The Electrical Worker online
May 2013

Young Members Step Up Activism, Build Hope
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Life for many of us who came of age in the '60s and '70s wasn't always easy, especially for those who ended up serving in Vietnam or on dangerous or unstable jobs. But, with a little luck, hopes and prospects for the future were alive. For the generation that comprises the majority of local union leaders in the IBEW, union cards were often the tickets to success.

By contrast, more than five decades later, the aspirations of millions of young workers are fading or in jeopardy. Even for those young workers fortunate enough to enter apprenticeship programs, long stretches of unemployment and financial distress are all too common.

The unemployment rate for workers under the age of 25 has improved to 16 percent since its peak just short of 20 percent in 2010. But the last time unemployment for young workers was this high was nearly 30 years ago, reports the Economic Policy Institute. Families are losing out.

The Pew Research Center reports that between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of households headed by adults under the age of 35 fell by 68 percent. The inflation-adjusted median income of Americans over age 35 rose by 8 percent between 2005 and 2010, but the income of younger Americans declined by 4 percent. The statistics underline the generational differences in the IBEW.

"The 50-year-olds went on the road for a couple of years and bought a house. I couldn't do that now. Times were better 20 to 30 years ago. Wages were in line with the cost of living," says Clay McNeely, 29, a third-generation member of Orlando, Fla., Local 606 and vice chairman of the Florida Young Workers Committee.

The alarming barrage of economic and employment statistics knocks the notion that decent, rewarding jobs or stronger economic anchors will become easier to find anytime soon for hundreds of thousands of young workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that at the current rate, by 2020, nearly three-fourths of all job openings in the U.S. will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30 percent paying a median of about $20,000 a year.

What will the consequences of this economic slide be for young workers, for their families, for organized labor, for society-at-large?

Will the IBEW and our local unions encourage and nurture a new generation of leaders and assist them in organizing their peers to build hope amid despair and security amid uncertainty? The average age of IBEW local business managers is between 49 and 54. We need younger workers to carry on the union for future generations.

In this and future issues of the Electrical Worker, we will be discussing these questions. We won't just be writing about young workers, we will be hearing their voices.

Young IBEW members will report on how they are networking with their peers and their more senior mentors across North America to find new ways to encourage the next generation to organize their workplaces, join the IBEW or become more engaged in their local unions.

Others will describe efforts they have launched to spread information on unions and the benefits of organizing among young men and women for whom, as Marlena Fontes, a student at Cornell University's Institute of Labor Relations says, "The question is not 'Union Yes,' but 'Union What?'"

We encourage our members and readers to participate in the discussion. Send a letter or post a message on Facebook. Rejuvenating the IBEW and the labor movement means a lot of talking and even more listening.


Young Workers' Uphill Climb to Decent Jobs

The unemployment rate for workers 18-24 in America today has never been higher since the government began keeping track in 1948.
Pew Research Center (2012)

Young adults are only 13.5 percent of the work force, but are 26.4 percent of unemployed workers.
Economic Policy Institute (2010)

• Long-term unemployment has typically returned to pre-recession levels by this point in an economic recovery. But 44 months into the current recovery, unemployment amongst 20-24-year-old jobseekers is 237 percent of historic rates. 646,000 young workers have been out of work for six months or more.
Brookings Institution (2013)

The prospects for young workers of color are even worse. Peak unemployment rates from 2007 to 2010 were 15 percent for white workers, 29 percent for Hispanic workers and 20 percent for black workers.
Economic Policy Institute

Unionization raises young workers' wages 12.4 percent — or about $1.75 per hour — relative to young workers who are not in unions.
Center for Economic and Policy Research (2008)

Earnings losses from graduating during a recession last for up to 10 years. New workers suffer greater losses than those already on the job, who might see smaller raises but started their careers when salaries were higher.
University of Toronto economics professor Philip Oreopoulos, Columbia University professor Till von Wachter and economist Andrew Heisz of Statistics Canada

Chicago Unionist Infuses Movement
with New Traditions

Unions and beer have always enjoyed an intimate relationship.

Anthony Scorzo, a Local 134 communications electrician and president of the Chicago Young Workers, helped tap that bond in February with a labor history bar crawl.

Celebrating poet Carl Sandburg's "city of the big shoulders" with a bus trip through legendary venues like Haymarket Square, participants sang "Solidarity Forever" before heading off to a tavern.

"We need to look to younger workers for some fresh ideas," says Scorzo. "The fact is that union density in the U.S. is 10 percent. That should say it all. Whatever we're doing isn't working."

Scorzo, who hadn't previously been active in Local 134, took an internship with the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program in 2010 while he was on layoff. He helped organize public workers for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and hotel workers for UNITE HERE.

