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It was serendipitous that submarine designers and other union members attended a conference this summer at the MGM Grand Foxwoods in Ledyard, Conn.
Foxwoods casino workers voted last year to join the UAW, but management refuses to recognize the election, even though it was upheld by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The sub designers from UAW Local 571 in Groton, Conn., made good use of "We support Foxwoods workers. Negotiate now!" buttons with the UAW logo and flashing red lights.
"We were out in the casino and gaming areas. We didn't get into it with casino guests. We just stood by and wore flashing buttons showing our support," said Bill "Gus" Giustini, first vice president of Local 571 and a shipbuilder for 36 years.
"But some dealers spoke right up, and a lot of customers responded, too, all in a positive way," he added.
"We had 400 of us wearing flashing buttons all around, to the tables and in front of management," said Bob Canova, president of Local 571 which represents more than 1,800 workers at General Dynamics' Electric Boat division.
Canova and Giustini see the possibilities because their local is vivid proof of how harmonious things can be between workers and management – a relationship both parties worked hard to achieve and maintain.
In fact, that was an integral part of the local's presentation at the Eastern Seaboard Apprentice Conference – a presentation shared 50-50 between Giustini and Electric Boat supervisor Phil Ludlow.
"A few years ago we took the apprentice program up a notch," Canova said, and the result was a unique approach that blends apprentice classes into a college degree program, and at company expense.
General Dynamics covers not only tuition and books, but also transportation and class time.
"Several years ago we got the Maine Maritime Academy on board for an associate degree in marine design and construction," Canova said, in which workers took classes in a five-year program that satisfied apprenticeship requirements as well. "That was a big deal about 10 years ago, but we were trying to get colleges in Connecticut to come on board as well."
As sweet a deal as it was, some Maine Maritime credits didn't transfer to other colleges, and many of the workers wanted to pursue a higher degree.
"When we started negotiating with the state of Connecticut, we asked them for a degree that would be transferable and would be 60 credits so our members could go on for a bachelor's degree," said Canova.
They got that and more. Instead of classes led by subject matter experts, the next group of apprentices will be taught by college professors, beginning in September. Those who need to travel to a campus outside Groton can take the company van or be reimbursed for mileage if they drive their own vehicles.
One class each semester will be Electric Boat-specific, like a class in submarine design, taught by subject matter experts.
By the time a student finishes his or her five-year apprentice program, most will have three-quarters of the credits they'll needed for a college degree, and they can choose one of five engineering degrees.
There is still on-the-job training before they get their skilled-trades card, as required by state, federal and UAW requirements.
"In five to seven years, they can have their apprenticeship done and associate degree done and can springboard into a bachelor's degree that is 100 percent reimbursed by the company. That would give them an engineering degree in the bargaining unit and the potential to obtain the level of design tech category, earning as much as $ 80,000 per year," said Canova.
It's a far cry from 36 years ago when Giustini got in the business as an outside electrician. "In those days you had to start as an apprentice in the shipyard. Then if you were chosen in the top part of your class, you got to advance to the design portion."
Shipyard workers were represented by the Metal Trades Council. After the five-year apprenticeship, they were graduate apprentices from the state of Connecticut and designers of the Marine Draftsmen's Association.
"We became UAW around 1982," Giustini said. "It's been great. We are stronger than ever and have a good relationship with the company."
In that era they used drafting boards. Today it's all computerized, and the skilled trades engineers and designers are specialists in electrical, piping, mechanical, structural and HVAC.
At Electric Boat, they also design, but don't build, surface craft, such as destroyers and aircraft carriers.
"We have data here comparable to what they have in the space shuttle program – at least a couple hundred electrical systems," said Giustini, whose submarine experience also includes time in the U.S. Navy.
Canova and Giustini also had a hand in negotiating the joint technology committee. "We review all new processes and technology and define what roles and responsibilities will be taken by our members, versus the salaried workers," Giustini said.
"It's a good progressive and unique deal, not the old way of doing business where you react after they act and then file a grievance. We still have the grievance procedure, but we are proactive."
And that "proactivity" was on full display at Foxwoods casino during the apprenticeship conference.
Said Giustini, as if addressing Foxwoods management, "If we can do this (collaborate with General Dynamics) and build a submarine, you can work with dealers and service workers."
And that's a winning hand.