Hawaii Local Bridges Pacific

More than 3,800 miles of deep Pacific Ocean separate the remote tropical island of Guam and Honolulu, charter city of Local 1260, but that has not stopped the Hawaii-based local from becoming the fastest growing union on the U.S. territory.

While the Aloha State is one of the country's most unionized jurisdictions, Guam traditionally existed on the fringes of the American labor movement, too often ignored by unions on the mainland and Hawaii.

But more than a decade ago, Local 1260 made a conscious decision to bring the benefits and wages enjoyed by IBEW members in their state to the people of Guam – efforts that are now bearing fruit.

It currently has contracts at six different employers on the island, with two more in the works, making Guam, with nearly 1,000 IBEW members, home to a third of the local's membership.

Reflecting the IBEW's rapid growth on the island, Local 1260 members overwhelmingly approved a bylaw change late last year that that adds two new seats to the local's executive board – seats reserved for members from the territory.

Says Local 1260 Business Manager Brian Ahakuelo:

The addition of Guam to the board is a major milestone in our campaign to bridge the Pacific. It shows that we are serious about making a long-term commitment to our members there.

The rapid growth of the IBEW on the island marks a remarkable turnaround from only a decade ago, when Guam was, for all intents and purposes, a union-free zone – at least when it came to the private sector.

A strong culture of anti-unionism – combined with a general lack of knowledge about unions among residents – permeated Guam. The business establishment was uniformly hostile to collective bargaining, and in 2000 successfully prodded the territorial government to pass a right-to-work law. To this day the Guam Employers Council still uses a graphic on the labor relations section of its Web site that says "Unions: Not Necessary."

Furthermore, company propaganda successfully portrayed union organizers as outsiders – an alien force set on upsetting traditional culture.

Says Local 1260 Business Representative Russell Yamanoha:

Guam can be a very insular community, and strangers are not always welcome if they don't take the time to earn people's trust first.

Guam: An Overview

Lying on the edge of the Western Pacific, Guam is much closer to the Philippines – by about 1,500 miles – than it is to Honolulu. Approximately 178,000 people live on the 30-mile-long island, which has been under U.S. control since 1898.

Scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater during World War II, Guam became an official American territory in 1950.

Populated mainly by native Chammaros, a people of Micronesian descent, Guam's economy is largely dependent on tourism and the U.S. military, which has seven bases on the island.

'Rock Stars'

Workers on Guam earn less than a third of their counterparts in Hawaii, but even more galling is that they make less even when working for the same company, on the same federal contract.

The disparity made the dozens of private contractors that provide support staff to the island's military bases – everything from maintenance workers to day care teachers – ripe for organizing.

Then-Assistant Business Manager Ahakuelo made his first visit to the island in 2000, meeting with civilian support workers employed by Navy contractor Raytheon Technical Services.

The workers were receptive. Their work had recently been outsourced by the Navy, so anxiety about job security ran high.

It took two years, but the months of meetings, workplace discussions and round-trip flights finally paid off. In January 2002 the more than 900 employees voted overwhelmingly in favor of IBEW representation in the biggest union victory in Guam history.

It was soon followed by victories at other contractors, whose employees were impressed by the strong wage and benefit packages Raytheon workers negotiated.

The close-knit nature of Guam society that had thwarted unions for so long began working in the IBEW's favor, says Ahakuelo. Existing social networks among friends and family served as an island-wide worker-to-worker network that spread the good word about the benefits of collective bargaining.

Says Yamanoha:

The IBEW became like rock stars on Guam. Workers were jumping at the chance to work at a company represented by the IBEW.

The IBEW's strong contracts have not only helped attract new members, but employers as well, who were eager to recruit employees looking for a good-paying career, not just a job.

He says:

Some of the companies see an IBEW contract as a way to attract new hires.

This new attitude toward unions was illustrated by the IBEW's latest organizing victory. Advance Management Inc., which has a contract to perform janitorial services for Navy facilities, disregarded the employers' council advice on fighting unions, instead choosing to respect the decision of 30 of its employees to sign up with Local 1260 earlier this year.

Many IBEW members now hope that their organizing success can create a race-to-the-top situation for Guam's working families, with union shops setting the standard for wages and benefits – reversing decades of low-pay and poverty.

Says Pastor Ranoco, who works for the military contractor DZSP 21:

The union works for Guam. Look what working conditions used to be like compared to what we have now. There is no question things are getting better.

A Renewed Commitment

With the flight time between Honolulu and Guam's economic center Tamuning, averaging eight hours, Ahakuelo says that servicing the island from the local's central office in Oahu is a formidable challenge. But last fall, the local assembled a team to make sure Guam gets the attention it deserves, dedicating two fulltime organizers to territory, including Kenneth Laguana, who lives there. Also involved in servicing Guam are Local 1260 Assistant Business Managers Russell Takemoto and Thomas Decano and Senior Assistant Business Manager Teresa Morrison.

Says Guam member Robert Mafnas, an island native who, along with Jose Salas, joined the local's executive board last December:

For a few years, we felt somewhat adrift and isolated here.

Mafnas is a six-year member and building inspector by trade who says that the local's renewed commitment to organizing the island has motivated members to get active and stay mobilized.

We're seeing more attendance at meetings and more enthusiasm.

And with the military looking to further beef up its presence on Guam, more organizing opportunities continue to emerge. Efforts underway include a 200-person unit at the Guam Naval Station Shipyard and utility workers at Guam Power Authority. The local has also redoubled its efforts to grow its membership in Hawaii, building a strong IBEW presence throughout the Pacific region.

The IBEW's growth is also being felt in the territorial capital of Hagåtña. Members of the territorial legislature have started to attend unit meetings, as have staff representatives from the office of Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, Guam's non-voting delegate to Congress.

Says Mafnas:

Some of our elected officials were shocked at first to see that we were growing so fast. But some have already let us know that they consider themselves allies of labor.

ibew.org, Tues Mar 6 2012

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