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IBEW Pres. Hill’s Op-Ed Highlights the Hurdles of Unionization in “Right-to-Work” States

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In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) President Edwin Hill shines a light on the challenges facing workers who desire to join unions in “Right-to-Work” states.

Hill shares stories of workers who have attempted to organize in Oklahoma. He highlights Dan Lee, a worker at an electronics recycling company that is described as a “sweatshop.”  Lee faced 120 degree temperatures, poor ventilation, and was even forced to clean the company’s chain-smoking owner’s car. So, he began to consider unionizing as a way to make things right for the affected employees.

”It was pretty obvious from the beginning that things were wrong,” says Lee, adding, “I’ve always been a firm believer in unions. Everyone needs their rights respected. People deserve to have democracy in the workplace.”

After reaching out to the IBEW, the union process began. Anti-union Oklahoma laws, however, forced the efforts to be carried out in borderline secrecy:

The organizing campaign started slowly. Activist workers spoke to each other in hushed tones, refrained from passing out pro-union literature and kept the nature of the campaign tightly guarded.

In this right-to-work state with many anti-labor laws on the books and a widespread distrust of unions even among union-represented workers, IBEW organizers, Lee and a few of his co-workers boiled their pitch down to basic bread and butter issues.

The final meeting of the campaign on Jan. 18 hardly resembled anything approaching an organizing drive at all. The local union hosted a watch party for the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team’s much-anticipated game against the Dallas Mavericks, inviting more workers from the company.

It was a typical heartland feast. Hamm, whose family cooked barbeque for the party, said, “It’s simple in our city — family helping family.”

But it was also the beginning of the end for the campaign. Word had gotten out to upper management that more and more employees were leaning union. Before the watch party, Lee was “let go,” he said, “for what a manager said was ‘no reason in particular — just that it wasn’t a good fit.’”

Another worker faced the same fate that week.

In the following days, the four key supporters — Lee, Josue Ibarra, Emery Love and Gus Dillard Jr.- were terminated for unknown reasons. The campaign was effectively squashed.

The fortunes of the four workers would eventually turn when they began an apprenticeship with the union.

The fired workers asked IBEW organizers for advice on how they could obtain union jobs in the area. Fortunately, a large construction job to expand a major data center 100 miles northeast near Tulsa was staffing up rapidly.

While none of the fired workers had bona fide construction skills, their experiences testing equipment at the electronics company — along with their proficient math abilities — made them shoo-ins for new entry-level electrical classifications that could lead to apprenticeship openings and future journeymen electrician careers.

Just a few months after sucking down dust in one of the city’s sweatshops, Lee, with the eager assistance of IBEW assistant apprenticeship instructor Rustin Walker, was putting on a hardhat and rugged boots enjoying the chance to learn vital career skills from veterans with decades in the trade. Lee and Ibarra are now making more money than they were at the electronics shop, pulling “tens” (10-hour days) most days of the week. The same goes for Love and Dillard, who now work teledata jobs for union contractors.

So there was a happy ending for the four ex-sweatshop workers. But they are the lucky ones.

The case Hill highlights is, unfortunately, the abnorm in “Right-to-Work” states where there is little recourse for workers whose employer’s misbehave as a condition of being in business.  


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