November 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 21

Oregon Geek Squad workers fight for right to join IBEW 48

Terry Reigle, a union organizer with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 48, says he knew it would be a challenge to help Geek Squad home theater installers unionize. In America, workers have the legal right to unionize, but exercising that right can be tough when the employer has resources and a determination to resist.

Geek Squad, owned by big-box retailer Best Buy, is best known as a roving crew of computer fixers. But the operation has other divisions, including home theater. In late July, a Geek Squad home theater installer called the union and told Reigle his Oregon co-workers were interested in unionizing.

“This is as close as I’m going to get to a Walmart,” Reigle said, referring to the big-box retailer that is legendary for its opposition to unions.

Geek Squad workers’ interest in the union isn’t about pay, Reigle said. It’s about having a say. Workers have pushed the company to help them get licensed, without success. They are promised raises, but sometimes fail to receive them. Pay rates are arbitrary and up to managers. Workers negotiate compensation on their own, and are in the dark about each other’s wages. Schedules can be changed on short notice with no say-so.

No U.S. workers at Geek Squad — or Best Buy — are union-represented. Communications Workers of America launched an exploratory union campaign last year via e-mail, but that doesn’t appear to have gone anywhere.

In early August, a dozen Geek Squad home theater installers drove from as far as Bend to meet Reigle in Salem. That was half of the unit of workers in Geek Squad’s home theater division; they work with the dozen Best Buy stores in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and report to a single manager in Gresham. In a matter of weeks, the overwhelming majority had signed cards requesting union representation.

On Sept. 8, they filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requesting a union election. But Best Buy wasn’t going to let that happen without a fight.

Best Buy, headquartered in suburban Minneapolis, has over 1,000 U.S. stores. The company had $45 billion in revenues and $1 billion in profit in its most recent fiscal year. To respond to union interest by this group of 24 workers, Best Buy hired the top-tier union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis.

On Jackson Lewis’ advice, Best Buy filed legal objections to the union-proposed definition of the bargaining unit. It’s a maneuver that can delay the election and dilute union support. Best Buy argued that 14 Geek Squad computer technicians should also be in the bargaining unit; the union disagreed. The home theater installers didn’t really work with or know the computer technicians, Reigle said, and in any case it was the home theater installers who had expressed interest in the union.

The company e-mailed the computer workers and told them that the union was trying to exclude them. And it began holding joint meetings with the home theater installers and computer techs, which rarely happened before.

After a two-day hearing, the NLRB agreed with Best Buy that the bargaining unit would have to include the computer techs. An election date was set for Nov. 5 (after this issue went to press).

Best Buy began to hold weekly meetings to persuade workers to vote “no.” To counter those mandatory-attendance sessions, Reigle began holding his own voluntary weekly meetings — to answer questions and help the pro-union workers stay strong.

How much might this scenario have run differently if the Employee Free Choice Act were law? The Employee Free Choice Act would penalize employer anti-union abuses, speed up the unionization process, and guarantee an outcome — a union contract in a few months time. As Best Buy noted in its 2009 annual report, the Employee Free Choice Act “could make it easier for unions to be formed, and employers of newly unionized employees may face mandatory, binding arbitration of labor scheduling, costs and standards, which could increase the costs of doing business.”

In accordance with U.S. labor law, Best Buy gave the union the names and addresses of the computer workers Oct. 14, three weeks before the election.

Reigle said that if card-signers stand firm and vote, they would win.

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