“When you think of Union, what three words come to mind?”
That was the question that opened the Union New Member Experience (U-N-ME), a new program launched on June 4 at Weakley Hall to introduce new members to IBEW 1245.
In their responses to this opening question, the new members showed they’d already given the matter some thought. They mentioned protection, job security, representation, and equality. They pointed to strength-in-numbers, the power of collective bargaining. Others mentioned “brotherhood and sisterhood.
This pilot program brought together 54 PG&E workers hired in early 2014 to immerse them for a few hours in what IBEW 1245 is all about. They met union leaders and stewards. They learned a bit of IBEW history. And they found out that they themselves are in fact the union.
“We need to have the union understood by our newer, younger members, because the union is a way for you to exercise control over your working lives,” said Business Manager Dalzell at the top of the meeting. “We really believed the best way to make that happen is not just us sitting in our offices here in Vacaville making decisions, but getting ideas and decisions coming up from you, the members.”
He noted that the idea for an in-depth orientation for new members did not come from the old hands on staff, but was hatched at a unit meeting by journeymen linemen Andrew West and Luis Sotomayor, both of whom were in attendance. West, who is a shop steward, took the floor to explain some of the ways the contract protects the rights of members.
“Sometimes supervisors will be doing shady things, or sometimes they’re just mistaken and not doing things correctly. Sometimes it comes even from higher levels of management that see an opportunity to work around the contract or subvert it in some way,” he said.
West told the new members that shop stewards are ordinary workers, just like them, but they’ve been trained to monitor working conditions to make sure that management follows the union contract. If management violates the contract—by not paying proper wages or not following time-off provisions, for example—members can bring it to the attention of their shop steward, who investigates and starts the grievance procedure rolling, when necessary.
The new members included many employees from PG&E Call Centers. Some of their issues were addressed specifically by IBEW 1245 Staff Attorney Jenny Marston, whose responsibilities include making sure that the rights of Clerical members are enforced.
“Since the Clerical were organized into Local 1245 in 1953, our organizing principles have been the same—living wages, job protections driven by fairness (seniority), and pensions. We are the standard bearer in the call center industry and we will continue to do that,” Marston said.
Each member in attendance received a hard copy of their contracts. IBEW 1245 Business Representative Anthony Brown showed them how to access the contract on the IBEW 1245 website, and then divided the members into two groups to address specific questions on the Physical and Clerical contracts.
The PG&E bargaining committee—which was in the hall preparing for contract negotiations – joined the group. Dalzell noted the powerful cross section of job classifications, geography, youth and experience on the committee, and he emphasized the important role this committee has.
“The payroll for the bargaining unit is $1 billion. Your committee is moving as much money as they can from one side of the table to the other side—your side,” said Dalzell, who heads the committee.
Donna Ambeau, a bargaining committee member and a 47-year member of IBEW 1245 took the microphone to lay it on the line:
“You are the union. You should know your contract. Know your rights! If someone says something that is wrong, you should know it! Know what you’re supposed to get. I hear it in the call center all the time—know your rights. This is your contract,” said Ambeau, who called IBEW 1245 “one of the best unions out there.”
IBEW 1245 Communications Director Eric Wolfe led the group through IBEW 1245’s early history with vintage photos, film and interviews with two of the union’s founding members, Ron Weakly and L. L. Mitchell. He underscored that it took 50 years of struggle to win the first system-wide labor agreement at PG&E, an agreement made possible by the power of a workforce united into one union.
Organizing Steward Rachael Hill–Ramirez shared an array of ways to get involved in the union and noted that IBEW 1245 is the only IBEW local union to have an Advisory Council, which provides members an additional forum for making their ideas known. Organizing steward Ivan Pereda shared how to stay informed, saying, “You hold the power to keep our union strong. Keep informed.”
Organizer Jammi Juarez moderated the gathering and offered an overview of the union’s structure. Brief presentations were made by several other members of the union’s staff. Also in attendance were Executive Board member Mike Cottrell, union Vice President Anna Bayless-Martinez, and union President Art Freitas. At the end of the day Freitas swore in the group, a formality that completed their induction into the union.
Members left the meeting energized and committed to share what they learned with co-workers, and to take a selfie with their Shop Steward and post it on the IBEW 1245 Facebook page.
And so concluded the first-ever Union New Member Experience, U-N-ME. We look forward to seeing more new members out at Weakley Hall as future U-N-ME sessions are scheduled. [Photo credit: John Storey]