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IBEW

Puerto Rican Utility Workers Chose IBEW

For the first time in decades the IBEW has a presence on the Island

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by Guest Post on
Dec 01, 2021

This article was written by the IBEW Media Department.

The 650 members of an independent union representing Puerto Rico's utility workers merged with Orlando, Fla., Local 222 in June, giving the IBEW a permanent presence on the island for the first time in decades.

The merger brought all the workers of the new national utility operator, LUMA Energy, to the IBEW just days after it took over operations of the island's struggling electrical system June 1.

Local 222 also signed a project labor agreement with LUMA covering billions of dollars of grid reconstruction funded by Federal Emergency Management Agency grants.

"Our local has had jurisdiction in Puerto Rico, but we haven't had anyone working there for several decades," said Local 222 Business Manager Bill Hitt. "It's like we added an entirely new state or a province of brothers and sisters."

The Unión Insular de Trabajadores Industriales y Construcciones Eléctricas had represented many of the utility workers at LUMA's predecessor, Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority, since UITICE was taken over by Francisco Reyes Santos in 1964.

Reyes' son, Hector, took over leadership of the organization in 2013, and watched as the national utility operator, PREPA, fell year after year into debt and disrepair.

Then, four years ago, the electrical infrastructure of Puerto Rico was decimated by two Category 5 hurricanes: first Irma and then, two weeks later, Maria. Sustained winds over 150 mph, gusts of 180 and, during one extraordinary 24-hour period, 21/2 feet of rain bombarded the Commonwealth.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 people were killed and power was knocked out for the whole island. Nearly all of the 3.5 million residents were without power for months, some for almost a year.

Since 2017, billions of dollars were spent to restore power, with contracts given primarily to nonunion contractors based in the continental U.S. But the entire system is just as fragile as it was before the storm, Hitt said.

"They spent $5 billion on an 18-month restoration that didn't do jack. People got power, but it's all prayer, baling wire and Band-Aids," Hitt said. "Every pole is a widow-maker. The lines are junk. The aluminum towers were rated for 100 mph 50 years ago and faced gusts nearly double that. Half of the power generation is on its last legs and the other half doesn't work at all."

In 2018, PREPA was forced into effective bankruptcy. The state-owned utility was allowed to retain ownership of the transmission and distribution system, but management and operations were put out to bid.

The winner of the 15-year contract, announced in June 2020, was LUMA Energy — a consortium of signatory contractors Quanta Energy and Canadian Utilities Limited. After a one-year transition period, LUMA took over operations in June.

A Mandate to Rebuild

Given the scale of the need, and the long, positive history of its parent companies working with the IBEW, LUMA executives, Hitt and Fifth District International Vice President Brian Thompson began negotiations for a project labor agreement to take on the massive job of rebuilding the island's power grid in January 2021.

The conversations were swift, Hitt said.

"They needed us. And they will need us going forward," he said.

With LUMA's takeover, billions of FEMA dollars have been released after years of delay.

Under the PLA, all of the federally funded work will be done by IBEW members earning fair wages under local-hire provisions.

It's the kind of work the local's outside linemen have been doing for decades in Florida and across the Caribbean. Now, Hitt said, local contractors will have a shot at that work and local linemen will get the priority and training they need.

Hitt said that because of the regularity of power cuts over the last four years, the local population is "traumatized" and unlikely to accept planned outages for the rebuild. He expects a lot of the work to be done energized and that will require a highly skilled workforce, one that exists on the island, but is far too small.

In the months ahead, Local 222 is opening a local office and will work with SELCAT, the Fifth District's Joint apprenticeship program, to set up a local training center.

The PLA, Hitt thought, was a huge win for the IBEW and his members, and that would be the extent of his involvement.

"I'm in construction. It's all we do. It's all I was interested in. The island needs a complete rebuild and we negotiated a pretty good PLA to get it done," Hitt said. "I thought we'll put a whole bunch of local people to work and vastly improve on what is there and then move on."

A Permanent Presence

But nothing is simple in Puerto Rico right now, Hitt said, and concern was growing, on the labor side — and on the management side as well, it turned out — that the way labor had been organized at PREPA was as dysfunctional as the utility itself.

Both UITICE and LUMA wanted more from the IBEW than just the PLA.

For Reyes, the reality was that in the four-decade history of UITICE, he had never negotiated a first contract and had only ever bargained with PREPA.

More pressing was that with LUMA's takeover the existing CBA disappeared and with it the employment of nearly all his members.

When PREPA went bankrupt, it lost its transmission and distribution and its business was limited to power generation.

For Reyes, this meant that UITICE had to imagine a new way forward for his members, for his union and for his country because UITICE had no generation members. The union was started solely to represent PREPA's construction workers.

Before UITICE, the only union at PREPA was the Union des Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego. UTIER only represented the maintenance linemen and went on to represent the secretaries and the generation workers. UITICE carved out the construction linemen that needed a voice. UITICE had been that voice for nearly a half century.

"If I don't have anyone working, I don't represent anyone," he said. "UITICE was coming to an end, but I wanted to do something for my people."

