In March of 2013 maintenance employees at REC Silicon voted for better working conditions and respect on the job. In September 2015, they finally got it.
After two years of bargaining, Helena, Mont., Local 233 ratified its first contract with the Butte-based REC Silicon. The company, which produces silane gas and polysilicon that is used to make computer chips, is also the largest manufacturer of the material in the world.
"It was an uphill battle," said Local 233 Business Manager Keith Allen. "But with the strength of our supporters we were able to keep fighting to get our employees on an equal footing with management."
Local 233 dealt with numerous obstacles, including charges of unfair labor practices by the company and an unsuccessful decertification attempt. A volunteer organizing committee member was even fired a week before Christmas. But in the end, 48 new members got a contract, and one with a union security clause. And the fired employee, who is a U.S. military veteran, got his job back — with back pay.
"It was a total team effort," said Dave Thomas, state organizing coordinator. "We had a strong volunteer organizing committee and everyone worked hard to make this happen."
The maintenance staff are comprised of electricians, welders, mechanics, painters, insulators and other craft trades people with specializations, all jobs that require high levels of competency. Previous attempts by other unions had been made to organize these working women and men, but only two ever got to a vote. This time around, the IBEW organizing team hit the ground hard.
When organizers at Local 233 heard that REC Silicon was flying in a union-busting lawyer from Ohio, they made sure to let everyone know. From then on, the labor-friendly town of Butte got regular reminders in the daily and weekly newspapers, as well as broadcast coverage, of the out-of-towner with a history of dismantling companies and shipping jobs overseas.
"His credibility was gone before he even started," said Regional Organizing Coordinator Bob Brock. "We were really proactive with the press and got them on board early on. Then we just kept pounding away."
Brock said they also circulated letters of encouragement throughout the Butte labor community — Butte is an old union mining town with deep labor roots — and delivered them to the employees before the vote. The letters came from fellow union members — firefighters, teachers and machinists — and other locals in support of a vote for the union.
"With Butte being a tight-knit town, everyone who read the list saw a name of someone they knew encouraging them," Brock said.
With that vote and the successful negotiation, the days of constantly changing rules and management playing favorites are over. And with their contract, the new members of Local 233 now have the fairness and security they deserve.
"Employees should have management promises in writing," Allen said. "Now we have that. Now we have a voice that management will listen to."