By Eric Wolfe
The campaign to organize a Greenlee tool manufacturing plant in Rockford, Illinois reached a dramatic climax on Oct. 30 when employees voted by a 2 to 1 margin for union representation.
The campaign got a huge lift from IBEW 1245 members Jammi Juarez and Casey Salkauskas, who spent nearly three weeks in the state knocking on doors and encouraging employees to stand together.
“Just going door to door talking to 15- to 41-year employees and finding out the things they have to put up with day to day (was) one of the most moving and emotional, one of the greatest tasks I’ve ever undertaken,” said Salkauskas, an electrician and 13-year IBEW member currently employed by PG&E.
He cited the example of a 59-year old worker, with 41 years of service at the company, who was forced onto a night shift.
“He was always the quiet one, always came to work on time, did his job,” said Salkauskas. When his job was moved to another state, the employee was assigned a different job and told he had to work nights.
When the employee objected, Salkauskas said the plant manager just shrugged his shoulders and said, “ ‘That’s too bad. Seniority only counts in a union shop.’”
“To overlook 41 years of dedication and say that only counts in a union shop, they pushed him over the edge with that comment,” Salkauskas said.
“Having one-on-one conversations with these workers was life-changing,” said Juarez, a 7-year IBEW member and operating clerk for PG&E. She cited the case of an employee who was passed over for promotion because she spoke with an accent.
“We talked with every single worker on the list. They never griped about their wages,” even though they hadn’t had raises in six years. What they resented, Juarez said, was being “treated with such a lack of respect.”
“Completely Blew Me Away”
Charlie Laskonis, a business rep/organizer for IBEW 364, was facing an uphill battle in the drive to organize the Greenlee workers when he called IBEW 1245 and asked Assistant Business Manager Ray Thomas for a letter of support.
“He calls me back and says, ‘We’re going to send you a letter of support—and we’re going to send you two organizers,’ ” said Laskonis. “It completely blew me away. It tripled our resources. It was just going to be me going door-to-door.”
But to hear Juarez and Salkauskas tell it, they benefitted from the experience just as much as the Greenlee employees.
“It was overwhelming, it was very emotional” to see the employees gain hope, to realize “they’ve got somebody on their side now,” Juarez said.
“They just want basic rights and dignity,” said Salkauskas. “I wanted to do everything I could to get these folks organized so they could have a contract and representation.”
Laskonis said that the IBEW 1245 organizers did the bulk of the door-to-door work during the campaign.
“A lot of those workers were really blown away—here are two guys from California helping us organize,” he said. “That’s tangible. It was an integral part of the win. Your two people here—I never thought in my dreams I’d ever have a resource like this.”
Greenlee waged an anti-union campaign that featured professional union busters holding captive audience meetings in which they disparaged the union. It was a campaign built on fear. The IBEW campaign was built on hope.
Hope won. The final vote was 44-22.
Salkauskas planned to fly back to California on Oct. 31. Despite the grueling campaign schedule, he didn’t sound like a man ready to rest on his laurels.
“You guys started something,” he said, referring to IBEW 1245’s leadership development program that sends member organizers into the field to gain campaign experience. “You’re not going to hold this guy back.”
Juarez, a veteran of previous IBEW 1245 campaigns in several states, rejected the idea that this sort of work wears you down.
“No, never. I think I thrive off of having a good debate,” she said. “I’m constantly looking for people who don’t believe like I do and having those conversations with them and turning them around. I’ll never be tired of this. I think I was born for this.”