirt? If it were me, I would do everything I can to make sure the department keeps doing as well as it is. There’s no way I’d jeopardize losing that 70%.”
City officials were unmoved. They cried poverty through bargaining and mediation, claiming COVID-19 had starved their budget. When they settled on 3% annual raises in April — the unit started at 5% —they barely hid their disgust.
“We went through the process and got an outcome the city could live with that provided the IBEW what they voted on,” the mayor told the local newspaper.
The very next day, he and the city manager revealed that they’d been sitting on $4.5 million in federal pandemic relief funds.
They announced that all nonunion employees were getting 6% raises.
IT WAS A shocking display of spite, even to union leaders who’d seen it all.
Months into bargaining in Richland, officials disclosed their own COVID-19 windfall. Flush with $7.3 million, they bumped up their paltry wage offer — by half a percentage point.
That slap in the face piled on to a hellish year for the workers, who earn less than almost all their utility counterparts in Local 77, staff representative Will Power said.
Even though their state was the first to record COVID-19 deaths, Power said Richland officials were slow to acknowledge the danger and balked at guidelines to minimize risks. But they acted with purpose, he said, in finding a loophole to deny them paid federally mandated sick leave if they caught the virus.
He said three workers have quit this year and others are on the edge.
But as they prepared to kick off their campaign, the magic in Ellensburg spurred hope. Could lightning strike twice?
HABNER, who graduated from high school in Ellensburg, marvels at how swiftly and robustly his old town responded.
It was never a sure thing, he said, not in a state where politics are defined by a mountain range. Labor gets less love to the east, and any pro-union message, no matter how nonpolitical, can be a tough sell.
Yet in a matter of days, a small city in Washington’s deep-red center was rooting its heart out for six union linemen.
The team behind the all-out-blitz hopes it inspires other locals that feel like they’re facing impossible odds.
“It shows what the IBEW can do,” Gray said. “No unit is too small to fight for. Whether it’s one person or a thousand, we’ll be there.”