July 2010

Cornell University’s Diversity Program
Succeeds with IBEW Experience
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Cornell University was a natural place to turn when the IBEW was looking for help to develop the union’s diversity training program. The school’s Industrial Labor Relations School enjoys deep respect from labor activists.

Cornell’s faculty members know how to provide education and knowledge that helps labor union members and leaders to better unite across lines of race, gender, nationality and age. And they understand the importance of giving current leaders the tools to mentor and promote new leaders who represent that diversity.

But diversity awareness is not just an academic endeavor on the upstate New York Ivy League campus. It’s a bridge between skilled workers, a tool to expand the horizon of the trades, and a necessary step in providing good service to a customer base that includes students and instructors from nearly every nation in the world.

Jacob Benninger, superintendent of the campus’ electrical shop, a former training director for Ithaca Local 241, says, "Education is our area’s biggest industry. Our staff has a lot of autonomy and our workers need to communicate well with all members of a college community that covers 15 million square feet of space and multiple research facilities."

Dave Richardson, a 30-year Local 241 journeyman wireman, is Cornell’s full-time diversity recruiter. He says, "We’re expanding horizons in the union and [our efforts] are recognized by county legislators and our city council members when they need work done."

As a leader of the Skilled Trades Diversity Council, Richardson helps deliver training to foremen and superintendents on the campus while also visiting high schools. He also helps run the trades’ pre-construction program that prepares recruits to enter apprenticeships for several trades.

The Skilled Trades Diversity Council, a six-year partnership between Cornell and the Tompkins-Cortland Building Trades Council, grew out of a regional push to build a work force that reflects the demographic composition of both the campus and the surrounding community.

In 2006, the council was awarded a $114,000 grant by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to set up the pre-construction program and the Central New York Careers in Construction events for high-school students and out-of-school youths.

Drawing participants from nine counties, the pre-construction preparedness class enables each participant to visit training programs for each trade. Upon completion, they may apply to one or more unions. "We’ve had participants who had issues after they entered training programs and we’ve acted as liaisons between them and their instructors," says Charade Kittle, co-chair of the pre-construction program.

Diversity awareness videos used in training sessions for Cornell trades members were produced by consultants Susan Woods and Pamela Henderson. The two—who have more than 40 years of experience at Cornell between them—designed IBEW’s Amplifying Membership Participation= Strength program. (See "Diversity and Inclusion Program Builds Union’s Strength," The Electrical Worker, March 2010.)

The IBEW training, currently being offered to International and local leaders, calls upon them to achieve the goals of a resolution passed at the last IBEW Convention encouraging inclusion and participation of minority members at all levels of the organization.

Training videos at Cornell, IBEW and the Skilled Trades Diversity Council present real-life situations where misunderstandings and bias are examined with an eye toward developing healthier working relationships.

"We’re putting stuff out front and dealing with it," says Dan Fuller, superintendent of the control shop. "I view this training as part of a larger goal—to eliminate racism." While he believes that the training is well-received, Fuller believes the need is continuous. "Because this is such a big place, the effort needs not abate. When you relent, encroachment occurs again. We have to hold our ground [against bias]."

Ithaca, N.Y., Local 241 journeyman Kathryn Boucakis instructs a student in pipe-bending at a Central New York Careers in Construction Day event.