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The 10th District of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is comprised of proud union members in sixty-one Local Unions in Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Each Local is part of one of the most progressive unions in existence, the IBEW, representing some 750,000 members in the United States and Canada. 

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Organizing in the Pandemic

May 26, 2022

During the deepest lockdown, Nashville, Tenn., Local 429 Organizer Kevin Wilson interviewed now-member Willie Farris, made a classification determination and sent him out on job before ever meeting in person.

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"To an organizer, it was impossible to imagine doing your job with no eye contact, no direct conversation," said Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland. "The benefits of joining in union can be read on a pamphlet, but reading isn't knowing, let alone trusting."

As COVID sealed off jobsites and sent millions of workers to home offices, kitchen tables or near-empty office buildings, the need for worker protections didn't diminish, especially for those who couldn't work from the comfort of a laptop computer. The clamor for union protections only increased.

Eighth and Ninth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Bob Brock said the pandemic left organizers with a choice: change or watch and wither on the vine.

"Everyone has been forced to zero in on the essentials, the core," he said. "But this has been needed. It has been an opportunity to get back to the basics and reset."

Two years on, even with the pandemic still underway, it is possible to see what organizing will look like going forward: much of it familiar, but with new tools and strategies blazing the path to the future.

 

Essential Workers of the World Unite

 

One thing the pandemic didn't change is that working people in America are getting rooked. After decades of wage stagnation, jobs shipped overseas, factories shutting and union busting, the average CEO makes more than 300 times the average worker. The Great Recession swiped a generation's wealth, bailed out the banks and left working families on their knees.

Then, in March 2020, 13 million workers were laid off. Another 9.3 million followed them a month later.

Millions who weren't thrown out on the street were forced back into jobs with minimal protections and shoddy health coverage.

Yes, there was applause for essential workers — the first time since 9/11 that working people were allowed the spotlight normally reserved for tech billionaires and CEOs. They may have been celebrated, but it rarely translated into higher salaries, better benefits or even proper personal protective equipment.

Working Americans and Canadians could see with crystal clarity how little they were valued.

It was no small thing that organizing was at a crossroads just as workers were looking around for tools to improve their lives.

There were, basically, three great challenges that needed to be solved. The first and greatest was replacing the lost face-to-face connection between workers and the organizers working to help them. Development of leads and signing up new members while keeping everyone safe and distanced were the remaining two.

But meeting up, that was challenge number one.

"We have been about face-to-face for a very long time. With the rug ripped out from underneath us, well, how do we do what we are tasked to do every day?" asked Tenth District International Representative Brian Adams. "As a district, we are great at rolling up on a job, getting in front of a contractor, grabbing an electrician in a parking lot and telling them the reason why the IBEW would be great for them. We are really, really good at it. But how do you still be effective when that jobsite is locked down behind COVID precautions or shut down because people got sick?"

For that, organizers turned to teleconferencing — Zoom or any number of alternatives — the side cut pliers of the pandemic organizer: one tool with a thousand uses.

El Paso, Texas, Local 583 is conducting wireman interviews over Zoom calls. Third District International Representative Keenan Eagan ran informational meetings for Shamokin, Pa., Local 607 using Microsoft Teams. Second District International Representative Ed Starr held volunteer organizing committee meetings for presidential campaign workers who were spread across the country.

"The local contacts the guy, 'We see you applied, just want to follow up.' Only now the follow-up is a Zoom call, not a house call," Adams said. "We are all about identifying roadblocks and smashing through them."

There are even official vote counts conducted by the National Labor Relations Board that are observed using Skype, including a long-delayed election at Allied Power Services overseen by Sixth District International Organizer Lynn Arwood. The NLRB shut down in March 2020, right as the election was supposed to be held. It was delayed until July and the result was disputed by the company but was ultimately successful.

As of late January, Arwood said the IBEW and Allied were negotiating a first contract and close to an agreement.

One of the most promising uses of videoconferencing is the transformation of the traditional job fair, said former Director of Construction Membership Development Virgil Hamilton.

