Waldorf, Md., Local 1718's relationship with the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative has had its ups and downs over the years, not dissimilar to many local utility unions. But Business Manager Rick Mattingly and others noticed the local's 270 members at SMECO were consistently getting hit hard by disciplinary issues.
Instead of direct communication between management and labor, emails were traded back and forth, and too often instead of having a conversation that could rectify the situation in a few minutes, both sides hardened their positions. Grievances were filed and bad feelings were the order of the day, Mattingly said.
But things are changing thanks in part to the Code of Excellence, which was implemented over the last three years between Local 1718 and the cooperative. Today, those miscommunications are increasingly rare, Mattingly said.
"Now, we schedule a meeting with the supervisors who are involved and anyone else who needs to be there," he said. "We schedule that meeting before we file a grievance.
"With email, you're just stating the facts. It's very factual but you can come off as a jerk without that human element. The other side can get defensive and upset as well."
The Code of Excellence is an IBEW initiative where members are accountable to themselves and one another and charged with setting the high standards that skilled union employees bring to any job. The second part of that responsibility falls on employers, who pledge to work with the union and employees and not approach issues from a starting point of mistrust. Part of doing that is developing mechanisms that deal with conflicts and issues on the job before they escalate.
The Code was originally designed for the Construction branch but has now been expanded to meet the needs of other branches, including Utility.
Mattingly was Local 1718's vice president when initial conversations began with the cooperative about a Code of Excellence. He was part of the negotiations and took over as business manager earlier this year. He credits Sonja Cox, who was promoted to SMECO's president and chief executive officer in January 2020, for making it a priority. Cox has been with the company for 22 years.
"Bringing the COE into the organization has helped to strengthen the relationship between management and the bargaining unit," Cox said. "We work together on issues to try and reach a resolution. I care about all of the employees and am pleased to see our relationship improve. I know this program will keep us on track."
Larry Neidig, an international representative in the Education Department, led 14 training classes with Local 1718 members. All SMECO employees — no matter if they were part of the bargaining unit — attended at least one class.
"The people who are involved have to actually embrace it and do the work that makes it a success," Neidig said. "I think that is what has happened here.
"The company was on board with training and getting it set up. Then COVID hit and kind of slowed it down a little bit. But Sonja is committed to making this work."
Mattingly cautions that Local 1718 still is in "baby steps" working with SMECO to ensure the Code works for both parties. But the initial signs are positive, he added.
"I feel like it is giving my stewards a little more authority," said Mattingly, who credited his predecessor, Robin Parisi, for getting the program started. "The bargaining unit employees are starting to use them more instead of going to myself or whoever. It sets the blueprint for how the chain of command works and how we're accountable to each other."
Parisi now works for SMECO as a liaison between management and labor.
"I think it just sets up a good framework for basic communication and it can work anywhere in any situation," Mattingly said. "You have levels of management on their side. You have levels of the bargaining unit on our side. With the Code of Excellence, it sets those levels and a framework on how to communicate."