What he and his fellow officers did was listen to the membership and find out what they wanted going forward. And what they wanted was what many had seen when they were working IBEW jobs in the main land.

There had always been linemen from Puerto Rico working IBEW jobs, Hitt said. And that number jumped in the aftermath of Irma and Maria. The Trump administration's response was painfully slow, inept, and chaotic, and federal relief and rebuilding funding, when it did come, went primarily to nonunion contractors like Pike and MasTec. In the intervening years, many PREPA linemen came north to Local 222 to find stable work.

They liked what they saw, Reyes said, and wanted it again.

"Now they wanted to be represented in a new way, attached to an international union, and they wanted the training, the safety — the culture — of the IBEW to be a part of Puerto Rico," Reyes said.

The disaster at PREPA was painful for most of his members, he said.

"For whatever reasons, things we had no control over, PREPA fell into a black hole and we wanted to move on from the corruption that is everywhere and build something better for us, but also for all of Puerto Rico," he said. "So, I called Bill."

But Hitt didn't really know how to help at first.

"I had no interest in anything but the PLA and that work," Hitt said. "But I was really impressed with Hector. He is a gutsy guy."

Hitt tasked Business Agent Willie Dezayas with finding a way to help Reyes and UITICE out.

"When I spoke to Hector, he always talked about the Puerto Rican people, not just his membership. He wanted to improve everyone's lives," Dezayas said. "That's what carried me through. Through all the troubles and challenges and anger on the island, that is what motivates me still."

When Reyes came back, it wasn't with a request for help, but with a plan — an ambitious plan — to go much, much further.

UITICE, Reyes said, would shock everyone predicting its demise and rise, one final time, as the handover to LUMA was made.

First, after the June 1 takeover was official, UITICE would ask for card check from LUMA and collect enough cards to become the sole bargaining representative. Then, it would hold a vote to dissolve and align with the IBEW. The distribution and transmission linemen and substation techs would become members of the IBEW and begin contract negotiations with LUMA with the full power of the international union behind it.

"We said yes," Thompson said.

It was an audacious plan, helped in no small part, Hitt said, by the attitude taken by the leadership of UTIER, which urged — Hitt says threatened — its members not to apply for work at LUMA.

"They wanted to burn the whole world down," Hitt said. "Our biggest help, at every turn, was the leadership of UTIER."

And the vehemence of UTIER worked to the benefit of the UITICE and the IBEW. Applications at LUMA were far below what was expected by the time of the turnover, and nearly everyone who applied was a former member of UITICE.

The intransigence of UTIER opened LUMA to card check.

Reyes collected signatures from a majority of LUMA workers in just a few days. UITICE was recognized by LUMA by mid-June.

All that was left was the assembly to vote on a merger.

UTIER leadership made it clear they would do all they could to stop the merger vote and the date and location of the vote had to be changed because of safety concerns.

"That didn't have to happen. It was traumatizing for the workers and the people of Puerto Rico," Reyes said. "There was psychological war within PREPA. They were doing everything possible to hold people from the transition that was happening. Even though we had these difficulties, I am thankful, sincerely thankful, for all the people who helped out to make the transition happen."

A New Contract, A New Future

The vote was held, the merger confirmed; Reyes came on staff as assistant business manager for Local 222 and he and Hitt began negotiations for a first contract.

The contract was agreed on Sept. 3 and quickly approved by the membership.

The highlights were the first raise in more than a decade and more agreed over the next four years. There is no change to the health care plan, and everyone now participates in the IBEW pension plan, which without is question in far better shape than the PREPA plan they had been under.

"Like most everything else on the island, their old retirement plan is bankrupt or soon will be," Dezayas said.

"On retirement alone, it is a better benefit than what we had," Reyes said. "An actual retirement that the employer has to pay for, and nothing comes out of our pockets. That alone would have been worth it."

But more money was never the primary goal, however necessary and welcome it is.

What the membership really wanted was the professionalization of the work force and safer, better working conditions. Reyes said that it is in safety protocols that changes are most noticeable. Jobs now begin with a safety briefing before work starts, something familiar to any IBEW utility or construction member elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada, but previously unheard of at PREPA.

"We get a job briefing. We never had that before. Foremen fill out the Job Safety Analysis form and it sometimes takes longer than the work itself. That is a clear message no one can miss, that with the IBEW and LUMA, safety really comes first," Reyes said.

And then there is the intangible: being part — again for many of them — of the IBEW.

"To have the stability of being an IBEW member, that is big here. To be recognized as an IBEW journeyman linemen or operator means we can go work anywhere," Reyes said. "Having that ticket is huge for the workers. The sense of pride being part of the IBEW is real."

And now they can begin the difficult work of rebuilding an entire island while the lights stay on.

"This is the highlight of our careers — for me, Bill and Hector. We have had some big organizing victories in recent years, but this is bigger than us," Thompson said. "Yes, it expands our horizons, but we have the chance to also change millions of lives and reset the future of entire people. It's worth any difficulty to make this work. And we are not done yet.

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