To most people CSI conjures up images of the popular TV crime drama where methodical Las Vegas investigators use physical evidence to solve grisly murders.
Here at Local 1245, CSI means Contract Section Index rather than Crime Scene Investigation. But sometimes it feels like the same thing. Union stewards are the investigators, and they use all the clues they can find to track down violations of the union contract, then use the grievance procedure to see that justice is done.
One of the chief arguments stewards have in defending the rights of union members is this: “The company tried that before, but we won a grievance over it.”
That’s called a “precedent.” Finding a good precedent is the union steward’s holy grail.
But when the company is PG&E, stewards face a big problem. Sixty years of negotiations, grievances and arbitrations have produced a mountain of official documents related to the union contract. To be exact: 8,463. And more are being produced every month. How on earth do you find the handful of documents that might help you defend a member?
With the unveiling of our new electronic Contract Section Index, the process has just gotten a lot easier, as I’ll explain in a minute. But first, let’s look at how things worked up until now.
The place you start your research is a big thick binder, the hard-copy version of the CSI. Maintained by Local 1245 Librarian Lita Clark, the CSI describes every document that relates to the contract, broken down by section.
So you have a beef about eligibility for a leave of absence? The CSI lists 16 Letter Agreements, Review Committee decisions and other documents—from 1971 to 2006—that clarify a member’s eligibility for leave of absence, along with a one-sentence description of each.
Unfortunately, your work is just beginning. First you try to figure out which of those 16 documents will actually help you. Then you have to actually get your hands on the documents. That means you have to physically get your butt out to the union hall in Vacaville (not so easy if you are a steward in, say, Bakersfield, or Eureka), pick your way through way more than a dozen file cabinets full of documents, and make copies of what you need.
Or it means that Lita has to photocopy the documents you want and mail or fax them to you. If you’re dealing with Arbitrations, or Letter Agreements on job definitions, which can run to 50 pages or more, it can rapidly turn into a nightmare for everybody involved.
Even for stewards who like nothing better than to go toe-to-toe with management over a missed meal payment or unjustified discipline, getting hold of the documents you need can be a demoralizing experience.
At Your Fingertips
But no more. On February 17, 2011 the union rolled out its new electronic Contract Section Index. Brothers and sisters, those 8,463 documents are now at your fingertips.
You could say that the whole project got started because Lita Clark got tired of original documents “walking” out of the union’s library.
“The Pre-Review Committee, Arbitration and Review Committee cases are all originals in the library,” she said. “Sometimes those originals would disappear when people were doing research.”
Making duplicates of 8,000+ documents would require a platoon of new filing cabinets. There’d be no place left for members to sit down and study all the materials the library has to offer and sneak candies from Lita’s well-stocked candy jar.
The solution, Lita realized, was to make electronic copies of the files. When people needed documents, she could just e-mail them electronic versions rather than spending time at the copy machine and mail room. Lita began her massive scanning project in October 2009.
About this same time I was in the middle of redesigning the Local 1245 website. We already had the Contract Section Index on-line, so you could see a line-item list of documents that might be helpful to you but there was no way to get our on-line CSI to cough up the documents themselves.
The next step was obvious but it took me a while to see it. Since the documents were being scanned anyway, why not put them on-line? Then members and stewards could retrieve them as needed. My plan was to equip our site with a Google search tool and then turn our members loose among our 8,000 documents and let them look for what they needed.
I incorporated this search function into the new website design unveiled in December 2009, along with about 4,000 or so documents that Lita had scanned so far.
Excited by my own brilliance, I shared this development with Leslie Asher, the union’s Technology Director. Leslie is a man who chooses his words carefully. As I recall, he sat back in his chair, perhaps raising his eyebrows a little bit, and said: “Uh-huh.”
Or maybe it was “Hmm.”
It definitely wasn’t: “Gee Eric, that’s really brilliant.”
Instead, he said:
“Perhaps it would make sense to link all those documents directly to the Contract Section Index.” Or words to that effect. Followed by more eyebrow raising.
Leslie was right, of course. The CSI already gives members a powerful tool for identifying documents relevant to their grievances. Rather than a hit-or-miss search with a Google tool, why not empower members to go directly from the CSI to the documents?
But easier said than done.
First of all, there’s the scanning. Heading into 2010, fewer than half of the 8,463 documents had been scanned. Jamming was a big problem: Documents with staples. Documents with punch-holes. Documents with curled edges.
In many cases, Lita had to photocopy the documents before they could be scanned.
Sometimes the scans came out blank, for no apparent reason, and a whole document would have to be redone.
Privacy was also an issue. Some of the documents had grievants’ names or, worse, their Social Security numbers. Lita used a black marker to cover up the private information (on the copy to be scanned.)
Meanwhile, there were other logistical issues to be contended with. We needed to reduce the number of Microsoft Word tables contained in the existing CSI documents. The documents also needed to be converted into “htm” format to make them more widely accessible and easier to read on-line.
And the thousands of links between entries in the CSI and the actual contract documents? All of them had to be created manually.
Leslie and I thought we might do that ourselves in our “spare” time. The plan was perfect, except it would have taken us until about 2016 to finish.
Senior Assistant Business Manager Ron Cochran decided that was too long. Other Local 1245 staff were conscripted for the project. Administrative Associate Jennifer Edwards helped scan. Organizer Liz McInnis began the laborious process of getting rid of those unwanted tables, and then handed over the task to temporary worker Primrose Librado, who also created the thousands of links needed to bring the CSI to life—one by one.
There was more to it, but you get the idea. Now that it’s over, Lita has a justifiable sense of pride.
“I had fun doing it because I feel like I accomplished something. It’s like you are really helping the union,” she said.
But her work’s not done. Lita will continue logging and linking every new letter agreement, every new PRC, RC and arbitration decision, keeping the CSI up to date for Local 1245 stewards—and for anyone else who wants to check out the legal scaffolding of our rights in the workplace.
Over the past year, I occasionally got e-mails from Local 1245 stewards, wondering where certain documents could be found on-line. I explained that everything was going to be on-line and that we were shooting for a 2011 launch date. The response was always some version of: “I’m looking forward to that.”
You can stop looking. The electronic Contract Section Index is here. We hope it has been worth the wait.
Eric Wolfe is Communications Director, IBEW Local 1245