(Article originally appeared on the IBEW website)
The energy running through La Plata Electric Association in southwestern Colorado these days isn’t limited to the utility’s power lines. For nearly 70 members of Denver Local 111, which represents workers statewide, a new Code of Excellence agreement is recharging a workplace that had suffered for years from low morale.
“It’s starting to heal the divide,” said Derek Burns, one of the local’s assistant business managers. “People are saying how refreshing it is to see the union and the company working together like this.” Flawed policies, unjust discipline and other mismanagement had long frustrated La Plata workers, leading to high turnover. Meanwhile, their ideas for improving safety and training went nowhere.
But the environment began to change last summer when new CEO Jessica Matlock arrived.
“She’s been a breath of fresh air for us on the union side,” said chief steward Ryan Peacock, a substation foreman who’s been at La Plata since 1998. “There was very little communication between the last CEO and employees. Hopefully now we’re fixing some broken bridges.”
On Matlock’s first day at the cooperative in July 2019, Burns and Local 111 Business Manager Rich Meisinger drove six hours from Denver to Durango to meet her. They’d heard good things from IBEW leaders in Washington state, where she was a top manager at a large public utility. They weren’t disappointed.
“She told us her biggest issue was safety – making sure that her people are safe and that they have the tools, equipment and training they need,” Burns said.
With that door open, he and Meisinger brought up the Code of Excellence, the IBEW’s trademark program bringing management and workers together on issues of safety, professionalism, accountability, relationships and quality.
Matlock embraced it. Growing up with a mother who was one of Colorado’s first female firefighters, she said “safety was just paramount to me. I want to make sure that all my employees, no matter where they’re at, are being cautious and that they’ll come home safely.”
She also saw the broader benefits of the Code. “It’s a commitment to each other, how to treat each other and how to act,” she said. “We all know that, but having it in writing, making a paper commitment that we’re going to do our best for each other and our customers, is really important to me.”
Within a few weeks, a core group of managers, union leaders and workers began meeting to hammer out the details, finding common ground in the process. “There’s accountability, honesty and integrity for our membership and the company,” Meisinger said of the agreement. “There’s no lip service from either side.”
Steward Aubrey Gillespie, one of nine customer service representatives, was part of the COE committee.
“Honestly, when I first heard about it, I felt like it was going to be something that was talked about, but that the follow-through wasn’t going to be there,” she said. “The meetings, the collaboration, really opened my eyes. It was empowering.”
Matlock also made the rounds individually, meeting one-on-one with every employee for about 45 minutes. Union leaders encouraged members to make the most of it. “We told them, ‘If you have a beef with the company, this is the time to bring it up,’” Burns said.
Fairly quickly, he saw a shift in management’s approach. “Driving was a big issue,” he said, as an example. “We’ve got a lot of snow here in the winter, and we’ve had accidents with vehicles sliding off the road. In the past, it would get written up and there would be discipline. Now the focus is more ‘let’s learn from this.’”
The morning of Jan. 9, the entire staff at La Plata – about 100 union members and managers – gathered for breakfast burritos and a presentation that made the Code of Excellence official.
After 11 years at the utility, Gillespie said it feels like a new workplace, one with real connections and a shared mission.
“We’re more a team now, and that’s been so fantastic,” she said. “Everyone plays such a critical role, not just the linemen, but customer service, the mapping department -- without each other we’re not complete. “This is a great company and we want to have the respect, to let our community know that we care about safety and reliability. That takes all of us working together.