Situated at the northern end of the Carquinez Strait, the sunny city of Vallejo is home to more than 115,000 Bay Area residents, all of whom count on the dedicated IBEW 1245 members that work around the clock to keep the city running.
Local 1245 represents more than 200 workers at Vallejo in nearly every department, from Police and Fire to Public Works and Water Distribution, and each member takes great pride in the work they do to support the revitalization of this once-blighted town.
IBEW 1245 member Chris Balmer, who works as a Fire Inspector in Vallejo’s Fire Prevention Division, shows up to work every day with safety at the forefront of his mind – and his work.
“We try to prevent the fires from happening, because the easiest ones to put out are the ones that are never started,” he said, noting that his team at the Fire Department does a wide variety of tasks, from running fire drills at schools to checking sprinkler systems. “We inspect every hotel, every apartment building in town, every gas station, checking to make sure they’re in compliance with the fire code.”
Balmer is stationed on Vallejo’s Mare Island, which served as a naval shipyard for over a century before being shut down and re-developed as a multi-use community in the mid-90s.
“I actually love being out here,” said Balmer. “My dad was in the Navy and he took me out here as a kid just to see the history. It’s really fun seeing all the old buildings, and I like it that it’s still being used today.”
For IBEW 1245 member and Police Record Supervisor Ericka England, every day at work is unlike the day before, and that’s what makes it exciting.
“I manage the day-to-day operations, both with our front desk and dealing with the public, as well as report requests, background checks, all the data entry for the reports that the officers do,” she said. “I like that it’s fast-paced, being how busy Vallejo is. I also like that it’s different every day. The people that you encounter, the situations that you have to deal with … it’s never the same thing twice. I like the uniqueness of it. It’s very dynamic.”
Down in the garage, IBEW 1245 member and Mechanic 1 Stefan Bactad showed the Utility Reporter some of the vehicles that he and his team are working on.
“We’ve got the fire engines, and all the police vehicles, as well as two backhoes, all the street equipment and compressors. A lot of equipment you get your hands on,” Bactad explained, noting that his previous job at a car dealership kept him working primarily on standard passenger vehicles. “Everything here is big and heavy, but it’s just the size difference. It keeps you on your feet and you learn a lot, especially from the guys that have been here longer and have more experience. They’re good teachers. I’m still learning to this day.”
On-the-job training is an essential part of the IBEW culture, and that holds true at the City of Vallejo. In the Water Department, Utility Supervisor Josh Davidson explains how he strives to prepare his co-workers to safely and effectively do their work.
“A big part of my job is training, constantly trying to keep up on safety practices as we’re bringing a lot of new employees in,” said Davidson. “I’m training them up on what to expect, how we do our jobs, to ensure that they’re maintaining the quality of work that we expect.”
Training is especially challenging considering Vallejo’s long track record of high turnover and short staffing in many areas, including Davidson’s Water Distribution department. Davidson remains the only full-time supervisor following the recent departure of two colleagues.
“When I’m fully staffed in my department, I’m supposed to have 16 people. Currently I have eight,” he said. “Of those eight, I have one technician that’s been here for three years, and I have a senior technician that’s been here for 22 years. Everybody else has less than a year under their belt.”
Rebuilding Union Power
Vallejo’s ongoing staffing issues stem in large part from the City’s bankruptcy back in 2008. As a result of that Chapter 9 filing, Vallejo’s workers went nearly nine years without a general wage increase, and endured many concessions, including 10% wage reductions and furloughs totaling 5%.
In 2015, the IBEW members at the City of Vallejo, who were formerly represented by IBEW Local 2376, voted to merge with IBEW 1245 to increase their strength and start the long process of regaining what they had lost through the bankruptcy. They signed their first successor agreement the following year, but despite several raises and negotiated improvements secured since, their wages still lag behind their counterparts in other nearby cities.
The Vallejo unit was also heavily impacted by the Janus Supreme Court decision, which eliminated union agency shops in the public sector, leading to a reduction in union membership. As a labor union, our power is in our numbers, and strong membership is vital – so a few months ago, IBEW 1245 Business Rep Kim Camatti reached out to 1245’s staff organizers for help, and they worked together to develop a VOC (Volunteer Organizing Committee) in Vallejo. The VOC started with a small team of dedicated members, including Davidson, along with fellow stewards Josh Sosa and Jeff Dilag, and Unit Chair James Olson (also a steward). Many other members have since joined the VOC, and together, this group has been instrumental in helping to build up union membership – and union strength – for their colleagues at the City of Vallejo.
“When we started, only 52 percent were dues-paying members,” Davidson recalled. “But we’ve been really aggressive with getting people signed up. We’ve been focusing on it nonstop. As of today, we’re right around 75%. We’ve gotten there just over the last three months.”
Davidson walked through the approach he takes to encourage new employees to join the union.
“I sit them down. We have a conversation about their expectations … I explain to them what the union does for us. Then I explain the benefits of being a part of the union as a dues-paying member. Since workers aren’t required to pay dues, it’s a challenge we have to overcome in that first conversation,” he acknowledged. “I spend a good chunk of time explaining the perks to being a part of the union. Not only does the union give you a voice [at work], but there’s other fringe benefits that come along with it.”
“The IBEW Brings Us All Together”
For the members at the City of Vallejo, IBEW 1245 membership plays a significant role in their workplaces – both culturally and functionally.
“Everybody’s an equal. We all enjoy each other’s company. Everybody’s there to get along and to try to make our work life better,” remarked Bactad, who says that his favorite part of IBEW membership is the brotherhood. “The meetings are always productive, and everybody’s chiming in on their opinions and stuff. Everything about the union is really good. I enjoy every part of it.”
England appreciates having the union as a resource to help her navigate the ins and outs of the collective bargaining agreement.
“This is my first union job, and [IBEW 1245] have been super helpful as far as explaining a lot of it to me,” she said. “I came into this not really knowing anything about what a union actually does, but [Business Rep Kim Camatti] has always been very quick to answer my questions.”
Balmer comes from a union family and has been in different unions at previous employers. When he hired on at Vallejo, he didn’t sign up for the union right away, because he wasn’t sure if he would stay in the job, but he recently joined Local 1245 a few months ago and is pleased with his decision.
“I’m really enjoying it. [IBEW 1245] seems like it’s a strong brotherhood. I used to work in construction. I worked tightly with electricians there; that was my first interaction with IBEW,” he recalled. “Coming out here and actually being a part of it, being on the inside looking out, you can see what a tight-knit group it is. [The IBEW] brings us all together.”
–Rebecca Band, IBEW 1245 Communications Director
Photos by John Storey