Photo Credit: Clickr/Creative Commons photo by BP Images.
The BP Refinery in Whiting, Ind., where members of Gary/Hammond, Ind., Local 697 have worked for generations.  

Oil refineries along Lake Michigan have been a steady source of good union jobs in Northern Indiana for generations, but they aren’t the guarantee of a comfortable, middle-class life they once were.

Jobs have been lost due to consolidation in the industry. Nearly all of the oil corporations are now foreign-owned. Longtime partners are feeling the pinch, said Gary/Hammond, Ind., Local 697 Business Manager Ryan Reithel.

So, when it came time to bid a job at the BP Refinery in Whiting, Ind., Local 697 worked with the Education and Business Development departments and made a Code of Excellence presentation for M.J. Electric, a longtime signatory contractor in the area.

The result? M.J. Electric used the Code as a tool when it convinced BP officials it was the right choice to do the electrical work on a new extractor within the refinery, a job that will employ about 50 Local 697 members at its peak. Work began in late 2018.

“It’s a challenge because our customer is in England,” Reithel said in reference to BP, which is headquartered in London. “They just look at the numbers. They don’t have the understanding of the expertise we bring to the job.”

But M.J. Electric does. With the help of the Code of Excellence, company leaders convinced BP they were the right choice for the project. The IBEW’s quality work – one of the pillars of the Code – resonated with BP.

“They get it,” Reithel said of M.J. Electric. “They get the nonunion competition we’re up against.”

M.J. Electric is based in Iron Mountain, Mich., and specializes in electrical distribution and transmission, renewable energy and substations. It employs about 250 workers in northwest Indiana, said Jim Maness, operations manager for the company’s central division.

Maness is a journeyman inside wireman and remains a Local 697 member. The company has long used union labor. The Code of Excellence is another tool to show larger corporations why that work is superior to nonunion counterparts.

“Our work rules at M.J. align very nicely with what the Code of Excellence is all about,” he said. “When we work with larger organizations. … we’re also talking about the rules we live by. They are very similar to what is called out in the Code of Excellence.”

The Code started in the construction branch, but it has spread to other branches and is used by the IBEW to distinguish its members from the competition. The Code is based on the principles of safety, professionalism, accountability, respect and quality – otherwise known as SPARQ – and assures business partners the IBEW’s work will surpass any other group or organization in quality and value.

Reithel worked with Education Department International Representative CJ King and Business Development International Representative John Bzdawka to assist M.J. Electric in making that case in its bid on the $300 million project.

“To me, it comes down to making sure there’s the right culture in the workplace and excellence is the top priority,” said King, who has worked in the Education Department since 1999. “It’s making sure we do everything right. I think we do a good job of explaining that during our apprenticeship training, but sometimes when you get a on a job, other things can distract from that mission.”

Take accountability – not just to partners and employers, but to fellow employees, King said. If someone is late for work without notifying a foreman, his or her co-workershave a responsibility to let them know it isn’t acceptable.

It’s easy to shrug that off on a busy jobsite. But using the Code of Excellence, members let their fellow members know they have to do better.

“Are we comfortable enough to hear a little bit of criticism?” King said. “In the IBEW, our culture has always been one of excellence and we can’t forget that. Sometimes, that means telling someone, ‘Hey, you were a little bit late today? What was the deal with that?’”

Bzdawka, a former Milwaukee Local 494 business manager, said most contractors on high-profile jobs are receptive to the Code of Excellence when they learn about it. He credits Reithel for doing the work set up a meeting with M.J. Electric, as he’s done with several other contractors in Local 697’s jurisdiction.

“The Code of Excellence empowers individuals that may have remained silent to jointly address a person who may have strayed and get them back on the right path,” he said. “When you have the vast majority of people rowing in the right direction, but someone may have lost their way, you’ve got a better chance of collectively getting them back on track.”

Added Maness: I love what the Code stands for. It’s all about getting guys to step forward and do the right thing.”

Local 697 has a history of excellence at the BP Plant in Whiting, which dates back to 1889, when it was originally built by Standard Oil of Indiana. Members were instrumental in a massive renovation and expansion, which was completed in 2013.

That’s a history Reithel hopes to continue. He’s confident the Code of Excellence will help do just that.

“What a better way to do this,” he said. “When our customers and our contractors know that we take their job seriously, that we’re all working toward the same goal, using IBEW professionals is an easy sell. The Code is the perfect way to send that message.”