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Ninth District International Representative Keith Edwards has broken a lot of barriers in his 40-year IBEW career. The Portland, Ore., Local 48 member was the first African-American business manager of a construction local in IBEW history, as well as the first to serve as a member of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee.
The co-founder of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus in Local 48 says there have been a lot of changes since he first joined the IBEW that have made the union a more welcoming and diverse place.
But the struggle to keep opening doors continues, Edwards says. "The key to our movement's future success is developing new voices, making it clear that the IBEW is solid in its commitment to diversity.”
That is why Edwards has joined the Union Leaders of the Future program. Sponsored by Union Privilege, the program partners experienced labor activists with younger members from historically underrepresented groups to help them develop their skills as organizers and leaders.
The increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the work force and the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation make developing new leadership that better reflects the changing face of the labor movement a priority for union activists.
"We've made this commitment to mentoring because labor's future depends on preparing new leaders who are bright, talented, and who look like the face of working America," says Leslie Tolf, president of Union Privilege. The organization invited 10 aspiring labor leaders to take part in the program, including three from the IBEW.
Edwards is partnered with Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 member Lorenso Arciniega. The 31-year-old Arciniega says he had little experience with unions before going to work at Pacific Gas and Electric 10 years ago.
"I knew the good wages and benefits I had at the job didn't come for free, and I wanted to be involved, but there was a bit of a generation gap,” he says. "I think some older members didn't think the younger ones were serious.”
But recent contract negotiations gave Arciniega the opportunity to become active in the union, serving on the Local 1245's clerical organizing committee.
"You don't need a special title to become a union leader,” he says. "You just need to get involved.”
Participants in the mentoring program agree to meet with each other at least 12 times a year—either by phone or in person—to help mentees clarify their personal goals and to benefit from the experiences of their mentors.
"The mentoring program is about providing a personalized learning experience for mentees,” says Tom Chiancone, program manager for the Union Plus benefits. "The mentor is part teacher, part thinking partner and a curious listener and coach.”
Wendell Yee, a second generation New York City Local 3 member, knows the importance of having older members pass on the union tradition to younger ones.
"As the older folks move out of the work force, members from my generation need to step up and take responsibility for their union,” he says.
The 29-year-old Yee is partnered with David Keicher, leadership and organization development coordinator for the national AFL-CIO.
For Yee, the key to developing new leaders is to provide as many opportunities as possible for younger members to take responsibility for day-to-day activities in the union.
"We're lucky in Local 3 because we have lots of committees and clubs new members can join,” he says. Yee himself served as chairman of Local 3's apprentice advisory committee during his own apprenticeship and is treasurer of its Asian American Cultural Society.
Participants in the program—now in its fourth year—are reimbursed by Union Privilege for labor studies classes taken at approved institutions.
Austin Local 520 member Norman Jones is also participating in the program. A former nonunion electrician who came to this country from Jamaica, he has been involved in many organizing campaigns.
"Diversity is strength and labor should be willing to have a real discussion about what we can do to promote it,” says his mentor, Seventh District International Representative Ralph Merriweather. His advice on becoming a good organizer is, "be a good listener, be a good communicator, and remember that our work is all about the members.”
"I am thankful every day for being a member of this union,” Jones says. "And I want to develop as a leader, so I can spread the word about the good things the IBEW does.”
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