The IBEW welcomed more than 450 new members and chartered Chattanooga, Tenn., Local 911 on July 4, the new home of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s nuclear security officers.
Local 911 will represent the officers who protect TVA’s three nuclear facilities: Browns Ferry, near Athens, Ala.; Sequoyah, in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.; and Watts Bar, near Spring City, Tenn.
“This is a case study, from inspiration to ratification, in how every part of the IBEW can contribute to an organizing victory,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “We say it, we live it and it works: everyone in this union is an organizer.”
The IBEW already represents more than 2,500 permanent employees across nearly all of TVA’s 60 worksites in seven states from Virginia to Mississippi. Thousands more IBEW members do short-term work each year for TVA upgrading infrastructure and performing regular maintenance.
Scott Fugate has been a nuclear security officer at Watts Bar since 2005 when he was a contractor working for Pinkerton. In 2009, while Fugate was a shift manager, the officers were rolled into the TVA and chose the United Government Security Officers of America to represent them.
When he left management to be an officer again, Fugate’s opinion about the non-affiliated union that represented the security officers hardened.
“TVA did not take us seriously. If they wanted to do something, they did it and didn’t confer. It might be as little as forcing you to work overtime against the CBA. When we challenged it, they dismissed it because they knew the union would back off,” he said.
In July 2019, Fugate saw an article in The Electrical Worker that had been shared on Facebook. The story was about the security officers at the Seabrook nuclear plant who had joined Manchester, N.H., Local 2320 and ratified a first contract.
Fugate commented on the shared story that he wanted better representation and a member of 2320 wrote back, suggesting he call Business Manager Stephen Soule.
That led to a series of calls from inside and between districts, locals and organizers until October 2019, when Fugate was sitting down at a restaurant near his house with Regional Organizing Coordinator John Murphy, Lead Organizer Craig Perica and Tenth District International Representative Curtis Sharpe.
“They introduced themselves, asked if I had questions and what I wanted to accomplish and then we went over a plan,” Fugate said. “I told them I ain’t used to losing and don’t plan to walk away with my head hanging.”
The TVA is a unique entity, a federally owned corporation founded during of the Great Depression to bring light and power to some of the poorest parts of the country. It was created two years before the National Labor Relations Act was passed and exists outside of the general order of rules that control U.S. labor relations.
TVA is also hugely powerful, with revenues last year more than $11 billion, and it has a history of using all the leeway the law grants it.
But Fugate knew that in 2018 the IBEW had organized the nuclear senior reactor operators. TVA fought it, saying they were managers. The IBEW won in arbitration. The news spread among the security officers.
“Everyone knew the IBEW fought the company and won,” he said.
At that first meeting, Sharpe and Murphy told Fugate that a campaign could be built on the idea there was a union the company didn’t just walk over.
“The TVA may have been created before the National Labor Relations Act but the IBEW was at TVA before the NLRA, too,” Sharpe said.
Most importantly, they had an opportunity to do something about it in the spring.
The contract between TVA and the UGSOA was set to expire May 24. The contract allowed a window for the other unions to bring authorization cards and, if they could show enough interest, file a petition to represent the bargaining unit. The unit members would then have a choice in the spring between their existing union, no union, or, if they did our job, the IBEW.
Sharpe, Murphy and Perica set up the normal bottom-up campaign apparatus: VOCs at each of the three plants and an information gathering effort to know who the unit was and what it wanted. Perica created the communications backbone, including websites and electronic tools to engage and sign up unit members.
At the same time, Sharpe started talking with TVA brass.
Despite the battle over the reactor operators, relations between the IBEW and TVA have rarely been better than they are now.
But in 2009 when the UGSOA was elected, TVA barred the IBEW from participating in the election by choosing to apply a section of the NLRA that prevents unions from representing rank-and-file and security workers.
Back then, labor-management relations were at a low ebb. Grievances were piled up in the hundreds. Communication was poor. Then, in 2015 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a scathing report on work conditions at Watts Bar, accusing the company of mistreating, even firing employees who raised safety concerns. The NRC called it a hostile environment.
By 2017, Sharpe said, TVA knew their problem wasn’t the IBEW; it was a dysfunctional work environment that had to be reformed.
