In a landslide election victory, workers at the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) have voted 46-11 to join IBEW Local 1245.
The 80.7% Yes vote was confirmed by the National Labor Relations Board Region 20, who conducted a three-week mail ballot election followed by a November 5th tallying of ballots. This election establishes a bargaining unit for CAISO’s real-time employees, which includes generation and transmission dispatchers, reliability coordinators, market operators, transmission security, and lead positions for those classifications. This unmistakable result affirms a desire for change among CAISO workers that has been growing for years.
Based in control rooms located in Folsom and Lincoln, these workers are the nerve center of the power grid serving 80% of California and portions of Nevada, which comprises one-third of the Western Interconnection. According to its website, the ISO facilitates over 28,000 market transactions every day to ensure enough power is on hand to meet demand.
CAISO is a nonprofit public benefit corporation, and is one of ten independent system operators in North America. In response to recommendation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the California Legislature created the ISO in 1998 to ensure safe and reliable flow of electricity across the power grid. CAISO also includes RC West, which is the reliability coordinator for 42 balancing authorities and transmission operators in the Western Interconnection. RC West is the successor of Peak Reliability, which ceased operation in late 2019.
The First Campaign
In August of 2020, a worker from CAISO reached out to Local 1245 to learn how to organize a union at his workplace. Employee dissatisfaction was high. The most significant reason for this unhappiness was a lack of wage parity, both internally and with workers doing similar jobs at other employers. Workers were beginning to leave for better opportunities elsewhere—often, at IBEW-represented employers. The conversation about organizing had begun, and Local 1245 seemed to be the natural choice.
Though the effort got off to a strong start (union Zoom meetings were well attended and authorization card signing was moving briskly) management learned about the organizing effort too early. At the beginning of September, supervision confronted the primary employee organizer and he confirmed that yes, he and his coworkers were talking union but hadn’t made a decision. In response, he was told that, if he decided to organize, there would be a “black mark” on him at CAISO; any step out of line would result in termination. Not only that, but he would get a bad reference to any future job. Days later, management held their first ant-union captive audience meeting, and despite a brave effort from pro-union employees to control the conversation, many workers were shaken by the threats to their jobs and bonuses if they organized.
Those threats were accompanied by promises. Promises that management would do better, that they would resolve the pay issues, and give employees a greater say in the process. And it worked. By early October, 2020, the organizing effort had stalled. Verbal support for organizing was at 58% of the unit, and only 46% had signed authorization cards. The overwhelming sentiment was fear that management would retaliate against pro-union employees. Most workers wanted to give management a second chance to make things right. With no organizing committee, no ability to hold meetings in person due to the pandemic, and no new cards signed in weeks, the campaign went dormant having never reached an election.
“After Everything That Was Said to Me: I’m Still Around.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, in mid-July of this year a wave of calls from ISO workers began coming in. The igniting spark was that, finally, after about a year without much in the way of those promised improvements, management presented a salary study. In it, ISO classifications were compared to workers with fewer responsibilities, in places with lower costs of living like Chattanooga, Little Rock, and Albany. Conspicuously absent were salaries from Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, SoCal Edison, and Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which incidentally are all IBEW-represented employers. To say the least, the group found the results underwhelming and insulting. Workers wanted to know how they could get authorization cards and revive the organizing campaign.
“We’re not part of the conversation,” said one worker during a union Zoom meeting in August. A lack of training was brought up—one employee expressed that he had six months of training in his new position, but that he felt he should have had more. Another employee cited the watering down of salaries as a result of increased responsibilities. But more alarmingly, a major concern was the bleeding of long-term employees from the company, leading to a less and less experienced control room. Even employees who had been opposed to organizing in 2020 spoke up, saying that they had given management a chance in good faith to make things right. Now it was time to do something different.
The organizing effort was reinvigorated and emboldened. Workers knew better what to expect, having been exposed to management’s anti-union tactics the previous year. ISO employees spoke with one another by phone to build support. They put together essential information for the IBEW, like accurate employee lists and contact information. In a very active email chain, workers shared their perspectives and encouraged each other to sign new authorization cards. Poignantly, the employee organizer who led the first organizing drive urged forward his peers again:
“Last time, the fear mongering threats of getting fired or tagged as a union supporter proved very effective in silencing the support for organizing and most were unwilling to take a stand, which is understandable with so much on the line. But I would like to point out, after everything that was said to me: I’m still around.”
Momentum grew. Authorization cards came back steadily. Workplace leaders built impressive employee support, in strong enough numbers to withstand the inevitable “flips” that occur during an anti-union campaign. Despite bracing for a fight to reach an election, the election petition was processed without trouble. IBEW and CAISO stipulated to a mail ballot election beginning October 12th.
Management’s anti-union effort finally began, but ISO employees found it surprisingly mild compared to 2020’s. An October 1st email went out to workers from the CEO, inviting them to two voluntary meetings to discuss the union. In the first meeting, when asked for questions and comments, the workers kept uniformly quiet and let management present their side. Afterward, workers debriefed one another in email and texts:
“Management literally said nothing…very awkward meeting.”
“Well, I’m not sure how all of you who attended today’s meeting felt. I however felt it was jaw dropping how there was zero response.”
“I couldn’t agree more. They are trying to take the stance to convince us the union will make communication more difficult and will potentially let us down by not getting us what we want but we have been all ears . . . for a year now and they have come to the table with very little.”
“These meetings are stall tactics and are designed to disseminate a false message that management is working hard to resolve [employee grievances]. Last year this tactic worked very well. I strongly suggest that all operators boycott any further meetings regarding unionization.”
Getting Out the Vote
Once the NLRB had mailed ballots to the unit, Local 1245 organizing stewards Charlotte Stevens and Alvin Dayoan joined the ISO worker organizers and got to work on the GOTV strategy: ensuring that all authorization card signers received and returned their ballots by the November 2nd deadline.
Tracking results in a shared spreadsheet, the GOTV team called and texted eligible voters, ensured that they had filled out ballots correctly. They also helped get replacement ballots for voters whose ballots were lost in the mail and others who had filled out ballots incorrectly. By the time November 2nd rolled around, the team had impressively ensured all of the expected Yes votes had returned ballots.
Due to the pandemic, the vote count took place over Zoom. For an hour, an NLRB board agent conducted the vote count in view of representatives from the company and a large number of employees. Once the magic number of 29 Yes votes had been reached, establishing a simple majority, text messages began flying.
Now comes the hard work: preparing for bargaining and getting to a first contract. But workers at CAISO are ready to tackle this next challenge. Following the election, a lead transmission dispatcher shared:
“During these trying times, we want to make this contract the gold standard to push all IBEW locals into a brighter future.”