TIMES THAT TRY WORKERS’ SOULS
By Tom Dalzell, Business Manager
Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War patriot, wrote a broadside in 1776 called The Crisis that began with these famous words: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
It is no exaggeration to say that today we live in times that try workers’ souls. Throughout our jurisdiction, we see employers trying to undermine wages and benefits that took us decades to achieve.
In Manteca, we see an irrigation district which boasts of having close to $100 million in reserves—enough money to create an electric utility, they say. But for some reason they found it necessary to try to shove the costs of medical insurance onto their employees—our members.
In Redding, we see a city government that is willing to renounce earlier assurances of retirement security for its employees, and to instantly remove most of our bargaining unit from eligibility for medical insurance when retired.
In Nevada, we see a utility that is flush with profits and federal subsidies, but somehow feels it necessary to cut service to its customers, attack pension benefits for future retirees, and pull the rug out from under existing retirees by unilaterally revoking the medical coverage that had been promised for their retirement. Considering the millions of dollars in bonuses that its executives have taken, this is corporate greed personified.
In California, we see PG&E letting its workforce slowly dwindle, with record low staffing numbers in its gas and electric field operations at a time when the workload is at record highs.
On top of this, we have seen an alarming number of our members seriously hurt or killed on the job, with the most recent being the tragic death of PG&E lineman Max Martinez in Benicia on March 17.
As if this weren’t bad enough, our members working for public utilities have been declared Public Enemy Number One by the probable Republican candidate for Governor of California, Meg Whitman. According to her, our members are the root of all problems facing the state.
Our plate is full. But then, so was that of Thomas Paine and the other colonists who were fighting to win their rights as a free people. Paine wrote, “I fear not. I see no real cause for fear. I know our situation well, and can see the way out of it.”
Like Paine, I know our situation well, and like Paine, I can see the way out of it. The solution is not to be found in any one member, but in the courage and resolve of our members acting together.
Our members and retired members have taken strong direct action against NV Energy and the City of Redding. With funding approved by our executive board, we have filled the streets and filled city council chambers. Our members have pressed our case in newspapers, over the radio, and on Facebook. Our demonstrations have been widely covered on TV. As a direct result, we have made considerable progress in pushing back these employer incursions.
Our Clerical members at PG&E have united like never before. They have submitted a record number of proposals for negotiations, and are building a deep network to keep people informed about bargaining developments, and to mobilize support for the contract negotiating team as needed.
Just as importantly, our members have come together for internal peer-to-peer organizing on several critically important issues. Linemen from throughout our jurisdiction have met several times and are close to rolling out a lineman-to-lineman safety program that we will be talking about more in the near future.
At the same time, leaders from our Clerical workforce at PG&E contact centers will be meeting in coming days to launch a CSR-to-CSR attendance drive, working with our members to identify the root causes of the attendance problem we are seeing at the call centers. Attendance statistics as they now stand do not live up to the IBEW Code of Excellence and undermine our wage negotiations. Confronting this issue in a constructive way through our peer-to-peer program will be a key element in our overall effort to achieve the best possible contract for Clerical employees at PG&E.
As Paine put it, I can see the way out of the problems that are being thrown our way. What’s more, I know that our members have the intelligence and the resolve to get us where we need to go.
I almost never quote anyone as much as I have quoted Paine here, but since I’ve gone this far I will go a little further, closing with the final lines from The Crisis:
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”
I’m not saying we are facing tyranny, but our challenges are real and the consequences of doing nothing are severe. No one is giving us anything, our triumphs will definitely be hard-won. And that will make our victories all the sweeter.