|Union Hall to Legislature:
Mo. IBEW Members Set for Busy Year
The labor movement made a strong investment in the 2012 election, contributing manpower and resources to help pro-worker candidates win office across the county — from county council on up.
But IBEW members didn't just help labor-friendly candidates at the ballot box last year — they elected some of their own.
Approximately 240 members hold office across the country — from school boards and town councils to state houses and senates.
One local with a long tradition of fielding and electing IBEW candidates is St. Louis Local 1.
"We've had an IBEW presence in the state legislature since 1942," says Local 1 President Tom George. George served in the Missouri state house for four terms before he was term limited out in 2006.
In the 2013 legislative session, IBEW members hold four seats in the 163-seat state House of Representatives.
On Jan. 9, inside wiremen Keith English, Jake Hummel and Joe Runions were sworn in as state representatives in Jefferson City. Hummel, who serves as the House Democratic leader, is serving his third term. For English and Kansas City Local 124 member Runions, it's their first.
For English, Hummel, and Runions the importance of having union voices inside the legislative process can't be underestimated — particularly with workers' rights and the middle class under assault in Missouri, as in many states across the country.
"No one knows our issues like we do," says Hummel, a 15-year member. "We can explain to legislators why prevailing wage or stopping right-to-work-for-less is important, but for us we live and breathe it."
And Missouri is one of the frontline states in the battle over workers' rights. Republican legislators — who make up the majority of the House — have vowed to push for right-to-work legislation, while anti-worker organizations like Associated Builders and Contractors have teamed up with lawmakers in Jefferson City to weaken prevailing wage laws.
Also potentially on the agenda in 2013 is so-called "paycheck protection," which would weaken the ability of public-sector unions to contribute to candidates and political causes.
"It will be a fight for sure," says Hummel, who was elected minority leader by his fellow Democrats last year.
On the Republican side of the aisle, Local 1 member Doug Funderburk was returned to his fourth term in office. George says Funderburk's positions on some key issues differ from the union's, but says he hopes to have his support around protecting prevailing wage and other workers' rights issues.
"Even though he's a Republican, we try to find common ground," says George.
A Voice for the Middle Class
English may be a House freshman, but fighting for what is right in the legislative arena isn't new to him. A member of the Florissant City Council — a blue-collar suburb of St. Louis — for the last six years, English used his position to stand up for working people and good jobs.
Some of his biggest fights were around the use of prevailing wage. "We had more than $350 million in construction money that came into the city while I was on the council," he says. "Only two of those jobs didn't pay prevailing wage."
English still proudly recounts how he and others helped stopped Walmart — notorious for paying low wages — from using tax payer money to open up a store in his hometown.
An IBEW member for 26 years, English says his introduction to politics came in high school when his history teacher made a run for the city council. "I watched the whole race unfold," he says.
Taking the advice he got in his apprenticeship to be involved in the community, he signed up for many local boards and commissions — from the parks department to the historic preservation board.
His activist record meant he was already well-known by Florissant voters by the time he first ran for city council.
"You need to be involved in your community and build relationships so you know what is going on," he says.
Runions served for seven years as an alderman for the city of Grandview, a Kansas City suburb, before running for state house.
Labor Clubs Foster Political Action
Block-by-block grassroots politics isn't new for the Missouri IBEW. Many members hold office throughout the state, including on school and other municipal and county boards. These boards play a major role in deciding how public construction funds are used, which can translate into good jobs, says George.
Helping to recruit union political candidates and build labor's power are labor clubs. Affiliated with the state AFL-CIO, labor clubs — made up of union members and their families — help raise money, talk with candidates and elected officials, and turn members out to the polls. Based on a geographical area, labor clubs help bring union political action to the neighborhood level, forging strong links between the rank and file and pro-worker elected officials. There are more than 13 clubs throughout Missouri.
"It gets union members out on the grassroots level, making them feel connected and like they are part something bigger," says George.
The clubs are also a great training ground for members looking to make a run for higher office. Hummel got his start in local politics by helping to found the St. Louis City Labor Club.
After working as a campaign volunteer on numerous races, Hummel decided to run for office in 2008.
For almost two years, Hummel knocked on doors and talked with voters, building the groundwork to run for an open statehouse seat representing his hometown of south St. Louis.
He says he ran on the core issues: good jobs, decent neighborhoods and strong schools.
"I come from the middle class," he says. "My district is made up of a lot of blue-collar workers, of whom many are union members. They want to know that they have a voice in government, which is why I ran in the first place."
A Busy Year
The IBEW caucus is prepping for a busy year, looking to stop right-to-work and paycheck protection while working with legislators across the aisle on legislation to aid the economy and job growth. With Republicans holding a more than 50-seat majority, bipartisanship is vital. Also important, says Hummel, are working families' efforts to keep the pressure on outside the statehouse as well. "Whether we're talking about Wisconsin-style protests or letter writing and activating member-to-member networks, union members need to stand up for the middle class."
Hummel's advice for union members thinking of running for office: just do it. He recounts a speech he gave last year to a rally of building trades workers at the capitol protesting a series of anti-worker bills. He told the crowd about how just four years earlier, he was a rank-and-file union member in attendance at a similar rally.
"I told them that I was inspired that day to make a run of my own," he says. Right after the speech, a Teamster member in the crowd went up to Hummel and told him that he decided to file for office that day.
He didn't win, says Hummel, but it is efforts like that which lay the groundwork for future victory. "It takes people like that Teamster stepping up and getting involved that makes the difference."
Watch for future stories about IBEW members in office in the pages of the Electrical Worker.