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Vote to organize VEA workers flops

Valley Electric Association management successfully fended off an attempt by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 396 last month to organize employees at the cooperative.

A vote among 48 eligible employees took place on June 21 at an election held at the Pahrump Nugget. The effort to organize was defeated 27 votes to 17, with four votes thrown out.

VEA CEO Tom Husted showed cooperative directors the vote tally during last Friday’s regular board of directors meeting without making the figures public. There was little discussion afterward.

Director Dave Lowe, from Sandy Valley, said he saw the vote as a vote of confidence.

“I see the results of this vote by the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) to be a vote of confidence in the management, at least from the operations department,” he said. “I just don’t want that to slip by as an unremarkable event, because it isn’t. It’s remarkable. I’m very, very proud of Valley Electric, always have been. But I’ve never had any concrete evidence like this.”

Husted added that he saw the vote as a positive sign for the future of the company. When asked by Ed Fox, the new chairman of the cooperative’s ambassador program, whether the results of the vote could be shared, Husted instead made a further comment.

“The only thing I will say is our employees voted down in an overwhelming majority,” he said. “The vote was an overwhelming majority weren’t interested.”

The Pahrump Valley Times obtained the vote results from the NLRB’s Las Vegas office, which oversaw the election as well as the pre-election eligibility agreement between IBEW organizers and VEA management.

Steve Wamser, an NLRB resident officer, said VEA operations employees filed a petition on May 10 to hold a vote to organize.

“Basically, once a union files notice with us, we work with the parties to get an election agreement, who the eligible voters are, where the vote can take place and at what time,” he said.

Once a vote to organize fails, another can’t take place until after one year passes, he said. Asked whether other attempts to organize VEA have taken place in the past, Wamser said those records were not available and so couldn’t determine whether this was a first or not.

The IBEW and VEA agreed to allow full, part-time and incidental employees in the line department to cast ballots. Employees who participated in the vote included dispatchers, ground-men, linemen, meter techs, apprentice linemen, SCADA techs as well as substation and warehouse hourly employees.

One lineman who voted to organize, but who did not wish to be identified, told the PVT that employees in the line department wished to organize not for higher pay but for representation because management had begun punishing employees who sought to join a union. This included terminations as well as other punitive measures, such as sending employees out on assignments in desolate areas of operations.

It remains unclear whether any of VEA’s eight job openings involve positions that were once filled by workers seeking representation, but the unidentified lineman suggested as much.

A call to IBEW Local 396 offices in Las Vegas were not returned as of press time Tuesday.

Asked to respond to allegations that employees were fired or punished for attempting to organize, Husted, via email, said the cooperative doesn’t engage in such tactics.

“While employment matters are always confidential, VEA certainly does not and would not retaliate against any employee for supporting unionization efforts,” he wrote.

VEA has lately had to contend with more than a few challenges stemming from friction with unions operating in the state. After Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed AB391, a piece of legislation that sought to put the cooperative under the oversight of the Public Utilities Commission, Danny Thompson, executive secretary treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO, said his organization was going after VEA.

“We are going to go after the governor on this and we are going after Valley Electric on this. Now is not the time for gloating. This is just the beginning,” he told the PVT last month.

Susan Fisher, VEA’s executive vice president in charge of government relations, noted the comment during last Friday’s directors meeting. She noted to directors that the state’s AFL-CIO had just hired three new political operatives from its national office for work in Nevada.

“While the governor vetoed AB391 for us, I think we can be safe in assuming that the battle is not over,” she told the directors. “We did learn, as you see by the article attached there, that the AFL-CIO is giving us some extra attention. They are funding three full-time positions in this state just to work on union issues.”

Among the issues Fisher identified were identifying vulnerable seats in the state legislature.

“This is going to be a battleground in 2014, especially for state senate seats where there’s one swing seat up for grabs,” she said.

VEA officials are so concerned with potential union and legislative threats that it has embarked on an extensive marketing and public relations campaign to raise its brand awareness outside of its service area. The cooperative-hired Las Vegas public relations firm Mass Media, has purchased at least one billboard advertisement in Washoe County and has placed numerous print advertisements in northern Nevada publications hoping to build goodwill among influential people in those communities.

Lowe said he welcomed the new marketing strategy.

“We found just in this last legislative session that our fate is not just in the hands of our service area necessarily. Carson City is very, very important to our future. Furthermore, we found that we had a very good job done for us with our legislature. But in our service area we have only one senator and only one assembly person. That’s all. The power in the legislature comes from right over there in the Vegas Valley. So we have to have their ear. The reason I know something about this is because I’m in Clark County, down in Sandy Valley. You really get a feeling of helplessness that we have things we want heard in the legislature, but we haven’t been addressing ourselves to that group of people over there,” he said.

Director Shiela Rau and other VEA officers said they have already gotten positive feedback from the media buy.

“I have a niece who lives in Ely and she called and said she saw the billboard and said that was a good idea because ‘you guys do a lot,’ she said.

Husted would not say how much the cooperative has spent thus far on public relations — though May budget figures noted expenses related to regulatory issues had exceeded the amount budgeted for that month, a prime time in Carson City — nor would he elaborate on the metrics for measuring success.

“I won’t go into those details, but there are metrics and we do have details,” he said. “We’ve gotten calls from companies outside our service area that have expressed interest. So there are a number of indicators that are already coming in that are very positive.”

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