Historically, job fairs have been all-hands-on-deck, multi-week extravaganzas with organizers from many states leafletting the parking lots of jobsites and electrical supply companies, phone-banking and email-blasting, all to get nonunion electricians in the room with contractors with open calls.

They are time-, personnel- and money-intensive and require many people, not least the nonunion workers, to all be in a single place at a single time. They also require a fair bit of courage.

"People are genuinely afraid of going to job fairs and are afraid of being seen by owners or spies. We know owners come to job fairs. Shop managers and owners just drive through the parking lot to see if they recognize cars or schedule overtime to keep people from going," Hamilton said.

All of that changes when job fairs pivot to private teleconferences.

One format of the virtual job fair was developed out of a series of district and international organizing conference calls.

The organizer or a local union volunteer is assigned to every applicant. They conduct a virtual interview to establish experience level, do a skill assessment and create a personal connection.

"This is nothing new really: Relationship Building 101. The organizer's job is to educate them on what to expect and to forge a personal connection," Hamilton said.

It's the next part of the process that is new. The organizer then sets up Zoom interviews with the hiring contractors, and the job fair valet stays with the potential new member every step of the way. The job comes from the organizer, but the opportunity, the standards and protections in the contract, and future jobs, that all comes from the IBEW.

"We want them to see us as more than a job provider. We want them to see the brotherhood aspect of the IBEW from the start of their journey," Hamilton said.

It is a significant bonus that in a virtual job fair things like getting mailers, brochures and yard signs ordered and shipped, reserving tables and spaces and coordinating schedules and travel to get everyone in the same place take a backseat.

Now we are universally focused on message, outreach and follow up," he said.

Even in more ways, Adams said, the rise of videoconferencing made communication easier, especially internally.

"What's funny is we are probably communicating at a higher level now. It was more one-on-one before. Now it is district wide. We have guys in Arkansas talking to organizers in the Carolinas who maybe hadn't talked more than twice a year during a blitz or at a conference," he said. "It is a [hard] time to be alive, let alone try to fill a 10-man call by your lonesome. Just connecting with one another, it keeps the morale high."

Fourth District Organizing Coordinator Gary Osborne put it more simply.

"We're busier than ever because we haven't been in our cars," he said.

 

Developing Leads

 

It must be said that the volume of online meetings that characterized the start of the pandemic has waned. Most locals returned to in-person meetings in the fall, even if some went back to restrictions during the omicron variant wave.

But some new tools that grew in prominence during the pandemic will only grow further, Oakland said.

Developing lists of nonunion electricians from hiring websites like Indeed, LinkedIn and others is a valuable tool that is only now being used to its full potential. Organizers are also developing campaigns to reach the entire community of nonunion workers, including targeting ads to specific locations like jobsites or electrical supply companies.

Organizers had been using each of these tools in a scattershot way, or hiring specialist companies to do it for them, for years. But they were brought together as a unified and flexible pandemic toolkit during the Berg's Going Union campaign, a multi-jurisdictional organizing campaign targeting one of the largest nonunion contractors in North America.

"What we have come to realize is that a person's online address is at least as important as their physical address," said Workforce Recruitment Coordinator Aaron Jones, a third-generation IBEW member from Las Vegas. "We needed to find a deeper use for social media, adapting it and hiring platforms for organizing purposes. And then we needed an online resource, not just a website. Something more than 'Call us today.'"

In early 2021, the positive outcomes from the BGU campaign led International President Lonnie R. Stephenson and NECA CEO David Long to create a Workforce Recruitment Task Force that would target Nashville, Tenn., Phoenix and the San Antonio/Austin market, areas with lots of open calls and high expected growth.

The result was astonishing, Oakland said.

"In three months in these cities we filled at least as many open calls as we did over a decade using industry nights, and we did it for far less than 10% of the cost," he said.

The results were so promising that Jones compiled a manual that included all the tools used in the task force trial run and made it available to local and international organizers from the Membership Development Department. Then, in January, the Workforce Recruitment Task Force model was expanded to an additional 25 cities.

