Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77 held an information picket on Saturday, July 24, 2021, to raise awareness of low pay among journeyman line workers in Richland, Washington.
Over 200 picketers were in attendance, including members of UA Local 598 Plumbers and Steamfitters in the Tri-Cities, retired members of Iron Workers Local 14, members of IBEW Local Unions 125 and 48 from Oregon, and members of IBEW Local Union 3 from across the country in New York City, NY. Members of the Richland Line Crew said they were “overwhelmed” by the community support they had seen. What was expected to be a small turnout, quickly grew into a large crowd lining the major thoroughfare that is George Washington Way in Richland.
IBEW Local 77 has been in operation for over 120 years, and services all of Washington state, parts of Northern Idaho, and Montana, representing over 8,000 workers.
The IBEW Local 77 line workers, who call themselves the Richland Line Crew, decided to picket after negotiations for fairer pay hit a wall with Richland city officials. “Our line workers are paid seven percent less than other journeyman line workers in our market,” said IBEW Business Manager Rex Habner, “We’re the second lowest paid utility in the state of Washington.” Despite these discrepancies, Habner says the City of Richland feels the Richland Line Crew are being “greedy” for demanding fair wages.
The City of Richland received over $7.3 million dollars in relief from the American Rescue Plan. Rather than pass these funds onto essential workers in the form of high wages, as the bill claims to encourage, the money is being used elsewhere. The Richland Line Crew says the low wages offered in Richland will lead to the replacement of full-time line workers with contractors, who are paid a higher rate but more sporadically. Habner says this is short-sighted, “Contractors may look like a cost-savings until the City is looking at new construction and maintenance, and then they’re just going to lose money. When you compare those rates, the rates will go up, and that hurts the customer.”
Habner also said the hiring of contractors hurts the community. “Our linemen don’t just collect a salary in between jobs, we use that time to do community service, to build our communities. These contractors are just here for a job, and when they leave they take the money with them,” Habner said.
Electrical line work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S., with a rate of 20 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers reported annually. The fatality rate of these workers is also rising in recent years, due to the combination of an aging workforce, outdated and dangerous infrastructure, high turnover of workers and other factors.
“It’s about dignity, and respect for the hazards of the job,” said Brian Gray, Assistant Business Manager of IBEW Local 77. “Better wages support us all, not just here in Richland, but across the river in Kennewick, too.”
Picketers at the event complained of high turnover in Richland due to the poor wages. “These workers have a responsibility to their families to get the best rate they can get, so they don’t stick around when rates are low,” said Local 77 member Kerry Watts. “The fact these linemen are picketing instead of just moving away shows loyalty to the community. The City of Richland should invest in that loyalty. Everything runs on electricity, from our water systems to our hospitals and schools. Keep workers who know the systems and can fix them quickly, don’t just let them go,” said Watts.
“We live in the communities. We work in the communities. We invest money back into the communities,” said IBEW Business Manager, Rex Habner. “When these workers move to other areas for better wages, they have to pull their kids out of school and uproot their whole families. There’s a human cost in this equation.”
“This is where it starts,” said Habner. “We need labor-friendly, community-friendly leadership in Richland, and this is where it starts.”
The Richland Line Crew is asking people to send letters to the City of Richland. You can submit a letter here.