Headquartered in the rural town of Firebaugh, CA, the Panoche Water District (PWD) delivers water to agricultural customers on 38,000 acres of central valley farmland. But for the last several years, PWD has faced a series of scandals, and by 2019, PWD employees were understandably feeling beleaguered by the upheaval of their work lives. With a new general manager recently installed and so many issues still unresolved, a group of workers sought out IBEW 1245 in the hopes of tapping into the empowerment and stability that comes from union representation. Now, after a nearly two-year journey, these workers have finally crossed the finish line: in the last quarter of 2021, the district recognized IBEW Local 1245 as the exclusive representative of this wall-to-wall bargaining unit.
When I first met the group of workers who would become the VOC (Volunteer Organizing Committee), they explained that it was the bargaining successes of workers at other agencies like Merced Irrigation District that led them to Local 1245. However, what indicated to me that this was a successful organizing campaign in the making was that the majority of their workplace issues were not just related to wages and benefits. The core issues of respect, professionalism, safety, and fairness were at the heart of every matter that they wanted to address. These workplace leaders and I strategized a path to union representation; in early 2020 they set to work, having peer-to-peer conversations with their coworkers about the union difference.
After weeks of this worker-led effort, the VOC had built an unquestionable majority of employee support for unionization. Once authorization cards had been distributed and collected, I began preparing to petition the district for recognition. In the public sector in California, public agencies like Panoche Water District are permitted to have their own local rules for the union certification process, typically outlined in an ordinance passed by their board of directors. Since PWD did not have such an ordinance, our first step was to file a petition with the Public Employment Relations Board, or PERB. This process looked like a straightforward one, as the unit was entitled to card check recognition. In California law, public sector workers are afforded in most circumstances the right to forego a union election if there is proof of majority support (i.e. authorization cards).
In the weeks after filing our petition, difficulties began to appear, coinciding with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, the district announced that, while they respected the rights of their employees to organize, they would be objecting to the wall-to-wall bargaining unit proposed by the union. These objections from the district led to months of back and forth with a PERB mediator and legal counsel for both parties, exacerbated by case backlogs and procedural upheaval due to the pandemic.
A year went by after the filing of the petition without resolution. Local 1245 continued to press PERB and the district for action. In the meantime, not only was the pandemic raging on, but so was California’s historic drought. According to the district, a zero water allocation year would require layoffs. Layoffs came. The PWD workers grew frustrated, but stayed strong and kept to their convictions.
It didn’t feel real to me when finally, in the last quarter of 2021, our local was formally recognized as the bargaining representative for this unit. The endurance and vision of this group of workers has been inspiring. I am pleased to report that they have already begun the first steps of bargaining. Senior Assistant Business Manager Al Fortier and Business Representative Jaime Tinoco are serving as the unit’s negotiating team, working with a bargaining committee of PWD employees to draft a first offer to the district. I am proud to welcome the Panoche Water District employees to Local 1245, and I know that with what they’ve been through over the last few years, they will be strong union brothers and sisters.
–Rick Thompson, IBEW International Lead Organizer