 "This has been a difficult time, but in 10 years I have never felt as effective as an organizer as I do now," Jones said.

The end goal, Jones said, will be a database of every nonunion electrician in North America and a strategy to reach them with a compelling message both online and in-person to create a real relationship.

"It will take time, but we have the tools," he said.

Jones is almost evangelical in his advocacy for the newer, computer-based tools to start the connection with nonunion workers, but he is clear that what will make it last is the community-built worker-to-worker interactions.

“The realities of organizing in a pandemic helped us to make connections between old tools and new ones, and now we’re operating on another level,” Oakland said.

 

Signing Up by Logging On

 

Finally, there was the problem of signing up new members when the old way required in-person interactions deemed unsafe in the pandemic's early days.

In February of 2020 when the first contract was agreed with Atlanta Gas Light, any worker who wanted to join the IBEW could do it roughly the same way anyone might have joined 125 years ago: filling out a paper form. And that was the plan to sign up new members to Atlanta Local 1997.

But by mid-March, there was no way to get the paper applications to everyone and International Office staff that processed the applications was largely working from home.

"We couldn't speak to potential members and stewards couldn't even see their coworkers because the company, understandably, kept them separate," said Fifth District International Organizer Joe Skinner. They had to come up with new tools, new strategies nearly overnight. "We pushed everyone to digital forms and mobile-based membership applications. We emailed them links and left pamphlets with QR codes in the workplace."

The key change was the digital membership application.

"The DMA is an absolute game changer," said Director of Membership Development for Professional and Industrial Jammi Ouellette. "I can't begin to describe how big going digital is. There's nothing more frustrating for our new members than chasing down paper. When the office closed and we couldn't manually process applicants, what were we supposed to do? Luckily [Per Capita Department Director] Louie [Spencer] was a champion to get us digitalized and offer an electronic membership option."

Atlanta Local 1997 signed up a majority of its new members using the DMA within eight weeks of its first contract approval. Since then, the unit has grown to more than 200 workers without the signing of a single physical card.

Brock said you don't even need the pandemic to see how valuable that is; you just look at the opposite case. On a recent campaign, signed authorization cards expired before they could all be submitted.

"Paper is a challenge, just the logistics: I get the authorizations from the International Office, give them to the volunteer organizing committee captains; they give it to the new members, back to the captain, back to me and then back to the I.O. The DMA just eliminates all those exchanges," Brock said.

Now, organizers are going back through the unit and doing authorizations with the DMA and when the member fills it out on a computer or by phone, it is filed and official.

"The second they fill it out, it's where it needs to be instantly," he said.

Across North America, the unthinkable is commonplace: newly organized wiremen and linemen are contacted, signed up, interviewed and sent out on work without ever meeting anyone in person.

"The only time they come in now is when they get sworn in," said Seventh District Organizing Coordinator Javier Casas.

Some locals aren't even requiring people to come in for that. Boston Local 103 Business Manager Lou Antonellis saw only the torsos, heads (some masked) and raised right arms when he swore in the Joe Kennedy for Senate campaign workers via videoconference in 2020. 

 

The Tools We're Keeping

 

Another thing the pandemic taught organizers was that some of the old tools — the oldest tools — worked just fine.

Not everything changed two years ago. On the construction side in the U.S. and some parts of Canada, the building boom took a brief stutter step and then simply barreled on. Open calls were the reality before 2020 and for many locals manning the work is still an organizer's primary task.

"Our message never changed, especially to contractors. Top-down organizing can be very effective via phone or Zoom — in-person meetings are not completely necessary to address their fears or concerns and discuss the value we bring to their company. If the top-down process isn't successful, and they choose not to sign, I'll strip your workers," said Second District International Vice President Mike Monahan. "Most of what we do in the Second is top-down organizing and COVID restrictions didn't impact that."

Anyone can find out that a nonunion contractor won a job through online sources like Dodge, Industrial Information Resources and others and explaining the benefits of signing an IBEW contract can be accomplished over the phone.

