In a classic union representation election that pitted anti-union managers and consultants against an energetic organizing team, workers at Sacramento-based Sunoptics chose to be represented by IBEW Local 1245.
The vote, conducted under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board on Jan. 10, was 48-29.
“The feeling is indescribable,” IBEW Organizer Jennifer Gray said after the vote results were announced. “I feel like justice has been served.” Gray, an active member-organizer at IBEW 1245 before joining the IBEW’s International staff, assumed leadership of the Sunoptics organizing drive in October.
IBEW organizers Jennifer Gray and Fred Ross Jr. file the Sunoptics petition for a union election at NLRB headquarters in San Francisco on Nov. 26.
The drive was triggered by two Sunoptics employees who contacted the IBEW last year after learning that their parent company, Acuity Brands, had IBEW-represented employees at five other locations around the country. Their issues, Gray said, included safety, frequent schedule changes, lack of training, and “a complete lack of respect.”
“We’ve actually done this”
With assistance from IBEW 1245 Organizers Fred Ross Jr. and Eileen Purcell, Gray began assembling a Volunteer Organizing Committee (VOC) of Sunoptics employees. One of them was Pam Pendleton, a swing-shift welder for the company who spent hours campaigning on her lunch break and making house visits during the day. Her main concern was “mistreatment of everyone, including myself.”
“I felt something I hadn’t felt before,” she said of the election victory. “I got really emotional, we’ve actual done this, this is actually happening. I’m excited about what’s going to come after this victory.”
Another employee active on the VOC was Todd Davis, an assembler with two-and-a-half years at Sunoptics.
“One of the things we’ve been fighting for is representation and respect,” he said. One of his major concerns was the company’s “arbitrary and discriminatory policy on wages.” He said he looked forward to the union having a place at the table “and negotiating for what we need: respect and a livable wage.”
The VOC was the primary vehicle for spreading the word about the IBEW. VOC members circulated authorization cards among fellow employees during all three shifts. In all, 77% of the workforce signed cards.
When the company refused to recognize the union voluntarily, Gray and Ross filed a petition for election at the San Francisco office of the National Labor Relations Board on Nov. 26.
The VOC continued to grow as more employees ignored management threats and threw themselves into the campaign by distributing union leaflets—in Spanish and English—and talking to fellow employees. Over 50 employees wore IBEW shirts at work.
The successful campaign reflects a conscious strategy by IBEW 1245 over the past several years to recruit and train “member organizers” who can provide crucial legwork during organizing drives. Member organizers—now officially known as organizing stewards—have provided assistance to unions under attack in several other states. The Sunoptics campaign gave many of them a chance to help their own union in a campaign closer to home.
“I’m so proud the workers got what they deserved,” said Organizing Steward Jammi Juarez after the vote count was announced.
“It’s a hard feeling to describe, and I think no matter how many times you go through it, it’s undescribable,” she said. “It’s just joy.”
The victory was made sweeter by the hard work that went into achieving it, including house visits, weekly general meetings, weekly VOC meetings, and countless shifts leafleting outside the plant. Organizing stewards active in the campaign, among others, were Rene Cruz Martinez and Harold Blackshire Jr. of PG&E, Eric Sunderland of SMUD, and Cruz Serna, formerly of PG&E and now an IBEW 1245 business representative.
“I am extremely proud of the hard work our organizing stewards put into this campaign,” said Business Manager Tom Dalzell. “This victory is not only great for the workers at Sunoptics, it shows that our focus on organizing is making us a stronger union.”
Although face-to-face contact was the heart and soul of the campaign, the union also used social media. When management spread laughably false information about the union, IBEW 1245 posted factual documents – in English and Spanish – on a specially-created “Sunoptics Workers United” webpage and on Facebook.
Leadership was also provided by IBEW Ninth District Representative Bob Brock, who came down from Montana twice to consult on the campaign.
Truth won out in the end, when a majority of employees rejected management’s scare tactics and decided they wanted to face the future together—as a union.