Right about that time, Sharpe said, Tenth District International Vice President Brent Hall brought up the Code of Excellence with TVA labor relations figuring, in his words, that maybe it would bear fruit in five years.
“I don’t think he expected to get the response he did,” Sharpe said. “Not only was TVA interested, they wanted to partner with all the other crafts, train every craft worker, and every manager to go through the program as well. They saw the Code as a potential way to allow their own employees to repair the work culture.”
Sharpe, then the business manager of Chattanooga Local 721, worked with a senior labor relations executive named Will Trumm to create and implement the Code across the TVA.
Today, grievances are down 90%, the work culture has changed and there is a productive partnership between the IBEW and the utility that works for both sides.
Now, Sharpe is the international representative overseeing every TVA local and Trumm is director of labor relations for all of TVA.
When Sharpe asked that TVA not stand in the way of the IBEW, members had earned TVA’s neutrality agreement. If they could show sufficient interest from the officers, the IBEW could appear in the election.
“The relationships we needed were founded before we started organizing,” Sharpe said.
By December the campaign sent out its first mailer with the website where the security guards could find information about the IBEW as well as a link to electronically sign a card.
“Perica is our technical wizard,” Murphy said. “He set up all the websites, the text blasts and emails but more importantly, he understands how to use these tools to connect with people.”
They held twice-weekly meetings at each plant for three weeks in February.
Online, they started what they called “Factual Fridays,” a weekly text, email and online post that addressed any issues at the plant.
“We picked a hot topic or a fire we had to put out with facts and we started sending them out,” Perica said.
Then March and the pandemic arrived.
“It got to be where it wasn’t safe,” Murphy said. “We made the decision to scrub the blitz and talked about alternatives.”
The pandemic took away what Perica called the labor movement’s best tool: face-to-face meetings. They adjusted.
“We swing a lot of votes by knocking on doors. But if that is now gone, obviously we have to use the tools we do have and get smarter about how we are going to work around it,” he said. “And it may be a permanent change. This is a transformational moment.”
They radically expanded their digital communication strategy and “Factual Fridays” were joined by “What’s up Wednesdays.”
“Four days a month wasn’t enough anymore, but we needed a different tone,” Murphy said. “Wednesday was a little lighter, about the IBEW, our history or a feel-good thing from the Media Department about the community service our members do.”
Over the next two months they collected another 170 cards for a total of 270 and in February they sent official notice to TVA that they would be contesting the election in May. A door-knocking blitz turned into highly targeted phone banking.
For obvious reason, the in-person vote was replaced with mail-in ballots that went out mid-April and were due back May 1, with a five-day grace period.
The results were tallied on May 8 with only Sharpe and VOC member Stacey Ray Dawson from the Browns Ferry plant there from the IBEW to watch.
The IBEW won 261 votes to the UGSOA’s 99. There were no votes for no union.
By the end of the month, TVA and the IBEW negotiated an extension of the contract until new local sets up new leadership that can bargain for its 450 members. Fugate was appointed interim business manager, Dawson as interim financial secretary, and Stephen Goshorn, who works at Sequoyah, as interim vice president.
Every site has a voice.
Now, as every shop is open, internal organizing begins.
“We signed up just over a quarter in the first weeks and I want 200 by mid-August,” Fugate said in July.
Sharpe said all credit, of course, goes to the members of Local 911 and the VOC, but he wanted to make sure that some of the behind the scenes players across the IBEW got their plaudits as wells: TVA Business Agents Tony Quillin from Sheffield, Ala., Local 558, Mike “Fireball” Blakely from Sheffield Local 765, David Williams from Chattanooga Local 721, Nate Baker from Rockwood, Tenn., Local 1323 and Assistant Business Agent Joe Ray from Local 558.
For Perica, starting before the COVID-19 and successfully bringing it home during the pandemic taught organizers something about what the future holds.
“It will not take away from the traditional work: you get a lead, you call, send info and follow up. But this is a transformational moment,” Perica said. “We have to embrace this new tech that we have somewhat been using, figure out smarter ways of organizing through a digital world and get creative.”