Ventura County and Santa Barbara union workers are facing a tough decision following changes to an agreement that some are dubbing unfair.

The union dispute arose when the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 47 (IBEW Local 47), which holds a contract with Southern California Edison known as a construction maintenance labor agreement, cancelled so-called “carve out” agreements that allowed for the hiring of outside union workers to perform work on underground dry utility infrastructure. Transmission, distribution, substation, line clearance and telecom work are all included in this type of work.  

Up until December 2018, Local 47 allowed underground dry utility infrastructure work to be performed by contractors and unions members who had been signatories to the carve out agreements. On Dec. 1, 2018, Local 47 introduced the Southern California Outside Utility Infrastructure agreement, which changed who would be allowed to take part in the work. SoCal Edison notified previously hired laborers that they would no longer be used if they were not part of Local 47, stemming from the changes.

Now, the only option for these workers, who previously worked on SCE projects, is to join the union, pay so-called agency fees or find work elsewhere. An agency fee allows a person who is not a member of the Local 47 to take jobs exclusively for the union without having to become a member.

In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, there are many unions and businesses affected by the move, including members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Teamsters and the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) and companies such as Tidwell Excavating, Henkels & McCoy and International Line Builders, Inc., to name just a few.

One laborer, “Mike Smith” (pseudonym used to protect his identity), says that switching to the IBEW Local 47 would require losing benefits acquired over decades by him and others.

“It’s affecting me because they’re saying I can’t work on a contract. I’ve been there for 15 years. I’ll have to go look for another job or switch unions and start a new pension somewhere else,” said Smith.

Smith says that he believes the move is for the benefit of the Local 47 and that the union would not be able to provide the training required to safely complete jobs, noting that the IBEW Local 47 crews are trained for overhead line work, not underground.

Anthony Mireles, business manager for Ventura-headquartered LiUNA Local 585, says that younger workers would be attracted to move to the Local 47 over fear of potentially losing a job, but that they also lose out on training for future work opportunities. Mireles, who also sits on the Ventura County Workforce Development Board, notes that the Local 585 is preparing workers for future technologies from cybersecurity to installing 5G networks.

“What is Local 47 going to do if they have to do grid improvements and can’t find the people because we’re doing better training?” said Mireles, defining the coming years as the “digitalization of construction.” Mireles, like Smith, also points toward safety concerns.

“The [International Union of Operating Engineers Local 12] have apprenticeships, we have one, where’s theirs? The linemen? They’re taught to climb the poles, but they don’t have an underground utility safety training to work inside the vaults,” said Mireles. “The public will be at harm if there’s power that goes down and they have unskilled workers working.”

IBEW Local 47 Business Manager and Financial Secretary Patrick Lavin says, simply, that “they’re a bunch of lying bastards.”

“There’s no way to hold back on it and I’m not saddled with political correctness. From listening to their nonsense, they make things up,” said Lavin.

Lavin says that one of the reasons the agreements were cancelled is because the operator engineers and laborers “cheated” on the terms by mixing and matching crews and by putting their own foremen in charge of IBEW crews against the terms of the agreement.

Smith says that he doesn’t see what difference it makes if the crews were mixed, adding that the Local 47 did not have workers needed to fulfill jobs and that the ones they did provide failed to meet work safety and experience requirements.

“We put in to have these people and a majority failed drug tests or don’t have the experience,” said Smith. “You have to have a minimum five years’ experience and the trade crews and laborers have all the experience because we’ve been doing this for years.”

Lavin says that of the 11,000 Local 47 members in Southern California, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties have around 2,000 members and that they have added close to 100 new members who have joined following the agreement cancellation. Lavin disputes the notion that transitioning to the Local 47 from another union would cancel pensions, explaining that once a member is vested in their pension, you can’t lose it, per state law.

“When the operators have come over and joined our union because they want to work and not sit at home and do nothing because the operator can’t put them to work, the operators will bring them in, file charges that they’re working for non-union, and they will threaten them with loss of their pensions,” said Lavin. “I’ve gotten our attorney to represent those people and say this is bullshit, you can’t take anyone’s pension away.”

To become vested in a pension, a minimum number of hours or years is required, which varies by union. Young or new union members may not have reached the hours or years required before moving into a new union membership, which would entitle them to only a portion of the funds.

Lavin also disputes that the Local 47 doesn’t properly train their members, calling the accusation “nonsense” while noting that the IBEW has a training and apprenticeship facility in San Bernardino.

For older workers who have spent years working for a particular union, however, the change means potentially starting over.

“We’re going to have to go find jobs with other companies like Toro, there’s nothing we can really do,” said Smith. “To me, it’s unfair labor practices. I don’t see why they only want IBEW work and only one union can do it. We’ve been doing it for years.”

When asked for comment, Southern California Edison issued this statement:

“Southern California Edison has a strong relationship with our union partners. The company is required to uphold legal obligations under its union agreement.”