May 2004 IBEW Journal
Innovative IBEW Program Boosts Organizing of Growing Segment of the Work Force
Juan Hernandez and Mario Rivas, apprentices with IBEW Local 26, Washington, D.C., report for work on a gray late winter morning. They wont be working with the tools today. Instead, they are working at the union hall where they are bi-lingual mentors in an innovative IBEW pilot program on English as a Second Language (ESL) to assist Spanish-speaking workers in electrical construction jobs.
The program, developed by the IBEW in consultation with educators at the George Meany Center-National Labor College, to improve the safety of members who are currently having difficulty understanding rules and regulations or communicating with fellow workers; to bolster organizing efforts among the fast-growing population of Hispanic workers in the trades, especially in states such as Florida, Texas and New Mexico; to enlist the assistance of Hispanic IBEW members in recruiting other non-English speaking qualified electricians; and to encourage Hispanic members to be active participants in the union. Washington D.C.s Local 26which has a tradition of outreach programs (see box)agreed to serve as the pilot project for the program, and the first classes began in March 2004. The ESL initiative is now available to all IBEW locals.
International President Edwin D. Hill sees the ESL program as critical to the IBEWs future. "The English as a Second Language (ESL) program is a creative response to the pressing need to connect with a growing number of workers in our trade and bring them under the IBEWs umbrella," he said. "We cannot allow language to be a barrier to reaching out to these workers and helping them become good union members instead of letting them be exploited by nonunion employers." He noted that the ESL program is consistent with organized labors historic efforts to recruit past waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia and a host of other nations.
Business Manager Chuck Graham of Local 26 says: "The Spanish-speaking members just want to work. We want to give them the opportunity to be better workers." Lawrence Hyson, an apprentice instructor at Local 26, says: "This program will be a hard sell with some of our own members, but we cant stick our heads in the sand. The electrical work force includes Hispanics and other immigrants. When they understand English, we are all safer on the job site."
Graham had already contacted Amber Gallup, an ESL instructor, when he found that the international union was developing a pilot program for Hispanic workers. Carmen Marsans, IBEW Training Development Specialist and Hispanic Outreach Coordinator, is coordinating the pilot. "The ESL program is driven by a sense of survival," she says. "Hispanic workers have more than doubled their share of the construction work force since 1980 to over 15 percent." Only a few miles up the road from the Local 26 hall, about one hundred Hispanic immigrants gather every morning at a strip mall; nonunion contractors come by and have their pick of workers.
Marsans praises Local 26 and the NECA Washington Chapter for negotiating an agreement for workers to attend classes on company time. She explains that this alleviates problems for workers who have responsibilities after work that would interfere with classes.
Dave McCord, Local 26 Director of the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC), sponsored by NECA and the IBEW, says: "English language training is just like other parts of the apprenticeshipits giving tools to our members. On some jobs, foremen pair Hispanic workers with each other; we shouldnt limit their opportunity to learn English. Immigrants will be the foundation for our local unions throughout the IBEW." McCord is meeting with Hispanic workers individually to encourage them to mentor others to make the program more successful.
McCord said that the local had previously bargained with NECA for a day school for apprentices in the electrical and telecommunications programs. The day school provided one employer-paid day of training every two weeks for three years; it was a "big ticket." The new ESL program, he explains, is not as costly as the day school. Says NECAs Andy Porter: "We are tapping into who we feel should be and will be strong electrical workersC9this is a start; not the end all, but a start."
McCord agrees that the program will help on-the-job safety. He states: "The January issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine reports that a safety study of construction workers from 1992 to 2000 found that Hispanic workers were twice as likely to die on the job as their non-Hispanic counterparts; lack of English fluency is a factor. The IBEW program teaches English using safety manuals as learning tools."
Program Can Be
This ESL program can be used for the utility, telecommunications and other IBEW branches. The International Office will work with locals, assess the skills of participants, find an ESL teacher, provide the books and monitor the progress, enabling the locals to carry the ball and reach a much wider array of IBEW members. The ESL program is only one piece of the IBEW Hispanic Outreach Program, which is also offering:
Overcoming Fears of the Union
Rivas, a fifth year apprentice in D.C., is helping to mentor workers in the program. "I had the grades to go to college. I didnt have the money," says Rivas. "The apprenticeship program is beautiful. It changed my life and provided a future for me." Now Rivas, born in Los Angeles of Salvadoran heritage, is helping to explain the ESL program to members coming from the job sites so they can have the same opportunity to succeed. "A lot of Hispanics are afraid of the union. They stay away because of fears regarding their English skills and some because of the bad image of unions in their home nations. But once they have information, they can make good decisions. If we bring them into the union, we will have less nonunion competition. Unions are about everyone coming together." The other mentor in the program, Hernandez, who has been in the U.S. three years since leaving El Salvador, entered the apprentice program in 2003 after visiting the IBEW Web site. He says the ESL program will benefit the "whole Hispanic community."
Amber Gallup believes that Local 26, the IBEW and NECA are on the right track. Gallup provides Spanish training for union organizers and ESL training for several Washington, D.C. unions. Gallup says: "English as a second language is a process. It cannot be done quickly. It requires resources and teachers who are certified in ESL. Some locals wanted to save money by having classes every two weeks. This isnt effective; students wont retain what they learn." Gallup is thrilled to be part of the planning and notes that "Many of my students havent gone to a union meeting because they didnt understand what was being said. The ESL curriculum includes materials on the IBEWs history and current challenges to help immigrant workers understand their rights and responsibilities."
Outreach to Hispanic Community
Marsans wants to break down the walls that impede some locals from reaching beyond their existing membership base: "I tell them that it wasnt that long ago that signs were posted on jobs saying: No Irish Need Apply. Teaching ESL is not a new idea. The founders of the building trades unions taught English as a second language to immigrant workers and their families. I have a picture of a class back in the early 1900s of immigrants attending ESL classes."
Marsans contends that restricting the IBEWs outreach to the job-site alone is not effective. "Hispanic workers react strongly to word of mouth messages. We need to recruit Hispanic organizers who can reach out to prospective members at churches, soccer games and neighborhood group meetings. A relationship of trust is developed between the union and the community when grassroots leaders support our efforts." Rivas agrees. He is working with Marsans to hold a picnic in the Hispanic community.
On March 11, 2004, over 30 participants attended a cultural awareness workshop, taught by Marsans, at the Local 26 hall. Those in attendance included local union representatives, JATC instructors, Labor-Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC) representatives, superintendents and company owners. She urged participants to develop open communications with immigrant workers and to reject commonly held stereotypes. She provided examples of situations where Hispanics and native-born workers ended up in conflict because they failed to understand each others behaviors, language and customs. The workshop stimulated vigorous discussion.
IBEW locals interested in English as a Second Language classes should contact their International Vice Presidents Office.