October/November 2011

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83-Year-Old IBEW Activist: ‘If I Can Do It, Anyone Can'

When Salisbury, Md., Local 1307 retiree Tom Willey turned on his TV, he deplored what he saw. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was opening his salvo on collective bargaining in February. And all over the country, right-wing pundits were scapegoating union members, public servants and working families for ballooning state deficits caused by reckless Wall Street financiers.

But Willey also saw resistance. Broadcasts featuring legions of activists peacefully occupying the state Capitol gave the 83-year-old former Fourth District International Representative a rush he hadn't felt in years.

Willey had hope. And he quickly decided the next thing he needed was a plane ticket.

"I saw them down at the Capitol [in Madison, Wis.], and I'm thinking to myself, ‘I need to go out there and do my share,'" he said. "It was a challenge I wanted to take on." So in late February, Willey flew to Chicago to meet his daughter and son-in-law, who accompanied him to Madison.

The next morning Willey made his way to the Capitol building. Tens of thousands of pro-working family demonstrators hoisted signs and chanted outside, while more banged on drums and blew horns inside the spacious rotunda.

Walking with his cane, Willey made his way past the security guards and into the ecstatic din of demonstrators. "They had a setup in the center where people where getting on a microphone and making speeches," he said. "Everyone from state labor leaders to regular folks were talking to the crowd. When it was my turn, I just spoke from the top of my head. I told them I was there to support their protest against Walker taking their collective bargaining rights away. Then I used a few other choice words for how I felt about him.

"When I was finished, the drums rumbled and the horns sounded," Willey said. "I felt good. I came to say my piece, and I did."

Willey happened to be in the rotunda a day before International President Edwin D. Hill spoke to crowds gathered at the statehouse on Feb. 21. Willey flew home to Silver Spring, Md., that day.

Willey's union roots run deep. When he was fresh out of high school in 1945, one of his teachers was able to connect him with a job working for Eastern Shore Public Service Co. (now a subsidiary of Pepco). Two years later, at the age of 18, he started his lineman apprenticeship with the local. He became a field representative for the union in 1960 and spent the better part of the next three decades servicing 32 local unions across Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and in the nation's capital. He earned his 65-year pin in August.

He recently returned from the IBEW's 38th International Convention in Vancouver, B.C., which he attended as a guest—his 14th convention since 1954. Willey said he was pleased to see so many activist members, which he attributed to the union's leadership team, the positive example set by AFL-CIO top officers Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler and the IBEW's young workers contingent.

"At the AFL, we've got a mine worker—who's a fighter—and we've got our own great Liz Shuler [former executive assistant to President Hill]," he said. "And I'm happy that we're working with these young people. You can't ever start too soon. We ought to start talking with them about these issues when they're infants."

Willey said that Madison offered him a renewed faith in widespread trade union activism. A longtime member of I-ROAR—the organization of retired IBEW representatives—Willey wrote a letter to the group's publication describing his Madison experience and also spoke about the trip at local union meetings. After returning from the protest, Willey joined Facebook to keep abreast of what's happening at the netroots level and further his engagement. "If you're a union member, you know which side you need to be on," he said. "Being at the protest vitalized me. I think I picked up five years that day. If I can do it, anyone can."

Willey said he soon hopes to attend an Occupy D.C. event near his home to show his support of the burgeoning mass protests against corporate greed at Wall Street and across the nation.

"I definitely support what these folks are doing to protest," he said. "It's the beginning of a great movement."

Salisbury, Md., Local 1307 retiree and activist Tom Willey attended his 14th IBEW convention in Vancouver.