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The IBEW Steps In

January/February 2002 IBEW Journal

The J-1 trainees thought they were getting an opportunity to advance their skills and earn more money in an 18-month stint in the United States. 

It was too late once they arrived, already in debt, to find they were here to be exploited, threatened with immediate deportation if they complained and stuck in degrading working conditions for the duration.

The majority of the workers were brought here to work for Integrated Electrical Services but others involved were non-union subsidiaries of Independent Electrical Contractors. Potoroaca described his experience working for an Albuquerque contractor associated with Integrated Electrical Services.

The situation on the jobsite was bad because they treated us like dirt, degrading us by calling us names, assigning us to do all the dirty work, making fun of us, and telling us we are communists and we have to go home, he said. During all this time, they did not provide us with any trainingjust work.

IBEW organizers from Local 611 in Albuquerque first heard about the J-1 trainees in the summer of 2000 as Potoroaca and fellow J-1s laboring for a non-union contractor worked alongside members of Local 611.

Potoroaca said the IBEW members working for B&D Electric told the J-1 workers about the IBEW.

The guys from B&D told us that they were mistreating us and that the union could protect us because thats what a union doesprotects the workers, he said. They gave us union books with contact persons and a copy of the IBEW Constitution so that we could understand that we have rights and what those rights are.

After several telephone conversations, a few wary J-1 workers agreed to meet with Local 611 organizer and President Richard Sandoval. After work one evening, Sandoval arranged to meet them at their homes, in a gated apartment community in Albuquerque. The workers eyed him from inside the fence as he drove up.

Seeing them like that reminded me they were caged, almost in jail, Sandoval said. I wanted to help them.

It was a slow process convincing the workers the IBEW wanted to help. Many of them were from former Soviet republics, suspicious of authority and terrified of the consequences of defying employers who threatened them with deportation.

Sandoval, who had requested the workers bring their paperwork, asked them if he could make copies. Two of them hesitated, but Claudiu Tudor, Potoroacas roommate, had no qualms.

Claudiu said, I dont care if I get deported. These people are treating us unfairly, Sandoval said. He was the one that stepped forward and made the difference. Claudiu went back and convinced all of them.

By then, the IBEW had learned J-1 electricians were not just in New Mexico, but also in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado, Nebraska, Alabama, California, Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere. They were even working around the corner from the IBEW International Office in downtown Washington, D.C.

In late 2000, IBEW organizers and lawyers presented State Department officials overseeing the Exchange Visitor Program with documentation on USA-IT and its worker abuses. Following requests by IBEW President Edwin D. Hill, New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman (Democrat) and Rep. Tom Udall (D-NM), the State Department temporarily suspended the electrician trainee portion of the J-1 program in May 2001. Those who were already here were allowed to find other employment for the duration of their visas.

From Shadow to Light