October 2010

North of 49°
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IBEW Connects with Next Generation of Workers

Young workers in Canada today face a rapidly changing economy and workplace—changes that First District Vice President Phil Flemming says he could have never predicted when he first joined the IBEW more than 40 years ago.

"The economy, technology and our culture—on and off the job—is different," he says. "Younger workers have needs and expectations different from those of my generation."

They also are not as familiar with unions as older generations. Flemming says that more than 60 percent of nonunion electricians in Canada are under the age of 40. "We can recruit them, but we have to change our culture, our approach and the means with which we communicate if we want this Brotherhood to grow," he says. "If we want the IBEW to be relevant to a new generation of Canadian workers, we have to be willing to meet them on their level."

To help with youth outreach, the First District commissioned a national survey of younger IBEW members this summer to gauge their attitudes about the labour movement.

The poll found that more than 60 percent of them think becoming members was the right choice, but they want to see more openness and transparency from union leaders. The polling found that one of their biggest turn-offs are local officials who don't respect or listen to the needs of their generation. "We can't have a country club mentality," Flemming says. "We have to open the doors wide and make sure we are welcoming."

Young trade unionists also want to see their locals strive for higher visibility—both on the work site and on social media networks that are increasingly some of their main tools of communication.

Surveyed members also advise organizers to skip the rhetoric and focus on explaining the concrete benefits of union membership. "This is a generation that grew up with the Internet. You have to tell them the whys and do it fast," Flemming says.

The poll's results were presented at the First District's progress meeting in August as part of a new campaign to make the IBEW a more welcoming place for young workers. More than 40 young IBEW activists caucused during the meeting to help develop a blueprint for youth outreach.

Fredericton, New Brunswick, Local 37 Membership and Organizational Development Lead Mary Williamson—a Generation Xer herself—says that one of the first steps older members can take is to just stop and listen to younger members' concerns. "By listening, the First District has taken a giant step in reaching out to younger workers," she says. "Better communication may help break some of the barriers to progress—such as making assumptions that are just not correct."

Williamson, who helps incorporate social media tools like Facebook and YouTube into Local 37's outreach efforts, says that there isn't a one-size-fits-all tool for communicating anymore. "We know that attendance at union meetings is down, but members still need to be informed so we have added Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs to our communications toolbox."

Flemming says that many younger members are interested in establishing a mentoring program that would partner seasoned IBEW veterans with newer union leaders. "We need our young people to be our public face, but we have to make sure that we give them all the help they need to flourish."

There are plans to establish a permanent First District youth committee to continue outreach and bring the campaign to every local. "I witnessed a brilliant exchange of ideas and information on how we can all work together to improve member engagement, recruitment and the future of the IBEW," Williamson says. "This is the start of something great."