April 2017 br>Fighting the Aftermath of Funding Sweeps
In 1986, when William E. “Bill” Dugan became the President-Business Manager of Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, AFL-CIO, the union’s membership had dropped to about 10,000 members. Today, that number has grown to approximately 23,000. The reason for this massive increase, even more incredible since membership in American unions has dropped significantly during the same time period, can be summed up in one word: organizing.
Dugan and the officers elected with him knew that the lifeblood of any labor organization was its ability to recruit new members. This would, in turn, increase the Union’s market share in all relevant industries. Shortly after the election, Dugan created Local 150’s Organizing Department, appointing Jim Sweeney and Bob Paddock as the union’s first full-time organizers. In other local unions, in the IUOE and throughout the building trades, business agents’ organizing responsibilities often took a backseat to servicing to the members’ needs. Dugan believed that in order to combat rapidly declining membership numbers in the construction trades, individuals needed to be assigned the sole responsibility of organizing.
And organize they did. The first industries tackled were the mechanic shops for the major road builders and mass dirt companies primarily located in Indiana. Now, mechanics working on equipment that our Brothers and Sisters operate benefit from the same terms and conditions as their coworkers.
The Organizing Department did not focus solely on previously untouched industries. It also set about regaining market share lost through decades of neglect. To that end, they set out for the northern and western portions of Local 150’s jurisdiction and began organizing our traditional core companies in the Winnebago and McHenry County areas. The fear that Rockford would go non-union quickly subsided, and excavating contractors throughout the District 3 area began to employ Local 150 operators.
Local 150’s organizing became so successful that in 1989, Local 150 hired Dave Fagan to be its third full-time organizer. Fagan, a veteran of the slag industry in northwest Indiana, immediately set about organizing large railroad wrecking companies like Vance, in addition to unionizing heavy equipment operators working in the railroad construction and derailment industries. He also focused on organizing the dozens of non-union companies performing steel mill service work.
Throughout the 1990s, the Local 150 Organizing Department developed systematic plans to bring union wages and benefits to the unorganized. Two industries that benefited from their efforts were the asphalt plants and pits and quarries. Where no labor organization dared to tread, Local 150 broke new ground.
Key to these efforts, and Local 150’s successes was the creation of the Task Force. Now, the Local 150 organizers became teachers, passing along the years of wisdom of organizing and their stories in the trenches. Today, almost all the business agents and organizers on the Local 150 staff cut their teeth on the Task Force.
By 1995, many heavy construction contractors found it too expensive to own and maintain their own heavy equipment. Cheaper rental/lease alternatives became available as equipment rental shops popped up throughout Local 150’s jurisdiction. Realizing that the times were changing, Local 150 organizers launched “Operation Wrench,” targeting mechanics, drivers and yardworkers in these heavy equipment rental and repair shops and dealerships. After five long years, Local 150 won representation rights for the vast majority of the employees working in these shops. Finally, any individual repairing or maintaining heavy equipment enjoyed the wages, benefits, and working conditions comparable to those who operated them.
By the end of the 1990s, despite Local 150’s significant presence in the paving industry, small “fly-by-night” pavers began to encroach on the work of union contractors. Always up for the challenge, the Local 150 Organizing Department tackled the problem. The union developed a small pavers agreement and ultimately organized dozens of non-union companies, bringing better wages and benefits to small paver employees.
In early 2002, realizing that the union had lost significant market share in the drilling industry, Local 150 sought to bolster its jurisdiction and reorganize that industry. Not wanting to be left out, construction material testing technicians who often worked side-by-side with those drillers came to Local 150 for assistance in evening their employment relationship. Hence, Local 150 began its most ambitious and contentious operation to date; organizing those technicians. Despite their college educations, construction materials technicians earned equal to or less than workers in the fast food industry. In less than five years, Local 150 brought union wages, benefits, and working conditions to over 700 materials testing employees.
At about the same time, Local 150 began a concerted effort to organize landscape plantsmen. As the original organizer of equipment operators in the landscape industry, Bill Dugan realized that protecting our jurisdiction over that work required us to pursue the less skilled plantsmen. In the process, Local 150 helped bring union protection to hundreds of employees in the landscape industry.
As municipalities have continued to expand their own public works departments instead of relying on outside contractors, Local 150 has focused on organizing employees who perform work with heavy equipment. Today, more than 2,000 members of Local 150 work in municipalities. These members repair water mains, pave roads, and many other tasks mirrored by our members in the private sector.
Today, the Local 150 Organizing Department is working tirelessly to increase the Union’s market share, organize new technology, and improve the lives of all operating engineers working in construction and related industries. To Local 150, organizing is not a sideline; it is the most important thing we do. To that end, the words we live by are “Organize or Die.” As you can plainly see, there is no shortage of life coming from Local 150.