IBEW’s 1439 Walter briefs top labor communicators
Los Angeles - Some of America’s top labor communicators received a lesson in communications from St. Louis’ Local 1439 Business Manager/Financial Secretary Mike Walter at the annual convention last month here of the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA), the AFL-CIO’s labor press arm.
Walter was invited to the national meeting of labor communicators to outline the incredible program the union created in Potosi, Mo. where the union represent 23 city public employees in all departments except the clerical, police and dispatchers.
He was part of a four-person panel discussing the topic: “Not just talking to ourselves: Framing messages for broad public appeal.”
“The perceptions we faced in that small rural community (population 2,660 some 90 miles south of St. Louis in Washington County) was the dirty, nasty union coming from the big city,” Walter told the more than 100 delegates from local unions, city and state labor councils across the U.S.A.
Things were so bad that when Walter talked to the mayor to introduce himself and explain how the union would like to help the city, the mayor politely responded, “Don’t think we need your help Mike.”
So the union gathered its half dozen core supporters and decided on a two pronged approach to turning around the perception:
• First, to show the community that the union cared and was committed to making a difference;
• Second, to get involved politically since only one of the city’s six elected officials had any sympathy for a union coming to town. His father was a retired Anheuser- Busch employee enjoying a union-negotiated pension.
Gathering up other interested city employees, the core group began volunteering to help clean up community eyesores, held some fundraisers and used the proceeds to help people in need pay their gas bills.
That was so well, although cautiously, received, the union decided to sponsor a golf tournament with all the proceeds going to the local senior citizens center, which was in desperate need of help.
To everyone surprise, the union raised $3,500, an amount that’s been raised every year for the past 11 years. Local 1439 is now the largest contributor to the senior center in the center’s 75-year history, Walter explained to the delegates.
After that first tournament, the community started to come around, he noted.
The turnaround was so complete after several years that community leaders now praise the union’s commitment to, and involvement in, the City of Potosi’s affairs:
“The Union has done great things for the City; without the Union we would not be where we are today,” said Mayor T.R. Dudley.
CHANGED POLITICAL LANDSCAPE
Given that the union was now considered a good community partner, they were able to turn the political tables as well.
Doing all the grass roots things you need to do to win elections, over several years Local 1439 helped to change the entire slate of elected officials from anti-union to pro-union aldermen, mayor and city clerk, in some cases, winning by an 80 percent margin!
OTHER HELP AS WELL
Local 1439’s help didn’t stop there.
• They got the city to bid out its health insurance that had been handled by a local agent for years. The IBEW bid “knocked ‘em out of the water” and has saved the city some $50,000 annually on health insurance costs. All city employees are now covered by the plan.
• Developed a safety rules book to ensure safe working conditions for employees. As a result,
• Workers comp cases, “which were horrible,” were reduced to about one or so a year.
• Created a new sick leave policy that gave workers a few days off if they didn’t use their sick leave. Productivity improved dramatically.
• Created a new working foreman’s position that allowed to city to eliminate many layers of supervisors, which created substantial savings. The foreman now run all the city’s operations and report directly to the mayor.
• Negotiated equal pay for equal work and a 50-cent an hour increase for persons obtaining job certifications.
“I told our members there it would take a lot of hard work and determination, and they all pitched in.
“They changed a lot of people’s minds, helping them understand that the union is all about, and what it really stands for: helping people live a better life,” Walter concluded proudly.
Potosi incorporates 1439 into its official emblem
Potosi – In what has to be the most unusual and incredible mark of the respect a city has for a local union, here in Potosi, the city’s has designed and approved a new city emblem that includes IBEW Local 1439’s name.
It has to be the single most unique effort in the United States, having the union so closely aligned with the city that it wanted the city-union relationship recognized in its official emblem, is a mark of respect without peer.
Local 1439’s members in Potosi can be proud of their unique accomplishment. Their hard work will now be recognized on anything and everything that carries the city’s logo: stationary, equipment, etc.