An article in the May, 2014 issue of The Electrical Worker, the house organ journal of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, details the successful organizing efforts of Local 33, which now represents about 400 lawyers who work for the State of New Jersey. These employees, the Deputy Attorneys General (DAGs) are the men and women who prosecute polluters, shut down scams, investigate civil rights law violations, and so forth. In short, they do the routine, day to day legal work required to defend the people of New Jersey.
Over twenty years ago, a consensus was emerging within this group of workers that they needed union representation. Many felt that theirs was a classic case of employee abuse: broken promises, especially promised pay raises that never happened, unilateral increases in work load, arbitrary changes in work schedules, etc. The DAGs felt that their deteriorating work environment was not only undermining morale but making it difficult for them to do their jobs. But as soon as it became known that these workers were considering joining a union, the state legislature passed a law forbidding it.
Over the years, the DAGs considered many strategies, and eventually approached the IBEW. This may seem like an unusual choice of bargaining agent, but actually it was a very reasonable choice. The IBEW is a fairly large, long established international union, having about a thousand local unions in the U.S. and Canada. In its 120+ years of operation, it has represented workers in a broad range job classifications with hundreds of separate specialized skill sets. The IBEW also has experience representing public sector workers, as well as white collar professionals.
When approached by the DAGs, the IBEW representative had one question: Are you guys really committed to this effort? This will be a long struggle. If we at the IBEW go all in on this, will you guys see it through to the end? The DAGs affirmed that they would. The first thing which had to be done was lobby the legislature to repeal the law forbidding the DAGs to organize. So the DAGs, the IBEW, and all their union friends appealed to the lawmakers---and this appeal was eventually successful. The question which the lobbyists asked was this: "How can you tell someone who is being mistreated that they shouldn't be able to do anything about it?" No one really had an answer to that question, so they passed a bill repealing the law, and governor John Corzine signed it into law on his last day in office.
The union won its NLRB election, and negotiations for the first contract began. It was a long, grueling process, with the state dragging its feet the whole way. But eventually a contract was signed. Many people will ask, "What would an electricians' union know about the issues facing lawyers?" Well, obviously, they know how to negotiate wages and working conditions. But the question is mostly irrelevant anyway. When a new union local is formed, the new members themselves select leadership from their own ranks, write their own by-laws, and select their own delegates and committees, including their negotiating committee. When the state began negotiating with "the union," it was a committee of their own employees they were negotiating with. The international union supplies a rough skeletal framework, in the form of a constitution. It also supplies financial and organizational backing, and its vast expertise in organizing unions and setting them up in ways that work. But in every case, "the union" is the workforce. Any employer that hates "the union" simply hates his own workers.