Thursday, June 24, 2010

In IBEW Local 103: A crazy application of a murky grievance system

Construction workers know it can be dangerous to file a grievance under their union contract: win or lose, you can end up blacklisted as a troublemaker. Nothing new about that. But for mystification bordering on the irrational, you must go to the decision of the appeals committee on April 8 dismissing the grievance filed by Peter deMont, a member of IBEW local 103 in Boston.

Local 103 and the Boston Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association [NECA] agreed to change the job referrals requirements of the union contract, essentially by diluting provisions that require referrals from the out-of-work list in chronological order --- earliest to sign the list, earliest to get the job. When deMont argued that the agreement was invalid, the appeals committee rejected his protest in a 22-page decision whose labyrinthine windings touched upon two decisive points:

  • deMont pointed out that Section 1.3 of the contract between Local 103 and NECA clearly required that “Any such change or supplement agreed upon shall be reduced to writing, signed by the parties herein, and submitted to the International Office of the IBEW for approval…” Since the international never approved the change, any ordinary mortal would conclude that deMont had a powerful case. But watch how the appeals committee ducked out of that one:

    “Whether approval is necessary to satisfy para 1.3 is the essential disputed point in this case,” the appeals committee wrote. The only action necessary, the appeals committee replied in reply to its own question, is “the act of submission for approval, not the receipt of approval” (committee’s emphasis.) Moreover, deMont had “never raised the contention that the Memorandum had not been submitted.” Here, there would appear to be a kind of double duck: the committee does not contend that the changes were ever submitted for approval, only that deMont has not charged the union and company with not sending it for approval.

  • Apart from what is required by the contract between Local 103 and NECA, the IBEW International itself requires locals to submit contacts and changes to the International for approval. But that was an easy hurdle for this agile appeals committee; it simple brushed it aside: “The argument that the failure to obtain the approval of the International or follow the steps detailed in the July, 2003 International policy, violates the International Constitution is a matter between the local and the International, not the Appeals Committee.” The point is interesting but somewhat puzzling because one of the members of the Appeals Committee is a member of IBEW Local 3 and a signatory of its decision.

The three-member Appeals Committee consists of one representative of Local 103, one from the employers, and the third from the public. The issues raised by deMont have complexities but they boil down to this:

Most IBEW contracts require contractors to hire out of the union hall where referrals are supposed to be made in chronological order: earliest to sign goes to the top of the list and gets first crack at referrals. There are exceptions for workers with special skills, for foremen, for older workers, and some others; but, on the whole, workers get jobs through the hall and order on the list prevails. But Local 103 and NECA agreed to sweeping contract modifications that effectively disrupt the priority referral system.

Over the years, efforts had been made to chip away at the basic chronological system. In 1981, the business manager allowed 300 electricians on the list to solicit their own jobs; but, on protest/appeal by Basil Paicos, the practice was voided. However, as this appeals committee wrote, the incumbent business manager “has encouraged the use of solicitation to obtain employment.”

And so, the current appeals committee has OKed a system which permits a least the top percent of people on the list --- and no fewer that 250 --- to solicit their own jobs. The record of the appeal shows that the international has never approved of this system, nor does it show whether any request for approval had ever been submitted.