Schoolhouse Electric workers join IBEW

Schoolhouse Electric operates in a century-old four-story brick building at 2181 NW Nicolai St.

By COLIN STAUB

In ballots counted Oct. 13, electrical manufacturing workers at Portland lighting supplier Schoolhouse Electric voted 31-24 to join IBEW Local 48. The vote establishes a new bargaining unit of 71 workers at the Schoolhouse facility at 2181 NW Nicolai St.

Workers became interested in a union after the company sold last December for $48 million to home goods marketplace Food52. The new owner had ambitious plans: To increase production without hiring more staff or expanding the shop. Inventory began stacking up as workers increased the pace of production. An annoyance became a safety issue, as inventory spilled into aisles and blocked doors.

The changes sparked talk of a union. Although workers like working at the business, they wanted some control over work conditions. Members of the organizing committee told the Labor Press they’d also like a pay scale, and raises.

Talk turned to action this spring, when Schoolhouse worker Elliott Kropp happened to walk by the Oregon Convention Center while the Oregon AFL-CIO was holding a rally outside. The gathering, held during the labor coalition’s annual meeting, highlighted workers who were unionizing. Kropp mentioned the Schoolhouse union interest to one attendee, who happened to be Willy Myers of the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, and was connected with IBEW Local 48 organizer Joe Bond. With support from IBEW, workers started organizing. They filed a request for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Aug. 8.

The campaign wasn’t without hurdles. Schoolhouse management retained Littler Mendelson, the employer-side law firm infamous for anti-union tactics in Starbucks organizing campaigns nationwide. The company brought in a union busting consultant, Libra Management Consulting, to hold meetings and spread standard anti-union talking points. Workers were even summoned to an early-morning all-staff meeting, where the company president tried to talk them out of unionizing. IBEW and a group of supporters rallied outside the shop that morning, letting workers know they had support.

With ballots counted and the number of challenged votes insufficient to change the results, management will have to begin bargaining with the union.

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