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Boilermakers drive organizing gains at Siemens

We’re building the next generation of Boilermakers.

Manny Valenzuela, Organizer

Volunteer organizers donate time to knock on doors of Siemens workers in February.

Boilermakers joined forces with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to organize hourly workers at Siemens in Sacramento, California. Siemens is an international company producing everything from hospital equipment to transportation. The facility in Sacramento manufactures light rail vehicles for various transit agencies across North America.

Boilermaker campaign organizers Pablo Barrera and Eddie Rodriguez have a challenging task ahead of them. The Siemens campus is huge, with over 60 acres and 11 buildings, 45-50 departments and 1,500 hourly employees.

“We’re talking the U.N. of workers,” Barrera said, noting the facility has a mix of workers from many different cultures. 

It’s a daunting task connecting with workers so spread out and so diverse. While the parent company in Germany is not anti-union, the Sacramento location is union allergic, having fought off union drives in the past.

The workers, however, need help. They want help. While Siemens is receiving billions of dollars in contracts, workers endure an overabundance of serious issues at their workplace including abysmal health and welfare benefits, low pay, pay disparity and gender inequality. 

“They pay everybody poor wages,” Barrera said. “People are barely making it. They’re on government programs with the state. They’re just trying to make ends meet.”

It’s a multifaceted job to organize the facility. Organizers began by gathering handfuls of hourly employees for small worker meetings last year to understand workers’ pain and the issues they’re facing on the floor. Those small groups have grown to upwards of 30-plus workers. Through painstaking work, organizers cobbled together a list of employees’ names and addresses and are now knocking on doors with authorization cards in hand. Once the Boilermakers and the IBEW file with the NLRB, after acquiring 30% of workers signed cards, they can ask Siemens for an up-to-date employee list that includes all workers from the company.

Organizers from both unions debrief often and coordinate home visits with Action Builder, a campaign organizing program built by organizers. Down the road, after a successful vote in favor of unionizing, Boilermakers and the IBEW will determine in which unions the new members belong.

As the campaign kicked off last year, the Boilermakers, IBEW and Siemens signed a framework agreement in which both sides agreed to “play nice.” But Siemens has already violated the agreement, prompting the Boilermakers and the IBEW to file two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

“Going down that path of the framework agreement was a good idea,” Barrera said. “The agreement gave us more time to get acquainted with the workers. If we would have just gone straight to the NLRB at first, we would have always wondered if we should have done the global agreement. They hid behind that agreement. But now we’re going to take them on.”

Despite the challenges, there have been wins for the organizers and workers, including a holiday turkey giveaway. Organizers wanted to gift holiday turkeys to workers, raising the profile of the unions and helping workers who are living paycheck to paycheck. After organizers sought permission to give away turkeys inside the gate, Siemens used bogus reasons to deny them entry.  So, the organizers moved the operation outside the gates. That’s when management showed up, hassling them and surveilling workers.

“They made a big mistake with that one,” Barrera said.

However, Siemens workers were impressed with the event, grateful that the unions would do a kind deed for them over the holidays, opening more doors for organizing.

In February, organizers and union volunteers trained with the California Labor Federation on best practices for conducting a door-to-door organizing outreach to Siemens employees. Following the training, volunteers from a dozen different unions canvassed Siemens workers at their homes, resulting in significant interest in unionizing.

Around 28-32 organizers knocked on doors for five days and spoke with people from all different cultures during the organizing blitz. Union volunteers from SEIU, Sacramento Central Labor Council, Workers United, UDW/AFSCME, Unite Here, United Domestic Workers of America, Coach Assembly, California Association of Professional Scientists, the California AFL-CIO and direct Siemens employees made noteworthy impact moving the organizing campaign forward with “a lot of buzz and a lot of interest,” Boilermaker organizer Manny Valenzuela said.

Boilermaker and IBEW members also volunteered time to reach Siemens employees. In addition, L-549 (Pittsburg, California) BM-ST Randy Thomas came out for a day and thanked the unions participating, as did IR Tim Jefferies.

“We had really good days on the doors. Right now, we’re doing call backs,” Valenzuela said. “We’re building the next generation of Boilermakers.”

Unions blow the whistle on Siemens

Siemens workers, Boilermaker organizers and members were on stage at Unionize California: Labor’s Joint Legislative Conference in Sacramento, California, March 17-19. The California Labor Federation and the State Building and Construction Trades Council hosted the three-day conference, which included a day of lobbying state lawmakers. Organizers detailed Siemens' anti-worker hostilities as the company’s workforce seeks union representation. They informed hundreds of union members in attendance about the union-busting activity at the facility and asked for support on applying legislative pressure on Siemens. The company signed an MOU, agreeing to remain neutral throughout the unionizing effort but has failed to do so.“Workers showed great courage attending the conference in the face of possible retaliation from Siemens,” said Marketing Manager Johnny Baca, noting the crowd offered overwhelming support for Siemens employees. “Having the audience champion them made them feel less alone.”