IUGW vs. WASHINGTON GAS & LIGHT CO.: 1995-96
Laying the Groundwork for a Secure Future
The IUGW's entire membership was about 1,030 members, nearly all of whom handled installation, maintenance, meter reading and service calls for Washington Gas. Half the union's members fell under the jurisdiction of Virginia's "right-to-work" labor laws.
CCI helped a 1,000 member local generate massive media
Washington Gas, headquartered in the District of Columbia, distributed natural gas to about 800,000 customers in the capitol area and adjacent states. In 1994, the company earned $60 million in profits, raised the dividend paid to stockholders for the 19th consecutive year and compensated its top executives very generously. The future looked very bright. Yet like so many other corporations, the richer they became, the greedier they became.
Washington Gas demanded major concessions. The company wanted to prevent any wage increases; have the right to make unilateral changes in benefit programs; have complete discretion over transferring any worker anywhere at anytime, and to hire more subcontractors and part-timers. It also sought to undermine the union by weakening grievance and arbitration procedures.
When IUGW members voted overwhelmingly to reject these outrageous demands, the company locked them out of their jobs on June 10, 1995. As the lockout dragged on, it meant serious financial hardship - especially for those 500 families of IUGW members in Virginia, who were denied unemployment benefits. On Sept. 1, after being locked out for 12 weeks, the members voted down the company's insulting contract offer, but with only a 51.5% majority.
Cover of CCI produced brochure
On Sept. 7, Corporate Campaign, Inc.'s Ray Rogers addressed about 325 members at a union meeting. On September 11, The Washington Post ran a long article, headlined "Washington Gas Lockout May Heat Up; Union to Vote on Bringing Veteran of Tough Labor Fights on Board." It said union members would vote the next day on whether to hire CCI. IUGW President Jim Mort was quoted: "The company knows that if just 1.5 percent change their minds, it could go either way." The story added that "Martin J. McDonnell, 39, a gas company meter reader and shop steward, called the company's latest contract offer 'a grossly inadequate rehash of previous offers' and accused the gas company of attempting to 'starve the workers into submission.'" All in all, the situation looked pretty grim.
On Sept. 16, the Post reported: "Washington Gas & Light union employees, locked out of their jobs in a contract dispute more than three months ago, voted yesterday to hire New York consultant Ray Rogers to coordinate a campaign against the gas company. Rogers said he would help the International Union of Gas Workers...raise funds from other unions."
On Sept. 22, the Post revealed that the company was declaring an impasse and ending the lockout. Jim Mort had learned that its directors called an emergency meeting after learning that CCI had been hired. Rather than see hundreds of locked-out workers transformed into an army of aggressive campaigners, the directors decided it was now necessary to bring everyone back to work. While this maneuver did undermine the campaign's early intensity, after 109 days of being locked out, it also relieved a financially-strapped union and many of its members who came close to being "starved into submission."
CCI helped the IUGW gather a lot of support from AFL-CIO unions, including financial contributions. This was done through a public outreach that placed the union on the offensive and made its members and their fight for justice highly visible. On Oct. 16, the Post ran an article headlined, "Union Targets Directors in Washington Gas & Light Dispute," extensively quoting Jim Mort on the campaign's initial moves. He said that members of the gas company's board of directors would be targeted for direct action, including former Democratic Congressman Michael Barnes (who had become a partner in a prestigious Washington law/lobbying firm) and two other directors, including Washington Gas's CEO, who sat on the board of Richmond, Va-based Crestar Bank. The campaign distributed tens of thousands of copies of several hard-hitting brochures that highlighted issues of public concern, including consumer fraud and serious safety-related concerns.
Cover of CCI produced brochure
The first brochure asked the question: "Washington Gas: Model Corporate Citizen... Or Corporate Thug?" It so enraged Barnes that a Nov. 6 Washington Post article said: "In a blistering letter to the International Union of Gas Workers on Oct. 26, Barnes called the union's 'so-called corporate campaign' childish, sophomoric and libelous." In response to the letter, the Post reported that "several dozen members" marched into Barnes' law firm to deliver "a letter saying that if their campaign was upsetting him, 'you haven't seen anything yet...'"
In April, as the union boycott of Crestar Bank intensified, the Richmond Post Dispatch, the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers began reporting that a coalition of unions led by the Teamsters, SEIU and LIUNA were planning to withdraw deposits of more than $113 million. LIUNA and a number of IBEW and CWA locals had already removed substantial accounts from the bank. As the campaign progressed, the IUGW sought an international with which to affiliate. Five international unions vying for the affiliation made their proposals.
Although all the proposals had positive features, none really addressed both the immediate and long-term needs of the IUGW. CCI developed an approach of presenting the IUGW as an excellent investment that could pay off big dividends in the future for any international union.
With the permission of IUGW's leadership, Ray Rogers set up a meeting with the Teamsters' organizing director to work out the details of an affiliation package addressing both the immediate and long-term financial and staff support needs so that the union could get back on its feet and win a contract. The Teamsters' proposal was unanimously endorsed by the IUGW's executive board. In all, six international unions made presentations to the membership, and the rank-and-file voted overwhelmingly in June to affiliate with the Teamsters.
When the affiliation became official in September, the IUGW changed its name to Teamsters Local 96. The Teamsters' International took charge of the campaign and 15 months later, on Dec. 12, 1997, the contract dispute was finally settled. What started out as a very bleak situation, with a nearly bankrupt union locked out for 3½ months and the company needing only to switch 1½ % of the votes on a terrible contract, was completely turned around through the combined efforts of the local, CCI and the Teamsters' International. In 1998 Jim Mort, as Political Action Committee chair for Teamsters Joint Council 55, played a key role in preventing the appointment of Michael Barnes as Maryland's Comptroller.
On May 26, 2001, Mort wrote the following to Ray Rogers:
Just surfing the Web and found your Web site for Corporate Campaign. Your site looks great! You even have a section on our union, IUGW-Teamsters Local 96. I think back on those times with a lot of pride. I knew we were doing the right thing for our members, and things turned out great, thanks in no small part you and your organization played. I often think of what would have happened if we didn't fight back. We most likely would not have a union, our members wages would have shrunk and if we had any benefits, our members would be paying for them. I would hate to see what the workplace would look like now. But thanks to you and CCI, our members are doing very well now.
Last summer we negotiated our first contract since our last lockout. I can tell you that management had a very different attitude at the bargaining table. They showed us a lot of respect, but our members earned this respect by the fight we had three years ago. We negotiated a 5-year package with raises in each year, bonuses in each year, a raise on the match in our 401k plan. And I think we are one of the few unions, at least in our area, where we have 30-and-out retirement with no copay by our members; Blue Cross-Blue Shield high option plan paid solely by the company and a $10.00 copay on prescriptions. What makes these benefits so great is that you carry them into retirement with no cost to our retirees. Even after you reach the age for Medicare, our BCBS plan becomes our secondary insurance at no cost to our retirees.
We have accomplished a great deal for our members thanks to the support and guidance from you and CCI. I know we could not have done it without you. I wonder if our members realize that taking on the company in '95 would have an effect to this day on how the company deals with the Union. I think they do. Thanks to you and CCI, we have respect and dignity on the job.
Union members protesting at the headquarters
of Washington Gas in Washington D.C.
Photos by Steve Wattenmaker