For three mornings last November, members of Local 116 gathered to watch the Power for America (P4A) virtual training sessions. Local 116 President Jason Fabynick recounted, “We wanted to be able to have discussions about what we were seeing and learning.” Matt Compton, the local’s vice president and a veteran, arranged for the meetings at the VFW hall. There, officers, safety committee members and others had plenty of room to safely social distance while sharing the training experience. Members of 116 work for AEP on overhead lines and substations in the Canton, Ohio, area.
The presentation by the National Safety Committee encouraging local unions to own safety issues struck a particular chord. A few years ago, Jon Wright had been appointed Local 116 safety officer with the goal of handling all member safety concerns. “We wanted ownership but were having trouble getting buy-in from the company,” he said.
Like many companies, AEP had an existing safety committee in which they hand-picked the members and set the agenda for meetings. A few years ago, Local 116 demanded the company include union stewards because information wasn’t getting back to members. More recently, the local requested a joint labor-management safety committee where the union would have an equal voice to that of management, but it was met with reluctance. “The company asked for everything in writing and tried to push safety into the contract’s existing labor-management framework,” said Wright. He added that the situation was made more difficult because other unions working at AEP’s various locations (including other UWUA and IBEW locals) do not yet have safety positions.
“When we saw the video with the discussion among the national safety cochairs about taking ownership, we said that’s exactly what we want,” Wright recounted. Fabynick reached out to National Safety Director Scotty MacNeill and arranged for him and Region III National Representative Frank Meznarich, Sr., to visit in March.
MacNeill was impressed with the exceptional job Fabynick and Wright had done in preparation for his arrival, arranging for a meeting with AEP management and for field visits to discuss safety programs with members. At the management meeting, MacNeill explained how a peer-to-peer safety committee works to ensure compliance with the company’s as well as OSHA’s standards and that the goal is to shift from a culture of ‘safety cop’ to one of ‘safety advocacy.’ He offered to set up benchmarking meetings for AEP to meet with other companies using the program.
The local and the company are still in conversations about this. “It won’t happen overnight but with Jason’s and Jon’s leadership, they’re making a lot of headway,” MacNeill said. In the meantime, the local has started its own committee and will work to get information out to membership on what it means to own safety. “Safety is one of the most important functions of the union and of our union officers. Our job is to make sure our members get home safely every day. There are no second chances, no takebacks. Union safety committees change the culture to what it is supposed to be,” said Meznarich.
The collective bargaining agreement between the local and AEP is up for renewal in July, and safety will be on the agenda. The union will seek to have the company recognize the local’s safety officer and to have the union choose the members of the company’s safety committee.
Conversations that started at Local 116 could soon catch on at other AEP sites. In addition to leading Local 116, Fabynick also serves as president of the AEP Joint Council that covers linemen working for UWUA locals in Ohio and West Virginia.