"We never skipped a beat, never had to change," Monahan said

Fourth District Organizing Coordinator Gary Osborne said field organizers continued making jobsite visits, though with precautions never seen before.

"If for some reason a jobsite came down with the virus, we don't want blame to come down on our organizer," he said. "They are following the guidelines. They may go on jobsites, but they go with a mask, distance and just as often as talking they leave literature on car windows fishing for calls."

You have to be an idealist and an optimist to be an organizer, but you have to be brass-tacks pragmatic, too.

"We're like MacGyver. You use every tool, and every tool has a use. And organizers never, ever throw a tool away," Jones said.

And while the future will involve developing better, more complex and interconnected tools to find prospects and make the pitch, the job of the organizer hasn't dramatically changed because the most important skill is what an organizer does when they make a connection, Brock said.

"I have a rule. The more I'm talking, the worse I'm doing," he said. "My job is to listen, because if it was only about wages and benefits, everyone would already be in our union."

"Whether you are trying to organize electricians or camera operators, really what you are trying to figure out is the change that person wants to see in their work life, so you can then have the conversation about how being part of the IBEW can help them realize that change. The only way to find that out is listening. In person. Online. On a Zoom. In a living room. You listen. And when we listen, we have a chance to change lives forever.” 


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Employers knew they had little to fear at the time from a National Labor Relations Board openly hostile to workers and unions.

Then Joe Biden took office and immediately fired the board's virulently anti-union general counsel.

With new lawyers and a board majority reflecting the Biden administration's pro-union values, today's NLRB is a sizzling revival of the agency created 87 years ago to protect workers' rights and encourage collective bargaining.

As swiftly as possible, the new team is undoing the wreckage of its predecessors, rebuilding field staff, and going to the mat for workers in ways that were unimaginable in the recent past.

For the struggling Illinois unit, that means a board willing to fight for them in federal court to force their employer to the table.

"Oh man, politics matter," said Local 538 Business Manager Mike Arbuckle. "If you don't think so, look at how the NLRB is standing up for us. They have our backs and that wasn't true when this campaign started. We'd file ULPs and they weren't going anywhere because of who was sitting on the board."

THE NLRB is uniquely important to workers' rights.

Labor and its allies hail the bounty of executive orders lifting up workers that Biden has signed since taking office. And they are pushing hard for Congress to codify the progress by passing the landmark Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act).

But policy and law only go so far without enforcement.

"We can organize workers, we can support them and fight for them in every possible way, but by ourselves we can't make an employer recognize a union and bargain in good faith," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "Only the NLRB can do that, backed by the courts."

The board is both the steward and policing arm of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, a law that was never meant to be neutral.

Its language protects workers and employers alike, but the balance tilts toward the underdog. As spelled out in Section 1, the Act makes it official U.S. policy to address the "inequality of bargaining power" by "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association."

Under attack from day one, the law took its first big hit with the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and has been eroded ever since by Congress and the courts.

How the NLRB interprets and applies the evolving law — with more deference to workers, as the NLRA intended, or as a cudgel for employers — depends on who's in charge.

The party in power in the White House gets three of the board's five seats. By no measure do workers always win with Democrats in control, nor do they always lose under Republicans.

But any sense of fair play went out the window during the previous administration, the era of career union-buster Peter Robb as general counsel and a lockstep board majority that twisted precedent, logic, and common sense to arrive at pro-employer decisions.

Meanwhile, one or both of the seats intended for Democrats were left empty for long stretches, largely due to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal to act on nominations.

It took the Biden presidency and his party's slender hold on the Senate to restore a deliberative board that is serious — and enthusiastic — about its obligation to the NLRA.

General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo was first through the door after being confirmed by the narrowest of margins in July, a party-line 50-50 Senate tie broken by Vice President Kamala Harris.

She quickly began shaking things up with an ongoing series of memorandums making sharp U-turns in policy and advancing new ideas.

The opening line of a memo embracing the goals of the first-ever White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowermentcut straight to the heart of her ambitious agenda.

