Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers to vote on unionizing

From left, David Kelly, Aberdeen, a BEG service operator, speaks about his desire for union representation as Troy Johnson, international representative with IBEW listens. IBEW organizers and some BGE workers rally at the Exelon building in advance of vote to unionize.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. workers will vote Wednesday and Thursday on whether to unionize under the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a national union representing utility and other trade workers.

The move would create a new local chapter of IBEW, Local 410, to represent 1,419 electric and gas workers of the Baltimore-based utility. BGE workers involved in the effort say unionizing would give them a stronger voice now that the company is part of Exelon Corp., one of the largest energy companies in the country.


BGE, which employs a total of 3,200 people, is the only one of six utilities owned by Chicago-based Exelon that is not represented by a union.

"BGE is no longer a ma-pa company like it used to be," said Eric Gomez, a 44-year-old underground lines crew leader at BGE. "Now that we're owned by a very large corporation, it's almost like we don't have a voice."


BGE and its then-parent company, Constellation, were acquired by Exelon in 2012. Since then, Gomez, who has worked for BGE for 12 years, said he has noticed an increase in the number of contractors working for the utility and is worried that that could compromise safety for his crews.

"We do one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and compromising safety is not an option," said Gomez, of Forest Hill.

Gomez hasn't encountered any safety issues, but he said BGE has always been a leader in worker safety and he wants to hold the company to that standard.

BGE acknowledged that it is hiring more contractors but said they are part of continuing work to modernize the company's gas and electric systems that predates the Exelon deal. Aaron Koos, a BGE spokesman, rejected the idea that a growing number of contractors would compromise worker safety, saying contractors are required to meet the safety standards required of the company's own employees.

"BGE employees have a long and proud history of speaking for themselves and working directly with management on any issues, concerns and ways to improve the company," Koos said. "That sort of flexibility and collaboration has served BGE employees and customers well, leading to the strongest performance in the company's history in service reliability, safety and customer satisfaction."

The vote is the fifth attempt by the IBEW to organize BGE workers over the past 21 years. BGE employees most recently rejected joining the union in 2010.

In anticipation of the vote, the IBEW held a rally Tuesday outside Exelon's Harbor Point building. About 75 people, mostly IBEW volunteers from other parts of the country, held signs and chanted in support of forming a local chapter.

The most recent unionization effort comes amid a decline in union membership nationwide.


Just over 11 percent of wage and salary workers were part of a union in 2015, unchanged from the previous year, but down from a union membership rate of 20 percent in 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Threats of technology that could automate workers' tasks and outsourcing jobs overseas have limited labor's bargaining power, said Jeremy Schwartz, an assistant professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland. Right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions and employers from making deals that require any hired worker to be part of a union, have also made it harder to organize workers, he said.

The IBEW represents about 725,000 active members and retirees in utilities, construction, broadcasting, and manufacturing, among other fields.

Union representatives declined to give specifics but said membership has grown since the financial crisis of 2008, when its ranks took a hit.

But pressure remains to add new members in anticipation of an aging — and retiring — baby boomer generation.

Recruiting new members is the IBEW's top priority, said Ricky Oakland, assistant to the president for membership development at the IBEW.

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"We need to grow," Oakland said. "When you grow, you gain bargaining strength, you negotiate better contracts."

How a union might affect BGE and its customers remains to be seen.

Unions can negotiate for better pay and working conditions, as well as require notice before workers are relocated — all of which puts pressure on employers, Schwartz said. He said he could not say how a union might affect BGE because every company responds differently.

When asked whether a union might push BGE to seek a rate increase or affect its responsiveness, Koos, the BGE spokesman, said it was premature to speculate.

David Kelly, a 32-year veteran of BGE, emphasized that workers' efforts are not intended as an attack on BGE or Exelon, but rather as a way to ensure a voice at a growing and changing company.

"It's time," said Kelly, 57, of Aberdeen. "Things have changed over the years and it's time for solidarity."