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Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. workers take next steps to organize

The new Local 410 comes against a natoinal landscape of shrinking union membership, but adds to a flurry of union activity in the Baltimore area.

In all his years at Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., Marvin Austin never thought he needed a union.

Until he did.

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Austin, who has worked as a pipeline mechanic for 28 years, long felt that the Baltimore utility, one of the oldest in the country and with a reputation for being a good place to work, was one big family. Then energy giant Exelon acquired BGE in 2012.

"That family togetherness we had was beginning to separate, and you could see the change," said Austin, 53, of Rosedale. "It was all about business."

He called the only people he thought could help: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Union membership has been shrinking nationally for decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 11 percent of workers were represented by a union in 2016, down from 20 percent in 1983. But the vote earlier this month by Austin and his co-workers to unionize nearly part of BGE's workforce, coupled with a flurry of other union activity in Baltimore and around the country, offers a glimmer of hope for union advocates.

The groundswell of economic dissatisfaction unearthed by President Donald Trump's campaign could be a sign that interest in worker organization might once again begin to percolate, analysts said.

While Trump at times clashed with unions during his campaign and many of the largest endorsed his rival, Hillary Clinton, some blue-collar workers rallied behind Trump and his promise of jobs and economic protections in key campaign states. In his first week in office, Trump welcomed a group of union leaders for a collegial meeting at the White House.

"I think this recent election revealed many things about our society and economy, and one of those things is that there is a great deal of frustration and anxiety and dissatisfaction among working people who feel the system is rigged," said Jeff Grabelsky, associate director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University. "Under those circumstances, workers look for ways to improve their lot in life."

Paul Osterman, a labor economist and professor of human resources and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he wouldn't want to predict a resurgence, but that it's possible unions could try to harness the economic frustration among workers.

"All the anger about people's economic circumstances you saw in this election, there are different ways to respond to that, and unions offer a way of improving circumstances," Osterman said.

But Jerry Glass, the president of F&H Solutions Group, a human resources and labor relations consulting firm in Washington, D.C., suggested that the union's success at BGE reflects its persistence rather than a resurgence of interest in unions. The recent vote was IBEW's fifth attempt in 21 years to organize BGE workers.

"When you try to organize as many times as this union has here, usually at some point you're going to win an election," Glass said.

Still, disaffection among workers in Baltimore has bubbled up among service workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital seeking higher wages, security guards in Harbor East seeking to unionize, and grocery workers at Giant Food and Safeway who threatened to strike amid contract talks. Last spring, local Verizon workers joined a nationwide strike against the telecommunications giant. In August, about 100 workers at Chase Brexton, a Baltimore health clinic, voted to join the Service Employees International Union.

At BGE, Austin and 1,400 other workers now begin the task of propping up the new IBEW Local 410 and changing the way the 200-year-old utility interacts with its workers.

The coming months will be busy for the newly organized workers, who must begin paying dues, find a union hall, elect officers and prioritize their demands in preparation for one of the union's most important tasks: negotiating a new contract.

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Local workers will get help from IBEW's 4th District office, which will train incoming officers and send contract negotiating experts to help draft their demands. One of the first steps will be to send members a bargaining survey to gauge their priorities, determine what they think needs improvement and learn what workers want most out of a contract, said Kenneth W. Cooper, who oversees the 4th District.

Beyond specific benefits or work conditions, the goal of any new contract is to give union members a sense of security, knowing that the rules of their employment won't change without their consent, Cooper said. Each contract is different, but Cooper said the process could take between six months and a year.

"For me, the most important part is having the voices of the workers be heard," Cooper said. "It's about working families. I think it's important as a working family to know what your terms and conditions are in writing."

Negotiating with a union will be a big change for the utility, and how its leaders approach early talks could set the tone for work-employer relations and affect the company's success for years to come, analysts said.

"The critical question at this state is: Will BG&E recognize the great opportunity that stands before them to work in partnership with IBEW, or will it be stuck in a place where it's unable or unwilling to work in partnership with the union?" said Grabelsky, the Cornell professor.

BGE declined an interview request, but Aaron Koos, a spokesman for the utility, said leaders "look forward to engaging with the IBEW shortly and bargaining in good faith."

At the same time, Koos indicated that BGE thinks it already offers fair wages, safe working conditions and generous benefit packages — all of which are often on the table during a contract negotiation.

"We are fortunate to have already built a company that has great stability, excellent operational performance, tremendous career opportunities, competitive wages and benefits," Koos said in a statement.

While the company may have to concede new or expanded benefits, a positive relationship with the new union could benefit BGE too, MIT's Osterman said. The union could help BGE improve its profitability, by reducing employee turnover and improving productivity, he said.

"You need both parties to be willing to cooperate," Osterman said.

Glass, however, questioned what the union will be able to accomplish for workers.

"They're working for a company with a good reputation of treating their people well, being a safe operation," he said. "I think employees are going to find out there isn't really a heck of a lot the union is going to be able to do for them."

Grabelsky said the workers wouldn't have unionized if they didn't think otherwise.

Attempting to form a union can be risky for workers, whose bosses usually don't favor such activity and often fight against it, he said.

"If workers are happy with what they're getting, it's very unlikely they're going to run the risk of organizing," Grabelsky said. "It's almost a given that if they were willing to try to organize there was some level of dissatisfaction."

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Austin said that after BGE was acquired by Exelon, he started noticing changes to the way the company handled sick time and penalties for on-the-job mistakes.

In addition to BGE, Exelon owns five other utilities, all of which have workers represented by the IBEW. Austin said he thinks many of his co-workers were motivated to organize after realizing workers at other Exelon utilities were getting a better deal because they were part of a union.

"With us being union, we're on the same scale now as the rest of the utilities they own," Austin said. "BGE has always been a great place to work, but as time changes, everything comes to an end and you have to go with the change — that's just the reality of it."

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