The Electrical Worker online
July 2013

EWMC Honors Legacy,
Empowers Young Workers

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EWMC Helps Build L.A.'s Next Generation Youth Caucus

After driving a school bus for five years, Alton Wilkerson had fallen on hard times and was out of work. One day, some union painters arrived at the house he was renting and one of them asked if he was interested in starting a new career. He was advised to check out 2nd Call, a community-based organization founded by former gang members to help steer young people away from harmful choices toward decent, productive employment.

Wilkerson's chance encounter with the painters led to a 2nd Call meeting where he met John Harriel Jr., "Big John," a member of Los Angeles Local 11, an inside construction general foreman and chairman of the Los Angeles chapter of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus.

Harriel, a former federal prison gang member whose story, "The IBEW Saved My Life," was told in the March/April 2007 issue of the IBEW Journal, says Wilkerson "came from the same neighborhoods I did where the drug culture and going to jail is the normal way of life."

"Big John told me what the IBEW did for him, how it turned his life around and helps people in the community," says Wilkerson. Harriel encouraged Wilkerson to enroll in 2nd Call's life skills training course, then he put Wilkerson to work on a construction project. In short order, Wilkerson enrolled in Local 11's apprenticeship program and began to attend meetings of the EWMC.

"The IBEW is like a big family," says Wilkerson, a father of three. "Joining the union was just the right choice, a 'complete 10' for me, providing for me and my family to live comfortably."

Now a fourth-year apprentice, Wilkerson is actively building Local 11's Next Generation Youth Caucus. Wilkerson says he and other members got the idea for the caucus at the 22nd national conference of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus — held in Oakland, Calif., in 2012 — where they connected with other young worker organizations and leaders from across the nation.

"We got ideas on what worked or didn't work for them and then we got the ball rolling," he says. Starting with just a few members, the group is growing with each meeting, says Wilkerson.

The young workers' group draws upon activists in the L.A. chapter of the EWMC and the local's diverse population including rank and filers who are active in other groups like the neighborhood councils sponsored by Empower L.A.

A Next Generation Youth Caucus Facebook page has been launched and members are encouraged to join in conference calls hosted by EWMC Youth.

In February, Next Generation gathered at the ESPN Zone L.A. and held a food truck festival on the parking lot of the local's Electrical Training Institute. Members participated in the first annual Southern California IBEW Flag Football Tournament and a bowling event. Funds for activities have been raised by sponsoring bake sales at apprentice meetings.

Looking to bring trade unionism to youth beyond the local union, Next Generation has been conducting outreach at a local church, spreading the word about the skilled trades. "We're trying to help students who are graduating with nowhere to go," says Wilkerson.

"If someone hadn't introduced me to Big John, I still wouldn't know about unions," says Wilkerson. "A lot of young workers don't understand how we won what we have. They don't understand the fight workers went through."

After a recent emergency that required one of his daughters to have paramedical services and medication, Wilkerson says he realized how fortunate he was to be responsible for minimal out-of-pocket charges for quality medical care as a result of his union contract. He says he wants others to have the same opportunity.

Harriel, who is working as a general foreman supervising a 125-electrician crew building a hospital, says, "We're so proud of Alton. The EWMC has helped him learn leadership skills that he is now transferring to youth. He's soaring like an eagle."

It was his own experience in the IBEW and the EWMC, says Harriel, that prepared him to approach the leaders of 2nd Call, which started out as a hard-core gang intervention project, to help them find employment for young people who "were ready to put down the guns and flags, get up in the morning, arrive on time at a job and work hard for a living."



Alton Wilkerson, Los Angeles Local 11, leads the Next Generation Youth Caucus.

San Diego Member: 'Stay Connected, Give Something Back to IBEW'

Michelle Penny could have been Everywoman of the service economy. The San Diego resident had wrapped burritos at Taco Bell, filed medical records, cut lawns and endured the boredom of a security guard post.

One day, while pumping gas for her car, she observed a young woman in attractive clothes at an adjacent pump filling the tank of a shiny new truck. The stranger said she was a member of the skilled building trades. She gave Michelle the address of one of the local hiring halls.

A week later, Penny, a mother of two, was on a construction site. "I got paid the same day and made more money than I ever had before," she says. Returning to work, Penny watched electricians doing their jobs and decided to join them, whatever it took. She applied and was accepted in Local 569's inside journeyman wireman apprenticeship training program.

Last year, Penny topped out as the first African-American woman to complete Local 569's apprenticeship. She is confidently achieving her goal of moving up the economic ladder but Penny, who walked her first picket line in elementary school beside her mother, an AT&T worker, says that's only part of her changed horizon.

