The Electrical Worker online
June 2013

New Tools for Rank-and-File
'Citizen Organizers'
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Every new member of the IBEW swears an oath that includes a promise "to further the purposes for which the IBEW is instituted," and the first purpose is stated in the IBEW Constitution's preamble: "to organize all the workers in the entire electrical industry in the United States and Canada."

"But a lot of smart, committed and tough members are afraid to get involved in organizing," said International Representative Jan Schwingshakl. "They think they don't know the right things to say or feel like they are the wrong people to say it. If we are going to fulfill our oath, that has to change and we think we have a way to do that."

Two programs from the Education Department are designed to equip members to become effective organizers. The Member-to-Member program focuses on internal organizing where the goal is getting current members more involved. The Member-to-Future-Member training teaches rank-and-file members how to effectively organize unrepresented workers.

Both draw on IBEW history to explain why every member should be a vocal advocate for unions in their communities. They provide answers for most common questions and practice through role plays.

Then they get out of the classroom and knock on doors. If it is a Member-to-Member class, they visit the homes of brothers and sisters already in the local, and talk to them about coming to meetings and volunteering. If it is a Member-To-Future-Member class, they will target people who aren't in the union yet.

"It is the same skill set, the same conversation. The audience is different," said Tracy Prezeau, International Representative in the Education Department, who, along with Ninth District International Representative Greg Boyd, designed the program. Boyd says the goal isn't to turn the students into professional organizers.

"Organizers may have the answers, but we don't always have credibility," Boyd said. "Members in their own communities do and they are often more successful at starting conversations, especially with nonunion workers."

The most effective member organizers aren't always the ones who have lots of facts and answers, Prezeau said, so the bulk of the class focuses on how to listen well and understand the life of the person they are talking to.

"Before they care what you know, people want to know that you care. They want to know that you're for real and that you are listening to them," Prezeau said.


Columbia, S.C., Local 772 represents 500 utility workers, but in the right-to-work state, only 360 were members. Business Manager Scott Fulmer said organizing efforts had fallen flat in recent years and had basically stopped.

"We had become complacent," he said.

Fulmer saw Prezeau and Schwingshakl present the Member-to-Member program at the Membership Development conference in 2012. He said the combination of inspiring IBEW history and practical skills was just what he was looking for.

"I had not been that excited in 10 years. I thought this could actually help," Fulmer said. "They didn't even have it set up for non-construction locals. We were the first."

Less than two months later, Fulmer had his local's leadership take the training, and then the volunteer organizing committee, who were primarily stewards. Fulmer says he noticed a change immediately.

"The biggest difference is that organizing wasn't part of the job before, and now it is," Fulmer said. "It made them realize that being part of IBEW was more than what they thought. Membership matters."

Fulmer said that the stewards began talking — and listening — to non-members. The local's leadership got deeply involved in the organizing campaign and within three months, more than 50 people already represented by Local 772 became dues-paying members, more than a 17-percent jump in membership.

"The officers and stewards, it just changed their mindset," Fulmer said. "When they used to introduce themselves, they used to say, 'Hi my name is Scott and I work for South Carolina Electric & Gas and I am a member of the IBEW.' Now they say, 'My name is Scott and I am a member of the IBEW and I work at SCE & G.'"

Internal Organizing Comes First

Prezeau said that too many members think of a union like an insurance company: They pay their money and the union will fix a problem when something goes wrong.

"We have to go back to the plan of the founders: workers talking to workers about the benefits of standing together," Prezeau said. "We want them to embrace their membership and lose the insurance company model."

Prezeau and Boyd designed the classes in 2009 at the direction of Ninth District Vice President Michael Mowrey to fill in gaps left by existing classes like the Construction Organizing Membership Education Training and its professional and industrial counterpart Membership Education and Mobilization for Organizing. They had been created during the unionwide push in the '90s to bring organizing back to the building trades.

"Somewhere we stopped using our membership as organizers," said Gina Cooper, Director of Professional and Industrial Organizing. "COMET and MEMO opened our eyes to why organizing is so important."

COMET was considered such a success that the AFL-CIO adopted it as a model for the other building trades and, nearly 30 years later, it is still in use.

"But COMET and MEMO didn't take the next step: bringing the message to nonunion workers. It told you why to do it, but didn't teach how," Cooper said.

Cooper said that the Member-to-Member training looks at different conversation strategies for non-professional organizers. Cooper says people are often surprised at what doesn't work.

"No one wants to hear how great your salary and benefits are," Cooper said. "It doesn't inspire them to want it too. They just think 'These union people think they're better than me.'"

Students learn to keep the focus on topics that don't risk alienating anyone: wages, benefits and working conditions.

"You are there to ask, 'What's it like at your job? Can you get your kids to college? Do you have the benefits to keep your family healthy? Will you have a decent retirement without relying on your kids? Are you safe at your job?'"

Boyd said that the success for Member-to-Member training can be measured in many ways. In the Ninth District, where locals are required to run at least one Member-to-Member course a year, attendance at meetings is up more than 50 percent at some locals. Others are reversing market share losses.

But success can also be about bringing life to a local that's in deep trouble, Boyd said. He and Prezeau taught class two weeks before nominations at a local. Too few people were running to fill all the officers' positions. The local was in trouble, Boyd said, and they could feel it as soon as they came into the hall.

"It was like a sickness," he said.

More than 25 people came to the class, Boyd said, and 22 members ended up running for office.

"The labor movement had done such a bad job of telling our story to our own members, they couldn't explain the basic values and tenets to non-members," Boyd said. "They couldn't be missionaries. We needed to come back and internally organize first."

External Organizing

After a local has held at least one Member-to-Member training, they can begin running Member-to-Future-Member trainings for canvassing unrepresented workers.

Prezeau says Seattle, Wash., Local 46 embodies the lessons taught in the Member-to-Future-Member classes. Since classes began more than three years ago, Local 46 members knock on doors two times a week, every week.

"We believe in blitzing," said Business Manager Virgil Hamilton. "Door knocking has been real advantageous for us and we do it constantly."

Despite that commitment, Hamilton said too often such campaigns were little more than what he called, "making noise on a door."

"They'd knock on the door and they didn't know what to say other than, 'The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is available,'" Hamilton said.

In the last three years, though, more than 100 volunteer organizers have gone through the Member-to-Future-Member training, along with the officers and executive board. Now, Hamilton said, they have answers and better listening skills.

"For a lot of our members, they didn't understand why anyone is nonunion. It is hard to organize them if you don't know why they are where they are," Hamilton said. "Member-to-Future-Member helps them understand what it is like to be nonunion and see life through their eyes."

In addition to the new training for members, Local 46 began another effort to improve relationships with unrepresented electricians in its jurisdiction, opening free continuing education classes for licensed electricians to anyone, member or not. Hamilton says that the goal in both cases is nothing less than organizing every electrician in his jurisdiction.

"That's the Henry Miller mindset," Hamilton said. "We must all stand together."


International Representative Tracy Prezeau, left, teaching a Member-to-Future-Member session to Portland, Ore., Local 48 members.

Photo credit: Oscar A. Merida


Below: George Vasquez and Jen Foster practice the organizing skills with fellow Portland, Ore., Local 48 member Rod Richardson playing an unrepresented worker.

Photo credit: Oscar A. Merida