Working class solidarity in action

This week, a letter was sent from Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 58 to its members in Detroit. It solemnly informed them of their “obligation to cross any picket lines” on job sites governed by the so-called National Maintenance Agreement, or NMA. This agreement is a kind of master or umbrella agreement between the major building trades unions, and major employers like utility companies, refineries, and auto manufacturers such as GM.

Marianne Garneau spoke to Jason, an inside wireman and member of Local 58 about the circumstances that led to it being sent out, and what effect it did (or did not) have.

Did you get one of these letters?

Yes, I did.

Why were they sent out? Were folks refusing to cross the UAW picket lines at GM?

Yes. Basically, our members were refusing to cross the picket line. We work for contractors, and we get hired out of our union hall. It’s what’s called a “hiring call.” The contractors call the union, and then the union refers people out for work. When the strike happened, our members stopped taking jobs with contractors working for GM. And for a few days or a week, that was okay, no one said anything about it. And then GM started threatening our contractors, saying they were going to impose fines on our contractors if we didn’t man our jobs.

With GM we work under a contract called the National Maintenance Agreement (NMA). The heads of one of the contractors filed a grievance saying that the union was participating in a work stoppage, which is against the NMA. There’s language in the NMA that we are not supposed to participate in work stoppages, pickets or strikes. But a lot of members, as well as local unions, interpret that to mean we won’t go on strike against our jobs, but that we aren’t giving away our right not to cross a picket line.

So it went to an arbitrator at the NMAPC [Policy Committee] — the arbitration [body] for the NMA. This is a national agreement – this isn’t something my local union agreed to — it’s negotiated and signed between GM and our international union. We went to arbitration, and we lost — they ruled that we were participating in a work stoppage, and they said they were going to impose fines on our union for this.

All the NMA says is that the local union and its employees won’t participate in a strike and they will do – I don’t remember the exact wording, but the union must make a reasonable effort to get people to go to work. They can’t force us to pick up a job, they can’t force us to go work that job, but they have to make a reasonable effort to man the jobs.

So our members have been refusing to cross picket lines, and the shop has been putting in job calls, and everyone is refusing to go to the jobs. That’s how this whole situation got to this point where they had to send out a letter, basically as an act of good faith, saying, “Look, we told our members to go out to work; it’s not our fault they’re not going out to work.”

From my perspective, they were doing it as an act of good faith with GM and the contractor. Basically saying that the union itself isn’t participating in any kind of work stoppage, and is still doing its job.

So what was the effect of the letter? Did folks start taking these jobs?

The majority of people did not, no. There were some that did, but I don’t know if it was from these job referrals, or employees who had transferred in that already worked for that contractor, but I do know that they still had standing job calls that were not filled because people are refusing to cross.

It’s put a lot of our workers and our union in kind of a precarious situation because nobody wants to cross – the vast majority of people don’t want to cross — but they’re getting pressure from a lot of different angles. And the way our system works, employers can not necessarily fire you, but can lay you off for any reason whatsoever. They don’t even have to give a reason, they just have to say, “We don’t need you anymore.” So a lot of people are concerned that because they refused to go work for this contractor, they might get blacklisted. Say, they show up and the contractor says, “Oh, we don’t need you anymore.” This is just a concern; there haven’t been any clear-cut instances of that.

Was there any conversation between members about not crossing the line?

Oh absolutely [laughs]. Yeah. Because the union is kind of hamstrung to that effect, there are a lot of vocal members who are basically speaking for them, for the union, saying, “Good union members don’t cross picket lines no matter what.” We have a lot of young members, newer members who might not know those kinds of things, so there’s been a pretty concerted effort on the part of active members to get that word out and try to engage with people, to get the members to understand their rights.

Where do those conversations take place?

On the internet, phone calls, even on the job, at union meetings, outside of union meetings.

So these conversations were happening, but there wasn’t a specific plan made, it was just a cultural thing: don’t take these jobs.

When we pick up jobs, we have to show up in person at the union hall, and physically pick up the job referral, and when those were happening, everybody was standing outside the referral offices saying “Don’t take those jobs. Don’t cross the picket line.” Being vocal about how that’s not something we should do.

If you don’t take those jobs, can you find some other job to pick up, or are you out of work?

There have been some jobs available to pick up but definitely not the same amount. There may be 80 jobs available at GM, and nobody’s taking those, and maybe only 20 other jobs came in. So some people have gone out on other jobs, but there are some people just waiting at home for another job to come up or the strike to end.

What was the nature of the jobs GM was trying to hire for?

The jobs were specifically at the GM Tech Center [a GM office complex] – that’s what this whole situation was regarding. They are construction and maintenance jobs. The main concern of GM was there was an office building that was being renovated, and they wanted that office building done so that they could bring their employees there. That’s why this job site had more pressure than other jobs sites, because they really wanted these buildings done so that they didn’t have to lease another building for their employees.

Did this delay progress on the GM Tech Center?

I do believe that building trades refusing to cross picket lines has put projects behind. I should add that some members either asked to be laid off or quit when faced with pressure to cross the line.

Did any IBEW members in your local go down to any of the UAW picket lines?

Although it wasn’t an official union action, we had many members provide support to the striking UAW workers, including walking the picket line.