"There is no better calling," Abruzzo wrote, "than to ensure that the rights of workers in this country are protected and that violations of their rights are swiftly remedied."

THE NEW BOARD majority is made up of Chair Lauren McFerran and members Gwynne Wilcox and David Prouty, both former union-side attorneys who were confirmed by the Senate on the heels of Abruzzo.

Board members serve five-year terms, meaning there is overlap between administrations. The Biden nominees couldn't be seated until two GOP terms expired.

McFerran was appointed by President Obama in 2014 and four years later was the board's only remaining voice for workers. She used it to full effect, writing blistering dissents of her counterparts' rulings.

Rebuking a 2019 decision against the United Auto Workers, for example, she said it "reflects a failure to engage in the reasoned decision-making required of the board. There is no rational connection between the reasons offered by the majority for rejecting established law and the new approach it adopts here."

She was silenced later that year when McConnell stalled a vote to reseat her for a second term. Until he relented eight months later, the anti-worker bloc had full ownership of the board.

On Inauguration Day 2021, President Biden handed her the gavel. With the additions of Wilcox and Prouty in August, the pendulum's swing was complete.

THE BOOM in organizing drives across the country is one of the most visible signs of the board's new temperament.

As workers fight for unions at some of America's most prominent corporations, rulings from regional NLRB offices and the national board are tripping up management schemes to stop them.

That includes the IBEW's campaign at Colectivo Coffee, where baristas endured bitter anti-union backlash to join Milwaukee Local 494 and Chicago Local 1220.

When they voted in April 2021, roughly a year after starting the drive, the result was a 99-99 tie with 16 challenged ballots favoring the union. An NLRB regional director upheld enough of them to put the workers over the top, and the board ruled against the company on appeal.

Colectivo is prolonging the battle with another appeal, but Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh isn't sweating it. He has trust in the new board and calls the case officer assisting them "a dream to work with."

He said interactions with NLRB field staff are markedly different now, even with some of the same people they approached for help earlier.

"They were under pressure to do what they were told to do and now a weight's been lifted off their shoulders," Warsh said.

"You can see from the tone of the email that comes back that it's completely changed from the previous administration to the new administration. You can tell that these people want to be in there fighting for workers and they couldn't do that for years. They're relieved to be able to do their jobs again."

After the NLRB certified the vote Aug. 23, Warsh put out a news release saying he hoped the win "inspires others in the hospitality/service industry to organize a union at their workplace!"

That very day Starbucks workers in Buffalo, N.Y., tweeted their intent to do so. Now more than 100 organizing drives are underway at the chain nationwide as union supporters chalk up one NLRB victory after another.

THE DIRECTIVES from the general counsel's desk cover a lot of ground, but a similar current runs through all of them: stronger protections for workers and greater consequences for employers who violate their rights.

A February memo doubled down by seeking to expand the use of 10(j) injunctions, named for the section in the NLRA that allows the board to seek relief in court when unfair labor practices call for urgent action.

Now Abruzzo wants to apply them when workers are threatened or otherwise coerced during an organizing campaign.

"Threats often escalate into action, imposing even more burdens and chilling effects on employees," she said in announcing the strategy. "They are not mere words ... but a prelude to what is likely to come to pass. I believe [they] need to be promptly stopped."

Abruzzo broached the subject in a December interview with Law360 when asked if the Board has any real power to punish employers under the NLRA.

She said passing the PRO Act would help, but that the NLRB needs to better deploy the weapons it already has. Injunctive relief is one of them.

"I plan on pushing that even further: If there are significant threats — 'I'm going to discharge you if you continue to seek support of your co-workers to bring a union in here' — [even] without actually firing that person, I've asked the regional directors to send those cases up here for authority to go into court and seek an injunction."

Abruzzo began her NLRB career in the field, climbing the agency's legal ladder for 20 years before serving as the chief attorney for the Communications Workers. Union lawyers applauded her nomination to be the board's top cop but had no idea how bowled over they'd be in just seven months.

