Nine months after a nail-biting, one-vote organizing victory, workers at New Jersey's Linden co-generation plant beat the odds, voting 32-5 in November to approve their first contract.
For Cranbury, N.J., Local 94 Business Manager Buddy Thoman, the outcome was a far cry from what he expected after the close win last January. Such a narrow margin, he said, often signals difficult days ahead when it comes to negotiating the first contract. Many organizers and local leaders think the longer the negotiations go, the more likely workers unfamiliar with the process will jump ship.
"At that point, you're privately thinking, 'I almost wish it would have lost," said Thoman. "A one-vote win is not encouraging."
He's proud to admit he was wrong.
The 800-megawatt Linden, N.J., plant is operated and maintained by NAES Corporation and runs six natural gas-fired turbines, with their exhaust used to provide steam for three additional steam turbines and the adjacent Phillips 66 refinery.
Dave Bishop, a control room operator for 14 years and a member of the negotiating committee, said the new contract includes a clause requiring management to purchase coffee for employees.
"When I see a management guy getting some, I tell him, 'You better like that coffee," Bishop said with a laugh. "We guaranteed it."
Bishop was a Teamsters member at a previous job, even serving as a steward, so he'd long-known the value of union representation. He and several co-workers contacted Thoman in 2016.
Their primary concern was workers performing nearly the same job getting vastly different levels of pay. Bishop also was upset the company had changed its sick leave policy, cutting into time he could take off to care for his ailing wife, he said.
Thoman was eager to help, but he knew that it wouldn't be easy. In 2004, he was a member of Local 94's executive committee when it won a representation vote at another New Jersey co-gen facility operated and maintained by AES. Following that vote, a dispute landed Local 94 and management before the National Labor Relations Board. No contract agreement was reached.
"It didn't end well," he said. "The company went ahead and implemented less than half what it had proposed."
Thoman and his staff were determined not to let that happen again. With the help of UCOMM Media Group, a communications company for local unions, it set up a website for plant employees that was updated regularly. Thoman said he invited two employees who would be covered by the contract to each bargaining session, no matter if they were an active part of the negotiations.
But the most important development came when they showed employees the company's salary structure, revealing vast differences in pay for similar jobs. It was worse than anticipated and it solidified the workers' support.
"When I shared that information with them, they were livid," Thoman said. "They were so angry."
Bishop agreed that was a turning point. He reminded co-workers that management often mentioned during bargaining that representation was decided by just a single vote. That was meant to undermine the negotiating committee's strength.
Instead, it fired the co-gen workers up. Stickers and banners reminding them to vote union popped up around the plant.
"The company was really lazy," Bishop said. "They weren't counteroffering anything. They dug in their heels. But our attorney and the other staff were crisp and on point on everything ... Our support got stronger. When our guys saw their co-workers putting themselves out there on the website, they got stronger."
In the end, the vote wasn't close. The two sides agreed to a contract that lessened the wage discrepancy and allowed employees to earn a raise by earning a professional license. For instance, a member who earns a boiler license will receive a 1.5 percent raise.
The 2-year contract also includes negotiated severance - believed to be a first for the facility - along with a seniority clause in case of layoffs and a grievance and arbitration process. The new Local 94 members even got a $200 allowance to put toward safety boots.
"It was a great win," Bishop said. "A better start to tomorrow."
Bishop and co-worker Tom Turon were part of the negotiating team, as were Thoman, assistant business manager Scott Campbell and fossil and business agent Bob Weber. Bishop and Thoman both praised the work of Paul Montalbano, Local 94's attorney since 1980.
"Everyone on the staff did their research," Bishop said. "They looked at the company and when we went into the room, they were able to show them stuff that we, [the IBEW], had negotiated with the company at other places. It was pretty brilliant."
to read how the IBEW highlighted UCOMM's work on UCOMM Blog