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August 2013

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Manitoba Member Helps Organize New IBEW Leaders

For 31-year-old Winnipeg, Manitoba, Local 2034 member Kris Menard, unionism is a family tradition.

The Manitoba Hydro employee grew up in Thompson, a strong union mining town located more than 400 miles north of Winnipeg.

Menard's parents were both labour activists. His father was president of the local firefighters union and his mother — a federal worker — was active with the government employees union.

In his family, voting for the union-backed New Democratic Party was a given.

His first job was a union one, going to work at a United Food and Commercial Workers-represented Safeway grocery store at age 16.

"I knew unions and what they did, so I was always pro-organized labour all the way," he says.

For others in his generation however, such firsthand experience with unions is rare. For many of Menard's co-workers at the utility, passing probation is their first encounter with organized labour.

With half of Local 2034 made up of workers under the age of 35, reaching out and educating young members is one of the local's top priorities.

"We have to educate them about what the IBEW does," Menard says. "The benefits and rights you get on the job aren't there because the company felt generous, but because of the hard work of the generations that came before us."

Last March, he helped organize Local 2034's first-ever NextGen conference, bringing together 75 young members from throughout Manitoba.

NextGen is a Canada-wide initiative to engage young IBEW members and recruit and educate the leaders of tomorrow. Started in 2011, the program is particularly relevant for utility locals like 2034 as the energy industry undergoes a rapid generational turnover.

"The IBEW in Canada is facing a growing leadership generation gap, all while more young electrical workers are going nonunion than ever before," Kate Walsh, strategic coordinator for NextGen, told the Electrical Worker last year. "The goal of the NextGen initiative is to figure out how to make our organization representative of all of its members in order to increase youth engagement and grow the union."

Business Manager Mike Velie says that in the past, unions have not done a great job connecting with younger members. "It's our duty as union leaders to make sure we represent all of our members, and younger members are the least represented group."

The two-day conference included presentations on the history of the IBEW, young speakers from Manitoba's labour movement and First Nations community and a showing of the film "We Are Wisconsin," a documentary about the historic 2011 protests against Gov. Scott Walker's effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Brian Austin, a Wisconsin police officer and labour activist, presented the film.

"The movie hit home, because a lot of anti-worker legislation we have seen in the U.S. is moving north of the border," says Menard. "The Conservatives are really coming after unions."

Members of the province's telecommunications Local 435 also attended.

Post-conference, Menard says the main goal was to help organize a NextGen steering committee for the local — a tough job considering there are members spread out throughout the province. Getting to the union's Winnipeg office from Menard's hometown of Thompson, for example, takes more than eight hours by car.

To help guarantee geographic diversity, he took a page from the local's executive board — of which he is a member — and recruited members from every major jurisdiction.

"We need to be the voice of young workers throughout Manitoba," he says.

Large geographical distances make social media, including Twitter and Facebook, one of the local's main ways to reach out to younger members.

"Young people have to cut through so much information," Menard says. "The IBEW has to be on the leading edge of getting information out there."

Menard says the committee is up and running and is preparing another NextGen meeting this summer.

"We have to keep the momentum going," says Velie. "This is the future of the IBEW."


Kris Menard