"Jennifer Abruzzo has been as aggressive as we've seen as a general counsel in trying to protect workers' rights," said IBEW General Counsel Jon Newman. "We're thrilled with her, and every indication is that we're going to continue to be."

MAKING WORKERS whole financially when they are unlawfully discharged or otherwise harmed is a hot topic for Abruzzo and the board.

But existing language on remedies doesn't allow for that, and any change in precedent requires relevant, available cases.

Enter six IBEW-represented workers in California who were laid off in 2019 from Thyrv, Inc., a conglomerate that grew out of the original Yellow Pages company.

IBEW lawyers argue that the layoffs were illegal, causing "direct and foreseeable harm" through loss of income and health care, an extra burden for three of the workers who are disabled.

An administrative law judge sided with the company. Now, the union's appeal has landed at the center of a conversation about "consequential damages."

McFerran raised the concept in the case of a nursing home that terminated employees' health insurance without telling them or their union. Workers racked up medical bills they couldn't pay, leaving one a half-million dollars in debt after emergency surgery.

While the full complement of Democrats wasn't seated when the case was decided, the company's actions were too egregious even for the GOP members. But they wouldn't consider enhanced compensation.

McFerran and Abruzzo make it clear that damages don't need to be medically related or anywhere near six figures to be consequential. They cite wrongfully fired workers drowning in interest and late fees on credit cards, incurring penalties for tapping retirement funds to cover living expenses, and losing their homes and cars.

They needed a new test case and found one in the Thyrv workers' appeal. Based on it, the board issued a call last November for amicus briefs — outside opinions of stakeholders and experts.

"I think it reflects a board that is interested in making sure workers are truly made whole when they are discriminated against," Newman said, "as opposed to limited remedies that don't deter unlawful employer conduct."

The timing was unusual given that the board had yet to rule on the appeal, and still hadn't as of early March. But he said they wouldn't be shining a spotlight on the case if they weren't leaning the union's direction, clearly seeing its potential to move the goal posts for workers.

Board requests for amicus briefs in other cases are on the rise. Newman said the pace and quantity alone are revealing. "All those invitations for briefs indicate that the board is interested in overturning some pretty outrageous precedents.”

His assessment of the board's momentum is widely shared in the legal community. But not everyone is happy about it: The Chamber of Commerce and human resources journals are spilling over with panic among management lawyers and their clients.

WHEN THE media reports on the NLRB, it is typically the rulings in brand-name organizing drives that grab their attention.

 
But standing up for unseen workers who suffer some of the worst abuses from employers is the meat and potatoes of the board's work.

The IBEW members who produce, pack and ship aerosol food spray at Full-Fill Industries in Illinois know how much that matters.

In November, a core group of them testified before an administrative law judge via Zoom to defend their union against a suspect petition to decertify it.

The company reneged on an agreement to allow witnesses on shift at the time of the hearing to go to Local 538's hall in Danville. Instead, workers nervously told their stories in a factory office with bosses on the other side of the wall.

But it didn't stop them from recounting intimidation, lies, unjust firings and management's audacious and damaging insinuations that the union stood between workers and their holiday bonuses.

"They showed so much courage," Sixth District organizer Joe DiMichele said. "They rely on these jobs and there aren't many other options. But they stood up and testified. They're absolute champions."

The judge's ruling Jan. 24 was an epic rebuke, finding no credibility in the company's side of the story and ordering it to recognize the union, bargain in good faith, rehire activists and cease and desist from a litany of unlawful behavior, including employee surveillance — another stated battlefront for the board.

Full-Fill immediately filed to stay the order pending an appeal, the typical delay-and-deny game plan of union-busting employers.

But the NLRB isn't playing. The regional office in Illinois went straight to federal court for an injunction to force the company to obey the judge's order no matter how long the legal process drags on.

The union was still waiting on the ruling in early April but had no doubts about the new NLRB's commitment to justice.

"The board agents, they've been outstanding," said Arbuckle, the business manager. "They've seen how egregious the violations are and how much control the company has over these workers' lives. They're doing everything they can to give them the respect and dignity they deserve."