"It was nice to see the other side of what unions do," says Scorzo, 30, who attended a national AFL-CIO young workers conference as part of his internship, then went on to attend one of the federation's leadership institutes. "A lot of young people who want to be involved in their unions don't know how to do it."

He said locals would do even better by offering a "Union 101" course to help inexperienced members understand how things operate at the union hall.

It's just as essential, says Scorzo, for young workers to draw energy from others who are in the midst of struggles for jobs and justice.

The Chicago Young Workers — one of many similarly-focused groups across the nation — helps current union members network and engage in their local unions, while reaching out beyond their own numbers.

The group's Facebook page features postings announcing rallies in support of the city's teachers and information on challenges faced by U.S. postal workers. A phone number is provided for participation in a monthly young worker conference call to "help build our labor movement for the future."

"We think it's especially important to reach out to nonunion workers in both the public and private sector," says Scorzo.


Anthony Scorzo

Houston Member: 'Mentors Made the Difference'

At 34, Carlos Villarreal is the youngest elected leader in Houston Local 716. A 12-year member, he sits on the local's executive board, and serves as an instructor at its training center. When hired in 2006, he was the youngest on staff.

Villarreal grew up in a union household. His mom was an active AFSCME member, a community organizer who was deeply involved in the Houston labor movement.

"As a kid, she took me to labor rallies," he says. "She also helped local janitors organize a union. She always made it clear to me that union is the way to go."

He went to work on some of the city's biggest jobs as an apprentice, an experience he admits was "pretty overwhelming." What helped him through were some of the older, more seasoned members who provided Villarreal with advice and support. "They were my mentors," he says. "They taught me as we went along."

Those kind of relationships are key to encouraging younger IBEW members to step up and become leaders, Villarreal says.

But the union's internal culture wasn't always the most welcoming for apprentices and new members.

"Apprentices used to be treated kind of harshly," he says. "The idea was to be rude to new guys to break them in."

The problem is that this behavior interfered with younger electricians from building close relationships with the older ones.

"If you're rude to me, why would I want to hang out with you?" Villarreal says was a common attitude among his cohort.

Things have changed quite a bit. Now local union leaders make an effort to promote numerous cross-generational events — from holiday parties to community outreach efforts.

Villarreal says relations between older and newer IBEW members has become much more respectful — and beneficial.

In addition to his service to the IBEW, Villarreal is active in the local labor movement, helping to form a young trade unionist group in the Harris County AFL-CIO. In April, Villarreal joined the local's membership development department.

"We need to learn from those who have come before us," he says.


Carlos Villarreal

An Unconventional Path Back Home

Chris Houtz never thought he would join his father and grandfather as a member of the IBEW. They had both been members of Albany, N.Y., Local 236, but Houtz went his own way.

An environmental science major at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, after graduation he moved south to Charlotte, S.C., to pursue a career in his field. It was 2007 and Houtz couldn't find a job. Then he saw an ad in the local paper placed by Local 379 looking for an electrician's helper.

As a kid, Houtz said, he'd gone to jobsites with his dad, William Houtz, and he'd found it "pretty boring." Immediately before moving to Charlotte, he'd worked some for his brother, a nonunion electrician, and he hadn't minded the work. Houtz decided to apply for the job while he continued his job search. He was hired on as a construction wireman.

"I found out how much I liked the work," Houtz said. "When I actually got my hands on it, I thought, 'This is really cool.'"

Six months later, he was promoted and given a raise and his foreman suggested he apply for the apprenticeship program. Houtz applied and stopped sending out résumés. A year after he was hired, he became one of 14 new apprentices and a member of Local 379.

Only two of the 14 came from outside Local 379's CE/CW program, said Rene Eslick, director of the Carolina Electrical Training Institute. She said that while anyone can apply and all candidates take the same tests, the CE/CWs are stronger candidates.

"We know how they will handle themselves in the field. We have a history," Eslick said.

Eslick said that Houtz has delivered on the promise he showed that first year.

"Chris has a great work ethic, on the jobsite and in school," Eslick said. "He comes to all the local's events, competes in state contests. He has excelled throughout the apprenticeship and we are very happy to have him here."

"I just really love the work," Houtz said. "It's the sense of accomplishment when you complete tasks on a construction job and new things are always popping up so I'm always learning."

While Houtz was in the fourth year of his apprenticeship, his brother Joseph tested in as a journeyman inside wireman at Local 236.

"I needed the hands-on time to see what an electrician did, to see the pleasure and enjoyment of doing this work," Houtz said. "The CE/CW program gave me the chance."

Houtz says he "can't wait" to graduate this summer and says, not surprisingly given his degree, he is eager to get more involved in green technologies and renewable energy.


Chris Houtz