(PAI) – Meeting in St. Louis where their 125-year-old union was founded, delegates to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 39th convention elected President Lonnie Stephenson and Secretary-Treasurer Sam Chilia to their first full five-year terms last month.
Delegates also elected New York City Local 3 Business Manager Christopher Erikson to be the chairman of the IBEW’s International Executive Council.
Stephenson, of Rock Island, IL, Local 145, said that if someone had told him when he attended his first IBEW convention 25 years ago that he would be leading the union, he wouldn’t have believed them. He succeeded Ed Hill, who retired in 2015, before his term ended.
“You are our foundation, you are the trunk of our oak tree that feeds and supports each branch of our great union,” Stephenson told the nearly 2,000 delegates at the convention. “While each branch is different, each one is equally important to our very existence. Together, you and I and everyone I mentioned previously – we together are the IBEW and I’m damn proud to be here.”
‘DOUBLE DOWN’ ON ORGANIZING
In his acceptance speech, Stephenson said IBEW would have to “double down” even more on organizing new members. That’s because – even with the upturn in the building trades due to the economic recovery – the union barely kept even due to deaths, layoffs and retirements.
“Decisions during the previous two conventions to devote additional resources to organizing allowed the IBEW to emerge from the 2008 economic collapse as one of the strongest unions in North America.
“But unless we double down on our commitment to organizing here at this convention, unless we commit even more resources and time to membership development, all those gains we’ve made will be gone sooner than you think. When you’re on the right road, that’s not the time to put on the brakes,” he added.
Stephenson explained the union added a total of 253,000 new members since its last convention five years ago, including 133,000 “A” members. The rest are “BA” members. But it lost 250,000 members to death, closures, layoffs and retirements.
MORE DIVERSE WORKFORCE
And the new members will not look like your father’s IBEW, he added. Stephenson urged convention delegates to fully support both the union’s NextGen effort – similar to the NextGen effort of the AFL-CIO – to attract younger people into unions, as well as IBEW’s own minority and women’s caucuses. Together, the three “break down barriers and open the doors of opportunity for new members,” he said.
“If we don’t look like today’s workforce, if we aren’t out organizing every community, color and gender, we’ll face major challenges,” Stephenson warned.
Stephenson’s reminder to all the delegates about diversity followed his discussion of it at the minority caucus session on Sept. 19, the opening day of the five-day IBEW convention.
“The Electrical Workers Minority Caucus and the work you do is absolutely vital for the IBEW because the reality of today’s and tomorrow’s workforce is more diverse than ever,” Stephenson told that group. “We need more women and more people of color, especially in the industries we represent.”
NOT JUST TALK
“Talkers didn’t build this union,” EWMC President Keith Edwards added of the 40-year-old group. “Critics didn’t build it either. It was the people who put their butts on the line, who did the work, who sacrificed lots of blood, sweat and tears to make the IBEW everything it is. It was built by people who when they saw injustice, they fought to change it. When they saw opportunity, they worked to seize it.”
Delegates took time out from the convention deliberations to host retiring Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) – a Laborers member while he was in college – and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, who pushes the NextGen movement labor-wide.
Nixon has spent his term stopping GOP anti-worker state legislation.
“You’re the hardest working, most highly skilled and safest workforce in the world. Union workers get up early, stay late and get the job done. It’s that simple,” Nixon said.
Nixon has used his veto pen or the threat of a veto to thwart several attempts by the GOP-dominated
Missouri Legislature to pass a so-called “right-to-work” law. State law prohibits him from running for a third term. He leaves office in January.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Delegates also marched over to dedicate the Henry Miller/IBEW museum where the IBEW was founded more than a century ago.
The brick building, located at 2728 Dr. Martin Luther King Dr., had once served as a boardinghouse, where Henry Miller, IBEW’s first president, lived. It’s where Miller and nine other men founded the IBEW and held the first convention in 1891.
IBEW Local 1 purchased the abandoned building last fall, and construction on the $6 million all-union project began late last year. Local 1 was committed to returning the building to its original style as much as possible so visitors will see what Miller saw in his day.
Besides exhibits inside, the museum will eventually be surrounded by 10 bronze statues of electric linemen, representing the founders of the union, mounted on utility poles outside. One statue is already up.