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Working In These Times

Thursday, Feb 2, 2017, 2:04 pm

After String of Defeats, Workers Win Union at Baltimore Gas & Electric

BY Bruce Vail

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The election victory will bring more than 1,400 new members into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun/MCT via Getty Images)  

BALTIMORE—Baltimore-area workers opened the Trump era by voting in favor of a labor union at the largest utility company in the metro region. The election victory at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. (BGE) will bring more than 1,400 new members into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

IBEW’s success in the National Labor Relations Board-supervised election last month breaks a long string of defeats for the union, which ran four unsuccessful organizing campaigns at BGE, stretching back to 1996. The final vote, 741-610, is strong enough to deter any legal challenge from BGE, according to union organizer Troy Johnson. Both sides expect to move quickly to negotiate a first contract.

Circumstances have changed radically since the last campaign, in 2010, explains 12-year company veteran Eric Gomez. Back then, BGE managers ran an aggressive anti-union campaign, stressing the local roots and hometown commitments of the company, he says. But the company has since come under the control of Exelon Corp., a much larger company that operates other electric utilities in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

“There is a lot of company loyalty,” among the BGE workers, “but we’re not ‘mom-and-pop’ BGE anymore, we’re Exelon,” Gomez says. “The major decisions are coming from Chicago, and they are looking after the interests of the Exelon shareholders, not what’s good for Baltimore.”

Union organizer Johnson agrees that the sale to Exelon made a huge difference and helped the campaign. Exelon’s other subsidiaries were already heavily unionized, he notes, with IBEW contracts covering workers in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Atlantic City, N.J., and the Delmarva peninsula. Including the 1,400 workers at BGE, the union now has an estimated 8,000 members at Exelon subsidiaries.

“It’s hard to argue that BGE workers shouldn’t have union representation when so many of the other employees in Exelon already have it,” Johnson says.

The union also employed a new tactic this time around that proved extremely helpful, adds Gomez. Volunteer organizers were recruited from IBEW locals around the country and sent to Baltimore for the final four weeks of the campaign. The volunteers (some of whom were paid or otherwise compensated by their own locals) came in two waves, each for two weeks. Some 80 such volunteers, traveling from as far away as California and Hawaii, manned informational pickets at the nine BGE service locations where workers typically assemble for their shifts.

“They were at every location, every day. They did ‘handbilling’ and talked to the members to answer any questions. They provided moral support for the pro-union workers. And they made phone calls and house calls on everybody that was eligible to vote,” Gomez says. “We hadn’t done that before, and it worked just great.”

Cory McCray, an activist member of Baltimore’s IBEW Local 24, which represents some 2,000 building trades workers in Maryland, credited officials at union headquarters in Washington, D.C., for “putting a lot of resources,” into the campaign. McCray, a former union organizer who was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014, says “the official campaign lasted about 18 months, but it really started before that. I’d say it really started when the rumors about the Exelon merger became hot and heavy.”

Healthcare and retirement benefits were among the most important concerns of BGE workers.

“There was a recognition, I think, that these were vulnerable in the aftermath of the merger,” said McCray. “Mergers always set off a search of cost savings by the company that gets bought out, and it’s the employees that are always the most vulnerable ones.”

The sale of BGE did not set off an immediate attack on worker benefits as feared, McCray continued, but employees noticed that BGE increased the amount of work contracted out to non-union companies, effectively reducing the demand for the labor of the long-standing employees.

“That was a message that most everybody understood. Their jobs were at risk, and without a union there is very little protection,” said McCray.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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