Together We Soar

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017-2018 IAM Journal.

Ten miles north of the Las Vegas Strip, IAM military aircraft mechanics are raising the stakes for their coworkers at Nellis Air Force Base, with a new local lodge and a new collective bargaining agreement.

Local SC711 is relatively young. It became an independent lodge just three years ago. When the group joined the IAM, they were included as part of an amalgamated local lodge located more than 25 miles from the base. Active members were soon convinced they could better represent their members, have more participation in meetings and help grow their numbers by splitting off. They were correct.

For a lodge located in a right-to-work state, its success rate of signing and maintaining dues-paying members is close to the best in the union. These men and women maintain fighter aircraft, including F-15s, F-16s and the nimble A-10 Warthogs. They even work on the F-16s used by the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, based at Nellis. Nearly all of its 800-plus members are military veterans, like aircraft sheet metal mechanic and shop steward Bruce “Coach” Burridge.

“More than 90 percent of our people are veterans,” said Burridge. “I retired from the Air Force after 20 years and became a teacher and a coach for 11 years, mostly because I wanted to get more time with my kids.”

Once his children had grown, Burridge decided to look for work in his old trade, but this time as a civilian aircraft mechanic for the military. He started working for Computer Sciences Corporation, who had a service contract at Nellis. There was no union on site at the time and he, like most military veterans, had no experience working with a collective bargaining agreement. But once workers learned what the IAM could really do for them, the decision to join was pretty clear.

Local SC711 President and aircraft engine test cell mechanic Bob Simoni was there before the union, too, and played a pivotal role in bringing the IAM on board.

“Raises, benefits, working conditions all multiplied when you became a union member,” said Simoni. “It’s right to work here in Nevada so organizing is difficult, but we manage our orientation presentation well. We got a block of 50 employees in and we signed up 49 of them the first day, because we were able to answer the tough questions that management wouldn’t answer.”

“This group was originally at about 300 people. In over the last year and a half we’ve grown it to almost 900 people,” said Burridge. “In the last year we went from ten union stewards on the site to twenty.”

The success of SC711 can be attributed directly to the veteran-to-veteran relationship and IAM’s experience in negotiating for workers under service contracts. The group has seen their employer change three times since they joined the Machinists—each time with improvements. Today, the service contractor is M1 Support Services. A good relationship between the IAM, its members and the company has developed. According to the membership, things have never been better.

“This contract we negotiated flex time for the first time. Overall the negotiations went along pretty smoothly. Steve Nickel and Paul Shepherd really did a great job on it,” said aircraft mechanic and phase dock chief Chris Yeaton.

Grand Lodge Representative Steve Nickel and Directing Business Representative Paul Shepherd worked with the SC711 negotiating committee on the agreement with M1.

As military veterans transition to civilian life, the security of a good union contract is a distinct advantage.

“The IAM is so widespread and it has such great experience that it helps when it comes to negotiating these contracts,” said SC711 Recording Secretary and aircraft mechanic/avionics technician Rob Sumlin. “If you don’t have a contract, it’s an unknown—you don’t know what’s going to happen out there. Having a contract is definitely great for anyone who has a family and people to support.”

“When you tell people your personal experience, they can relate to that. If you’re talking from theory, sometimes they don’t grasp the message,” said Simoni. “I was there. I walked it. When I first got out it was non-union. As soon as I got into the union, things changed rapidly.”

James Holmes, an aircraft fuel systems mechanic, shop steward and trustee is one of the members of the orientation team and speaks to new hires. Prior to the IAM, he had never been in a union, but his father and brother both work union.

“I was always told that if you have the option, go with the union, and I did. It’s really benefited me and my family,” said Holmes. “Talking to your union leadership, you can be open, versus the military where you kind of have to watch what you say. So I believe that having the IAM here with a collective bargaining agreement allows for that transition to go smoothly. I think our lodge has really helped out individuals here in changing the dynamic of military life to a civilian life.”

“Veterans know that they have someone they can count on during their transition,” said aircraft armament mechanic and Local SC711 Secretary-Treasurer C.Q. Guevara. “We’re a brotherhood and a sisterhood and we’re a community. And we’re here to help.”

As a woman in a workforce dominated by men, both in the Air Force and as a civilian, she understands the extra support the IAM brings.

“The union does have a women’s rights committee, and I’m actually the person who is running that committee,” said Guevara. “I feel like I have a lot of support from my fellow union brothers here.”

“I think our voice is heard better in the union than in the military because in the military it was basically your job to follow orders,” said aircraft fuel system mechanic Christopher Goody. “With the union they actually negotiate and listen to the members.”

The IAM’s success has also helped the company. M1 is expanding on the base, which means more opportunity across the board. The union is trying to help management adapt.

“We work so well between us and the IAM, we want to do the same thing with the company,” said Simoni. “A part of the problem is that we grew so fast. We went from March of last year to now and added 500 people, and that’s just bargaining unit people. We have to figure out a way to teach management.”

Training stewards is another priority for SC711, and its leadership appreciates the value of the programs offered by the Winpisinger Center. In an effort to send as many as possible to the center, the local saves a substantial amount of money by not leasing a building. Instead, they rent a local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall just outside the Nellis gates for its union meetings.

“Earlier this year, I attended Leadership I at the Winpisinger Center and visited IAM headquarters,” said Sumlin. “You get the chance to experience fellowship with people you would never have the chance to meet in your ordinary life here in Las Vegas. It was great learning different things and lessons that you can bring back here. I feel that I can communicate the programs the IAM has and the different parts of the contract. I can solve problems and communicate with management. Being a steward is great.”

The local’s emphasis on training is paying off. As stewards return from the center, they use their skills to help their fellow members and they promote the IAM’s value in other units on the base.

“When you come back from Winpisinger, you’re a new man or a new woman and you’re energized to handle the task of training and organizing,” said Simoni. “We’ve got the young machinists and I’d like them to still be talking about retirement and pensions when they get to that age. Organizing is critical for them, whether they realize it or not. Getting the training gives you the confidence to deliver that message. We’re over 830 members and we’re just getting started. Our slogan at the base is ‘One Team, One Fight. We want to own Nellis.”

The camaraderie these veterans encourage and the union community they have developed on the base make this Mojave Desert local lodge one of Las Vegas’ true winners.

“The IAM has been great for us and we want to be great for the IAM,” said Burridge.