"A whole new family opened up before my eyes," says Penny, 32, who in January attended her third conference of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus. The networking encouraged her to work with her local's former Political Director Jen Badgley to launch a Facebook page targeting young workers in her local.

In the spring, she joined other San Diego EWMC volunteers for an effort to apply craft skills to sprucing up or renovating area nonprofits.

"Volunteering gives us high visibility. It's important, as union people, to build up our community and help neighbors who are less fortunate," says Penny, who is active in her children's school and has walked precincts for candidates for public office. While she leaves volunteer craft projects "feeling good," Penny knows her involvement in volunteer craft projects also opens eyes.

Young people who see her doing electrical work are curious about how she ended up in an overwhelmingly male trade. She talks to them about what it means to be in a union and learn a trade.

Through more personal contact, she hopes to encourage more young workers to climb the apprenticeship ladder behind her. For now, she says, "I'm staying connected to IBEW brothers and sisters across the country." She has encouraged them to swap T-‚Ā†shirts and go out on the job with colors from another local union. "It shows camaraderie," she says.

Growing up in San Diego, Penny says she learned about hard work from family members who were farmers in the South. Penny's father, a Vietnam veteran and postal worker, died when she was two years old, but she says a strong mother and her male martial arts instructor helped keep her focused on what's important. Later on Business Agent C.J. Towner, the first African-American to serve in that position in Local 569, helped her adapt to life in the electrical trade.

She says the pressure of being the first of her gender and race to become a Local 569 journeyman was substantial. But her perseverance was bolstered by an appreciation for the IBEW's accomplishments.

"I wouldn't be in my position today if not for my union brothers and sisters so I'm always giving back and pushing IBEW forward to greater success," says Penny.


Michelle Penny is a San Diego Local 569 journeyman inside wireman.

EWMC Activists Build Solid Bonds on Long Island

Godfrey King, an at-large board member of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus and journeyman wireman in Long Island, N.Y., Local 25, met Josh Margolis just as he was topping out of his apprenticeship.

"I really admired Josh's idealism and desire to be an activist," says King, who remembered the advice of now-retired EWMC President Robbie Sparks, who constantly encouraged veteran members to mentor younger workers. "I told Josh that he could be an asset as a young journeyman and an activist, too," says King, a 25-year member.

King's first impression was indelibly confirmed after Hurricane Sandy when he saw Margolis volunteering to help others, only later finding out that the younger journeyman, his wife and child, had lost their own place to stay. "Josh walks the talk," says King, an 18-year shop steward.

Margolis, the son of a special education teaching assistant who belonged to a union, says his mother "always taught me to see things from others' points of view and appreciate the things we have in life by giving back to the community."

Margolis took that spirit into Local 25's Apprenticeship Awareness Committee. He has worked hard to persuade other members to help build alliances with political leaders to support a progressive political agenda, stressing that "none of the accomplishments of the past are set in stone."

Taking a measured approach to encourage apprentices that "this is their union and they over time can transform it into their vision," Margolis arranged small group meetings with Business Manager Kevin Harvey and other local leaders for frank conversations. And he sponsored monthly meetings for new members to air concerns, keeping the environment casual so that new members "felt they were at a social event, rather than a structured meeting." While no longer president of the committee, he serves as an advisor and continues to play an active role with apprentices and young workers in the local.

"Whenever we ask Josh to step up and get involved, he's there," says Harvey. Margolis returns the compliment. "The officers have been 100 percent supportive of our efforts to involve all members in the union, willing to listen to any idea to make our local union stronger. You can't ask for more," he says.

Margolis, who joined the EWMC, echoes Godfrey King's conviction that the group's greatest asset is rooted in the tradition of bringing together activists beyond their own local unions to learn from each other. "I have traveled across the country meeting amazing people representing my local and received an incredible education that I could not have anywhere else," he says.

The young activists he has met inside and outside the caucus, says Margolis, "have a fire, a passion for the trade union movement." He joins monthly conference calls with EWMC's and AFL-CIO's young worker groups. His new friends are not all far-flung. The EWMC has provided a valuable way for Margolis, King and others on Long Island to overcome insularity by linking up with members of New York Local 3 and their deep tradition of community involvement.

While Margolis has faced personal adversity throughout his activism, with his wife suffering from a serious illness, he says he's grateful that he has a career not just a job. His involvement in the EWMC — where he serves as vice-chairman to King — and his local union, he says, "gives me a sense of home away from home. It has created lifelong friendships and bonds. It gives me great satisfaction knowing that I am a useful member of my community and a useful contributor to my local."


EWMC chapter leaders Godfrey King, left, and Josh Margolis, Long Island, N.Y., Local 25.