Ben Green


[Excerpt] If you went looking for the "new frontier" of the American labor movement, Alachua, Florida, would hardly be your first stop. To Yankee snowbirds whizzing by on Interstate 75, heading south to Walt Disney World or the Gold Coast's beaches, Alachua is an exit in the middle of nowhere. A true hole-in-the-road.

It's located 8 miles northwest of Gainesville, on the southern edge of Florida's panhandle. This is the Bible Belt. Farm country. It's also "Gator Country," as the billboards along U.S. 441 scream out, referring in this case to University of Florida football, although the four-legged kind also inhabit the swamps and marshes.

In 1962, when the General Electric Company was looking for a place to build an assembly plant for its new line of rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries, Alachua seemed to be the perfect choice. It had all the right ingredients: cheap land, low taxes, and a struggling farm economy to supply a minimum-wage workforce. Florida's Right-to-Work law and 13% unionization rate would help avoid union problems.

Today, GE must be wondering what went wrong. IBEW Local 2156 has 780 members out of 959 hourly employees at the plant—a remarkable 81% in a Right-To-Work state. Wages are comparable to unionized GE plants in other parts of the country. Alachua produced one thing that GE never expected: one hell of a local union.

IBEW 2156 has accomplished this feat by pioneering a new and innovative technique — the On-The-Job Canvass (OTJC) — that proponents hope will help revitalize the American labor movement. The combination of new techniques, old-fashioned dedication, and leaders who are not afraid of either one has put this local on the cutting edge of the labor movement in the 1980s.