Electricians Picket Outside MIT—Passively

2377 picketers
Picketers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers stand outside Lobby 7 on Wednesday afternoon. Members of the electricians’ union have been protesting MIT’s contracting practices for over five weeks.
Sam Range—The Tech

At 6:56 a.m., long before most undergrads stumble out of bed, an electrician from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) stepped off the bus at 77 Mass Ave. He joined the group of workmen waiting on the stairs of Lobby 7, all of whom shared his same shift. At 7 a.m. sharp, his workday began — not that you’d be able to tell.

The electrician, who refused to give his name, does not wear a toolbelt, nor does he carry spools of wire or wield a voltmeter. He is a protester from IBEW Local 103, standing and occasionally pacing across the mouth of the Infinite Corridor wearing a sign proclaiming “MacNichol Electrical does not conform to community standards for wages and fringe benefits.” Anywhere from one to a dozen protesters have lined Mass Ave for over five weeks.

Compared to the other activists that frequent Mass Ave, IBEW’s protesters appear indifferent. They don’t carry megaphones or disperse fliers, and they make no visible attempt to grab the attention of students awaiting the chirp of the crosswalk.

“I don’t pay much attention to them, to be honest,” said Sergio D. Medina ’10. “They don’t approach you or say things, so I just ignore them.”

The placards denouncing MacNichol Electrical are leftovers from past demonstrations. In contrast to the white signboard with red uppercase print, “MacNichol Electrical” is written in permanent marker on the topmost of many layers of duct tape.

At MacNichol Electrical, the main phone line was answered by Steve MacNichol. MacNichol is the president of the family-owned and run business. He was surprised that IBEW, which receives the majority of all MIT electrical contracts, was targeting his business.

“They [IBEW Local 103] have more picketers out there than I have employees, but they’ve been there for a month and a half now,” he said.

MacNichol Electrical is a small non-union electrical subcontractor which frequently does jobs at MIT. The project which sparked the current protest was remodeling of the fifth floor of Building 7, completed just before the start of term.

The leader of the Mass Ave. picketers was unwilling to comment, but according to Donald Sheehan, a business agent at IBEW Local 103, the goal of the protests is to call the attention of the public and of MIT to electrical subcontractors who do not provide “community standard” wages and benefits to their workers.

These companies, including MacNichol Electrical and Wise Construction, Suburban Electric, and Donnelly Electrical, are non-union subcontractors, so they do not compensate their workers the same as companies in union contracts. Depending on the company, employees may not receive as high an hourly wage, equivalent overtime or Sunday work bonuses, training through apprenticeship programs, or included healthcare plans.

“We’re trying to enlighten the students and public that all workers should have things like employer-provided healthcare plans,” said Donald Sheehan. “Every student at MIT has to have healthcare — why not the contractors working in MIT?”

Sheehan says the economic climate has made the situation even worse. “The University is putting pressure on people to hire the lowest cost labor. It’s a race to the bottom … Anyone can come and put plugs and lights in a room, but when those workers have these benefits, it obviously has to cost more.”

As one protester admitted (away from the watchful eye of the picket squad leader), non-union contractors compensating their workers less makes competition difficult for IBEW members. He says he returned to picketing two weeks ago after several months of intermittent jobs. He spent much of last winter protesting other companies for the IBEW.

According to Sheehan, the protesters are a mix of volunteers and workers paid by IBEW Local 103 to manage the picket line and supervise. However, polling of the protesters while the picket line manager was away showed that all four picketers on Tuesday afternoon were being compensated by IBEW 103 for their time.

MIT Facilities and the News Office have repeatedly declined to comment on the protest. Discussions between the MIT administration, contractors, and the IBEW remain ongoing.