Ohio Utility Locators Overcome Distance to Vote ‘Union Yes’
November 25, 2014
Fourth District Lead Organizer Lynda Wenzel : ‘Sometimes [workers] don’t have properly calibrated equipment. So if a crew comes through to dig and the location is bad, there could be real trouble.’
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Venturist
In many workplaces of the 21st century, employees rarely meet face-to-face.
Such is the case for Ohio gas line utility locators working for S&N Communications, an infrastructure construction corporation. Instead of exchanging “good morning” and a cup of coffee with a co-worker, employees check their company-issued laptops from home to get the day’s schedule. Then, it’s off in the truck to locate, mark and flag where lines are buried so that underground construction work can take place without damaging the fuel lines of Columbia Gas – the largest natural gas provider in the state.
“They’re like virtual employees,” said Fourth District Lead Organizer Lynda Wenzel. Dozens of locators are spread throughout the state, and many don’t even know one another.
But nearly all were facing the same challenges on the job. “Safety has been a big issue,” Wenzel said. “When they’re locating the gas lines, sometimes they don’t have properly calibrated equipment. So if a crew comes through to dig and the location is bad, there could be real trouble.”
The employees’ huge workload complicates matters, said Toledo Local 245 Assistant Business Manager Ken Erdmann. “They might get as many as 75 assignments per day. They’re almost always behind and often have to work Saturdays or Sundays to catch up.”
Unbeknownst to each other, a few workers began seeking common remedies. Last summer, one employee in the central part of the state contacted the Membership Development Department through the “Join us” tab at IBEW.org. More than 100 miles away, a Toledo-area worker had reached out to Local 245 for assistance.
”They were scrambling and searching for help,” Erdmann said.
What followed was a quick campaign that brought 32 new members into Local 245, tapping the initiative of a strong volunteer organizing committee with years of service in the industry.
But there were scant face-to-face conversations, no house visits and few other common ingredients for what typically turns out a successful campaign. Instead, conference calls and a steady stream of email communication largely carried the day.
“The workers set up a Gmail account, and it helped get them to talk with one another.” Wenzel said. “The employees really took the ball and ran with it. They told the organizers, ‘We’ve got this.’”
One thing that helped sell the IBEW was Local 245’s knowledge of the utility industry and the daily job duties of the locators.
“The employees really wanted to know what kind of experience we had with their line of work,” said Local 245 Business Manager Larry Tscherne. Because the local represented locators in the past, Tscherne and other leaders had a good understanding of the work. “We explained that the IBEW umbrella is huge – and we can talk with fellow locals across the country that represent members like the S&N employees to help get them the best contract and services that we can.
“After that conference call, you could sense that there was a feeling like, ‘We’re going to be OK if we go with the IBEW,’” Tscherne said.
S&N held captive audience meetings at its headquarters in Brunswick in the northern part of the state. To the protests of management, the organizing team was able to convince the state National Labor Relations Board to allow for mail-in ballots, due to the workers’ geographical sprawl.
“In most elections, the employer likes to stand over the ballot box and give you the evil eye,” said Erdmann. “But with a mail-in option, that isn’t in the cards.”
Ballots were counted on Oct. 30 at the NLRB office in Cleveland, with workers strongly voting yes for representation. Employees and IBEW activists are in the process of mobilizing for first contract talks.
“The employees were so diligent in what they did,” Tscherne said. “I have never worked with a group like these individuals. They truly understand what dignity and respect on the job mean and how important that is. They’re going to be a fine addition to Local 245 and the IBEW.”