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November 2013

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RENEW Conference Energizes Young Workers

More than 100 young IBEW members from across the United States and Canada came to Washington, D.C., Sept. 27-29 for the first ever Reach out and Energize Next-gen Electrical Workers conference.

A union-wide effort, RENEW first came together at the 38th International Convention in 2011. Its mission: to inspire the next generation of IBEW workers to become active in their local union by focusing on issues important to younger workers.

RENEW committees have since sprouted up in dozens of locals, introducing newer IBEW members to labor activism, said Civic and Community Engagement Department International Representative Rateeluck "Tarn" Puvapiromquan.

"I was really encouraged by the number of young people present and how engaged they were," Dublin, Calif., Local 595 member Rachel Bryan said. The 33-year-old journeyman wireman serves as the local's community liaison and head of government relations. "As someone who cares about the direction of the labor movement, I feel I'm not alone," she said.

Since its founding, RENEW has provided young IBEW members a space to network and organize to advance the interests of younger workers in their locals, while helping bridge the gap between generations to strengthen the union. Local groups have sponsored educational meetings, social outings and set up Facebook groups to facilitate communications.

Spokane, Wash., Local 73 member Graham Brown says that his local doesn't have a RENEW group, but young IBEW activists in the area, including fellow RENEW attendee Katie Grimnes out of Seattle Local 77, have been active in the Young Emerging Labor Leaders group sponsored by the Spokane Labor Council.

RENEW is part of a broader labor effort to invest in the future of the movement. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer (and Portland, Ore., Local 125 member) Liz Shuler has helped spearhead the labor federation's Next Up effort to connect young workers with unions.

"Being involved with the group inspired me to go back and talk to the business manager about getting the local to do more things to get younger members involved," said Brown, a 29-year-old wireman.

This has included fundraisers for charitable events and sponsoring a float in the city's St. Patrick's Day parade. Brown has also helped organize social events for young workers.

"Some people think union meetings can be a little boring sometimes," he said. So, the local has put on barbeques, outings to music festivals and poker nights. "It's a more relaxed setting."

RENEW workshops covered everything from understanding parliamentary procedure and fighting workplace discrimination to help planning your career on the job and in the union.

"The event is run by young workers and directed to young workers," Puvapiromquan said. "We want attendees to know that this is about collectively envisioning our future as IBEW members."

Organizers discussed ways to bridge the gaps between generations, including finding mentors — an issue of particular importance for San Francisco Local 6 Business Representative Luz Maria Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a 37-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants, studied at the University of Notre Dame, working as a social worker before coming back to the Bay Area to help out with her family's factory.

Her father had fallen ill, and she had to preside over renovations to the factory. "I became really interested in construction and the trades," she said.

Former Local 6 Business Manager (now Ninth District International Representative) John O' Rourke convinced her to become an electrician.

"It's important to listen to what the more seasoned members can teach us," she says. "There is always someone willing to teach you something if you are willing to listen."

Attendees also said young workers must continue to press upon the older generation the importance of supporting RENEW at every level of the organization and giving newer members a stake in the IBEW.

"It's vital to the survival of the IBEW," Local 595's Bryan said. For older members who feel threatened by younger ones, Bryan always breaks it down to dollars and cents.

"Our pension, our ability to grow and provide real benefits for retired, current and future members is dependent on bringing new workers forward," she said.

Bryan helped lead a workshop on combatting discrimination at work, and says creating a culture of inclusiveness is vital to growing the IBEW among the millennial generation.

For 39-year-old Jon Jensen, the IBEW is a family tradition. The Portland Local 48 member is the son of Eighth District Vice President Ted Jensen, so he's used to talking union across generations. But the workshop on the subject was one of the weekend's most valuable offerings, he says.

"Twenty-somethings process information and communicate in different ways than those in their 30s or 40s," he said. "I always kind of knew that, but the workshop really put it into place for me and gave me the tools to start conversations."

As important as social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are to reaching younger members, one-on-one conversations are vital to building RENEW and the IBEW, said Local 595's Bryan.

"We can get young people involved simply by asking. And not just once. Everything starts by having conversations, finding what their goals and interests are," she said.

Go to to learn more about RENEW.




The first-ever RENEW conference brought more than more than 100 young IBEW members from across North America. From top, Spokane, Wash., Local 73 member Graham Brown; San Francisco Local 6 Business Representative Luz Maria Rodriguez; and Dublin, Calif., Local 595 Community Liaison and Government Relations Representative Rachel Bryan.