On September 14, workers at four gas cogeneration plants in the Sacramento area voted Yes to join IBEW Local 1245 in a mail-in ballot election. After months of organizing and enduring an aggressive anti-union campaign, the results were close but clear — the employees of EthosEnergy Group are ready to have real change and a real voice.
EthosEnergy Group, which operates as part of the John Wood Group’s GTS division, is primarily based in Houston but conducts business throughout the US and other countries. EthosEnergy is the operations and maintenance contractor that employs the 43 mechanics, operators, and IC&E technicians who make up the unit; the plants where they work are owned by Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).
While this is Local 1245’s first organizing campaign with EthosEnergy Group, the company is no stranger to the IBEW or its members. Local 396 (Las Vegas) has an active collective bargaining agreement for EthosEnergy workers at Apex Power Plant. In addition, many former EthosEnergy Group employees have quit in recent years, finding more coveted IBEW-represented jobs with other employers such as the City of Roseville, SMUD, and PG&E. This exodus didn’t escape the notice of the workers who stayed behind, and as they connected the dots, the common factor became clear: union representation with IBEW 1245.
In January, I met with a group of EthosEnergy workers to explore the idea of organizing. There were a number of issues that they wanted to address, most notably the unfair, unevenly applied disciplinary process; unaffordable health insurance, which leads many workers to decline coverage; and short staffing combined with poorly defined duties, which results in inefficiency and confusion. Workers felt unheard and disrespected by management in everything from day-to-day operations to their broader efforts at making the work environment better. They were ready for change, and anxious to make it happen.
Over the next few months, the volunteer organizing committee (VOC) took on the challenge of reaching out to coworkers on different shifts and at other plants, with whom they had little interaction otherwise. They built support for organizing, distributing information and educating their coworkers about the union difference. Eventually they collected the show of worker support that the National Labor Relations Board requires to conduct a union election.
In early August, it became clear that the company’s response would be contentious. In contrast to the mail-in ballot election proposed by the union, the company wanted to conduct the election for all four plants on one day, at one plant, for a small window of time during the height of Sacramento’s rush hour traffic. This would have disenfranchised and intimidated a number of workers, such as those on night shift or those who live as far away as Tracy or Chico. Furthermore, the company’s attorney wanted to add several weeks to the period of time leading up to the election (in an obvious effort to extend their union-busting campaign). Naturally, the union and the VOC did not agree with the company’s parameters and went to the NLRB to contest them. It wasn’t until the very final hour of the day before an NLRB hearing that the company relented, agreeing to a mail-in election and abandoning its protracted timeline.
This antagonistic behavior did not change. The company waged a comprehensive anti-union campaign based on creating fear and doubt around unionizing. For weeks, management distributed multiple daily emails full of misinformation (and often blatant lies) about organizing, bargaining, and IBEW Local 1245 in general. Workers were subject to captive audience meetings and interrogative one-on-ones with management, in which the bosses made veiled threats and used scare tactics based on union dues, strikes, and the possibility of “losing everything” in the bargaining process. Just before the voting period began, high ranking company executives flew out from Texas to meet with workers to re-emphasize this message.
In contrast, the message from IBEW and the organizing committee was one based on looking forward and sharing in the pattern of success that Local 1245 members enjoy. The most important pro-union message was this: if organizing were truly as futile as the company says it is, why would the employer be so desperate to convince you not to do it?
The fear and intimidation was nonetheless a powerful force, and the election looked too close to call ahead of the vote count. But when the ballots were finally tallied, they brought good news: the workers won union representation with 23 Yes votes to 17 No.
Going forward, workplace leaders will continue the hard work of uniting their coworkers to ensure strength in the bargaining process. On October 19, Local 1245 Senior Assistant Business Manager Ray Thomas and I will be meeting with the unit to help them elect their bargaining committee and begin the process of drafting bargaining proposals.
— Rick Thompson, IBEW International Lead Organizer