New Attitude Sparks Big Growth in Vermont Local
Jeffrey Wimette admits many members of Montpelier, Vt., Local 300 didn’t greet the IBEW’s embrace of alternate job classifications with much enthusiasm at first.
“Initially, it was a battle,” said Wimette, the local’s business manager. “Some people were writing emails saying that they are going to take away from our work. Contractors are not going to hire our journeyman wiremen because it cost too much.”
That didn’t turn out to be the case, he said. Local 300’s experience was captured in a video produced by the IBEW Media Department.
Montpelier Local 300 journeyman wireman Harty Heffernan works on an electrical box during a recent project. Heffernan said he supports the alternate job classifications because it allows young workers to get into the trades.
Local 300’s membership has increased 30 percent during the last two years, using a program that’s designed to lower costs, allow IBEW signatory contractors to bid successfully on more projects and introduce more men and women to the benefits of a union job. Many participants in the alternate job classification program have worked lower-skilled electrical jobs on nonunion sites with little or no formal training.
Wimette said he understands the reluctance to change, but said it is now as much of a necessity for the IBEW as for private industry.
“I didn’t have a cell phone 40 years ago,” he said. “I didn’t have my life in my hands or my back pocket. I kind of crack up when I hear utility managers say they’ve doing things the same way for 30 years. “
“It’s been a no-brainer for the most part,’ Wimette said. “Even if we have apprentices that don’t pan out, we have a place to put them in our system.”
Membership Development Director Tim LaBombard said 90 percent of the Local 300’s first- and second-year apprentices originally came in construction wiremen or construction electricians, designations that allow less-experienced workers to join the IBEW and be paid at a lower rate than a journeyman wireman.
“It gave me an opportunity to get a handle on what the career was all about and whether it was something I could really sink my teeth into,” said Micah Williams, a former construction wireman who is now a second-year apprentice.
Local 300 construction wireman Jeff Becher said he hopes to use experience gained in that position to earn a spot in an apprenticeship program.
Williams got a chance to boost his career, but the program has provided benefits throughout the Vermont electrical industry.
Local 300 had about 425 journeyman wireman prior to the 2008 economic collapse. That number had dropped to nearly 200, LaBombard said. The influx of new members gave overall membership a 30 percent increase, he said.
“The construction wiremen program has been a big part of Local 300’s financial stability,” Wimette said.
It has helped signatory contractors bid on projects they had little chance to land in the past, he said. Salaries for alternate category workers vary because each local negotiates its own pay rates, but they generally make between $10 and $20 less per hour than a journeyman wireman.
“I can tell you we would not be doing these jobs if we did not have the [alternate] classifications to blend into the pay rates against nonunion contractors,” LaBombard said.
It has built goodwill with contractors and helps with recruitment, too.
“We hire people that are really looking for a career, not just a job,” said Jeff Peck, owner of Peck Electric in Middlebury. “The program has been a gateway to introduce us to those people.”
“Our desire every day is to be better, more efficient and more productive,” Peck added. “The union is focused on that and is continuing to help us find the workers we need.”
Wimette says the demand for skilled journeymen electricians remains strong and the alternate classifications allow those better-trained members to concentrate on higher-level projects.
“You don’t hear it anymore, that we’re going to lose our jobs,” Wimette said. “It started off as a directive and we turned it into an opportunity.”