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Low Voltage Electricians Strike For The First Time In Unit’s History

Above photo: Electrical workers picketed in Seattle. Jorge Torres.

Local 46 is unusual among IBEW locals in having any effective right to strike at all.

And the latest contract offer from the employer association, eight weeks into the strike, would take it away.

Members of the limited energy construction unit of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 46 in Seattle will be voting June 6 on the latest offer from the contractors’ association, after nearly eight weeks on an unprecedented strike.

The current offer includes wages far below the union’s original demand, nothing on paid holidays except an exploratory committee that might not meet until September—and giving up the right to go on strike ever again.

The 1,023 members of the limited energy unit—mostly specialty electricians, and a few installers—have been on strike since April 11, in an unexpected shake-up of standard-practice contract negotiations.

Over the course of 10 bargaining sessions between January and April, and throughout the strike, the Puget Sound chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association has dug in its heels on nearly every issue.

“We only got five answers from NECA in negotiations,” says Limited Energy Business Representative Megan Kirby, “‘No. I don’t think so. That’s going to be a heavy lift. We can’t get there. How’s that going to make us money?’”

“NECA told us face to face, ‘Any warm body off the street can do your job,’” said picket captain-general Chelsey Smith.

The union’s sticking points have been its demands for wage increases, paid holidays, and walkie-talkies—known as “radios” in trade shorthand, and seen as an essential safety issue.

“I’ve been trapped behind doors in basements of job sites without cell service,” said picket captain Alex Hufstetler.

‘No More Second-Class Citizens’

Limited energy specialty electricians (known in other locals as “sound and comm,” “teledata technicians,” or “low voltage”) are state-certified to install and maintain a variety of electrical systems—including data, security, access control, digital antenna systems, fire alarm, and general life safety and building automation/controls systems.

This work can range from the physically demanding to the highly technical. Limited energy electricians, like all state-certified electricians, are required to complete continuing education courses every three years.

Yet these workers are well behind most others in the building trades in terms of wages and benefits, and nearly $25 an hour behind their closest counterparts, the inside wire commercial electricians.

For its entire history, Local 46’s limited energy unit has dealt with worse pay, benefits, conditions, and treatment than the much larger inside wire unit.

This chord was struck by Local 46 Business Manager Sean Bagsby during the union’s first scheduled all-day picket training—which started on the morning of the first day of the strike.

“The disrespect is disgusting,” Bagsby told a packed auditorium. “No more second-class citizens! No more big unit here, little unit there.”

Targeted Picketing

Pickets went up on the second day of the limited energy strike at five sites and two contractor offices—a targeted picketing strategy that has remained fairly consistent throughout the strike. This means they are picketing only a fraction of the struck job sites.

Picketers had been instructed by the union’s legal counsel and picket trainer, David Hannah, to stay 50 feet away from all entrances and exits and to not engage other trades on the picket line.

“We are not asking others to honor our strike or walk off the job,” Hannah emphasized during the training. Instead, the primary targets of the union’s message were identified as the electrical contractor, the public, and the “unionized workforce and labor community” at large.

“We’re trying to also educate politicians,” Hannah said. “They can either help or hurt us to reach a settlement.”

The union’s abundance of caution comes in part from the significant legal limitations imposed on construction unions during strikes, including which gates can be picketed. Employers commonly set up a “dual gate” system during a strike, so workers in other trades can enter the construction site without technically crossing the picket line.

All these legal measures are designed to make construction strikes ineffective and allow for minimal disruption of projects.

NECA Didn’t Blink

This is the first time this unit has ever struck—and the first strike since the World War II era for any unit in Local 46.

In previous years, Local 46 and NECA had gotten as far as imminent strike threats… but each time, at the last minute, NECA would offer a bit more, which the union could bring to the members as “the best deal we’ve ever received” and narrowly avert a strike.

As the limited energy contract neared its March 31 expiration, members voted to authorize a strike. The union issued its contractually obligatory 10-day notice to terminate the terms of the contract, which extended the contract expiration to April 10. Members rejected another NECA offer on April 8, with an unprecedented 75 percent turnout and 90 percent approval to strike.

This time, NECA didn’t blink or make a deal. The longstanding IBEW-NECA partnership had been unceremoniously broken.

Local 46 has meanwhile also been in bargaining with NECA for its four other construction units—including the big one, inside wire. Contracts for two of these units, covering many of the same employers and around 4,000 more electricians, expired May 31; the other two expire June 30.

IBEW and NECA have agreed to extend the expired residential electrician unit contract through June 28. The inside wire unit presented its 10-day notice, and there are three more scheduled negotiating sessions before contract termination. A vote for strike authorization could take place as early as the end of this week if a satisfactory offer isn’t presented to the membership.

High Spirits

Despite the imposed limitations, many strikers were in high spirits from the start. Picketers at Evergreen Electric offices chanted, “Come clean, Evergreen, you know what a contract means!”

