The IBEW’s Family Medical Care Plan is more than just a health insurance plan; it’s also a surprisingly effective organizing tool.
That revelation came to Houston Local 66 Business Manager Greg Lucero after a handful of his bargaining units adopted the plan in 2014, and it’s been proven over and over in the years since.
“Once our bargaining unit folks started walking the plants saying, ‘Look at the insurance I’ve got; look how good our insurance is,’ people started noticing,” Lucero said. “Employees want it when they hear what we’ve got.”
The FMCP’s mission is to provide high quality and affordable medical care coverage to electrical workers and their families. But during organizing drives and contract negotiations, many employers find the plan’s competitive costs and low overhead to be alluring bonuses.
“If your local isn’t using the FMCP to help organize workplaces and expand our membership and market share, then you’re missing out on a big opportunity,” said International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper, whose duties include oversight of the plan.
Introduced in 2006, the FMCP now covers 100,000 IBEW members and dependents from 180 locals with health insurance that’s equal to — and often better than — company-offered plans.
“But that’s still just a fraction of our membership,” Cooper said. “I’m happy with the FMCP’s steady growth over the last 13 years, but for a plan that has so much potential, I feel like it should be growing even faster.”
Local 66, which represents nearly 4,300 outside line, utility and telephone workers across central Texas, is doing its part to help the plan expand.
Health benefits had become a sticking point a few years ago as Local 66 bargained for a first contract with CenterPoint, a natural gas and electric utility serving more than 7 million customers in Texas and seven other states. “Their guy said, ‘If you think you can do better, then do better,’” Lucero recalled.
So, he did just that, turning to the International Secretary-Treasurer and FMCP to help cool things down. “We got a quote from FMCP and showed we could save the company over $5 million,” Lucero said.
And it worked. CenterPoint employees in Texas joined the FMCP in early 2014, just about the same time that another opportunity was arising for Local 66 to organize workers — this time at the South Texas Project nuclear plant near Bay City. Again, the local demonstrated how the FMCP clearly could cover the plant’s employees and retirees while saving its owners — NRG and the cities of San Antonio and Austin — nearly a quarter-million dollars a year. STP signed its workers to the plan that May.
“With some of my existing units, they can’t say enough good things about the benefit,” Lucero said. “Everybody finds out that the people at FMCP are great people to work with.”
That high level of satisfaction with the union’s medical plan is helping Local 66 with internal organizing, too. Within the last couple of years, about 70 additional workers — in STP’s maintenance supervisor and senior reactor operator groups — have moved most of the way through the process of joining the IBEW.
Meanwhile, Local 66 is in active negotiations with an impressive 16 additional groups at the nuclear plant, ranging from tech support and maintenance to chemistry and environmental technology. Should these talks prove successful, more than 200 additional workers could be brought into the union.
The FMCP also can help the IBEW retain members in addition to organizing them. With an average retention rate around 95%, for example, CenterPoint is “all in” when it comes to the union and its health plan, Lucero noted. “Their instructors even call us up when they have a class of new-hires and give us an hour to speak and sign up new members,” he said.
In 2015, Local 66 organized workers at Texas-New Mexico Power. The IBEW has a healthy 60% to 70% retention rate with that company, Lucero said, a figure that he expects to improve as workers there grow more accustomed to union representation.
These are no small organizing accomplishments, especially in right-to-work Texas where overall union membership hovers just above 4%. Right-to-work laws require dues-paying union members to share free access to their hard-won representation and benefits with the nonunion employees in their workplace.
“In this state, some places are just anti-‘whatever the union wants,’” Lucero said. “[The FMCP] will organize you some people, there’s no doubt about it, and I think that’s why a lot of companies are afraid of it.” They get less afraid once they see how much money the FMCP could save them, he said.
Lately, Local 66 has been touting the FMCP as it combats such fears in an ongoing campaign to organize workers at Pedernales, one of the largest electric cooperatives in Texas.
“The cost of health care keeps going up, up, up,” said Cooper. “So, when employers discover the undeniable benefits of the IBEW’s health insurance plan, choosing to partner with our union starts to make a lot of sense.”