Three weeks into the strike, County Executive Dow Constantine wrote a letter to NECA urging the association “to re-engage in meaningful negotiations with IBEW 46.”

But the county executive’s letter has not moved NECA. Its offer on May 21 was for an $11.50 raise over three years with no paid holidays. The union lowered its proposal to $16 over three years, then offered to “meet NECA in the middle” by floating an offer to drop down to $13.50. NECA rejected the offer and the union told the membership, “We revert back to the $16 from the union.”

While these numbers may sound like a lot, building trades unions take that total economic package and then vote as a membership on how to disperse the lump sum across wages, health care, retirement, and other expenses at regular intervals through the life of a contract.

So what may average out as a $5-an-hour increase per year doesn’t end up entirely on the check. After all is divided up, only a fraction of that amount actually increases the take-home pay in a region that has the ninth-highest cost of living in the country.

NECA’s current offer is $12.75, with no defined paid holidays, no contractor-provided radios, and language which would foreclose the unit’s ability to strike.

Coast To Coast Solidarity

This strike has been a lightning bolt illuminating the landscape for electricians across the country. Strikes in IBEW construction units are vanishingly rare.

Electricians are getting updates about the strike from the Local 46 website and more informal networks like the Union Minded YouTube channel.

Despite the limited official publicity for the strike fund and limited options for how to donate (you can mail a check or call the dues department phone number), members around the country have contributed individually and gotten their locals to contribute. Many donations have come from Southern locals.

Local 666 in Richmond, Virginia, contributed $4,999. “As a local that only recently won paid holidays in our own contract, it’s important that we show solidarity with anyone trying to include them in their contracts,” said apprentice Phillip Petro. Local 666 was the first IBEW local in the South to win on this issue.

Dave Pinkham of Local 520 in Austin, Texas, called the union’s dues office to contribute individually.

“I donated $25, which is one hour of my wage,” he said. “If they lose the strike and end up with a concessionary contract, that affects IBEW members everywhere. If they’re willing to stand up for themselves, how can I not help in any way I can, however small it might be?”

‘The Strikeless Industry’

Pinkham’s local is one of the many IBEW construction locals where a strike is nearly impossible, because they have mandatory language imposed by the international union to include an IBEW-NECA arbitration entity called the Council on Industrial Relations.

The CIR was established in 1920 as a partnership between the IBEW and NECA’s earlier iteration to put a stop to strikes in the industry. After World War II, IBEW-NECA campaigned hard for construction locals to adopt CIR.

“We have been known for being the strikeless construction industry,” one top IBEW official and former CIR director boasts in an article on the union’s website. “If it weren’t for the CIR, there’d be a lot more strikes.”

Most IBEW locals have “Standard CIR” language that can allow either the union or the NECA chapter to unilaterally bring disputes to CIR arbitration—preventing any dispute from reaching strike level. But Local 46 and a handful of other locals have “Modified CIR,” where CIR arbitration only happens if both parties agree to it.

It’s this very language that NECA is now aiming to alter with its current proposal, to institute “Standard CIR” and prevent limited energy electricians from ever going on strike again.

Close To Home

The strike is receiving strong support at home too. A support rally in April drew 150 people, including limited energy members, their inside wire siblings, members of SEIU, and other building trades workers including carpenters, cement masons, iron workers, plumbers, and sheet metal workers.

From the front, the Seattle Building Trades Council and the Washington State Building & Construction Trades Council affirmed their support. “You’re not in this fight alone,” Washington State Labor Council President April Sims told the crowd. “The more than 600 unions representing over 600,000 members have your back.”

WSLC has put those words into action, creating a petition for supporters to sign and encouraging everyone to call NECA chapter Executive Director Jameson Schwetz (206-284-2150) and leave a message urging a fair settlement.

The limited energy strike and Local 46 contract season have personal importance for me, as an eight-year member of this local who started in the limited energy unit myself.

In 2017 rank and filers organized a “vote no” campaign and an informational picket of NECA’s local headquarters, the first of its kind in living memory. Many of the current strike leaders were active and leading participants in this previous fight.

We voted down three contract offers in a row, each time with the business manager and negotiating committee insisting this was “the best offer NECA’s ever given.”

The business manager at the time signed NECA’s third contract offer over our heads. But not before our member-driven campaign pushed past the union to force NECA to raise its proposal by nearly $2—more movement than had been made by NECA in the first six weeks of this strike.

This fight has been a long and difficult one for my former unit. NECA has pressed on every strategic opening it could find. Members may even begin to feel like the ability to strike in three or more years is the least of their concerns.

But the ability to withhold our labor and stop production is the most powerful weapon we have as workers. No dollar amount can be placed on it. At NECA’s $12.75 economic offer over three years, amounting to a little over 1 cent raise per day, it’s a bargain basement sale.

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