The Electrical Worker online
April 2014

How One Iowa Local is Winning Back the Work
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

Burlington, Iowa, on the
banks of the Mississippi River,
is undergoing a construction boom.

It's the biggest construction project Iowa has seen in decades. The $1.8 billon Iowa Fertilizer Co. — a subsidiary of the Egyptian construction giant Orascom — will employ upwards of 2,500 construction workers, with a completion date set for 2015.

When finished, the plant will produce nitrogen fertilizer, replacing imported fertilizer used by farmers throughout the Midwest.

Traditionally, locals who get wind of a project may let signatory contractors know about it and wait for them to bid the work, said Burlington Local 13 Business Manager John Weyer. But when it came to the biggest capital investment project in Iowa history, the old way of doing things wouldn't cut it.

The moment in 2011 that Weyer noticed massive 24-inch gas pipes being installed in the middle of rural Lee County, located in the southeast corner of the state, he started asking questions.

He brought it to International Representative John Bourne, who leads the International's business development efforts in the Midwest. (See "New Business Development Team Goes Straight to the Customer," Electrical Worker, June 2013)

"We started asking around and soon enough, the cat was out of the bag," Bourne said.

Soon Weyer and Bourne were talking with anybody who might influence Orascom executives — from state economic development officials and members of Congress to company executives in Cairo and London.

The IBEW's message: we want the work and are ready to do it.

The Construction and Maintenance Department even produced a promotional video, highlighting the IBEW's skill and training and showing what union electricians would bring to the project.

Today, Local 13 members are on the job, helping wire trailers and crew shacks for the preliminary preparation work on the plant. At its height, Weyer expects more than 350 IBEW members to be working on the project.

It is a big job for a small local. But they are used to it.

The southeast corner of Iowa might be the last place you would expect to find major industrial construction. Dominated by miles of flat corn fields and tiny hamlets, the area's largest town — Burlington — clocks in at less than 30,000 residents.

But dotted throughout the region are chemical plants, coal-fired power houses and a huge water-treatment facility. And more is coming. Last August, Siemens Power Generation announced it was building a 20,000-square-meter wind turbine plant in Fort Madison.

For the most part, they are all wired and maintained by members of Local 13.

While many locals struggled with declining market share over the last decade, Local 13 has seen its share of work go up by more than 20 percent. Today more than half of all electrical construction in the jurisdiction is done by the IBEW. In fact, Local 13 has more members now than it did in the 1970s, despite a shrinking local population.

And that has meant more than three years of full employment. It also means steady wage growth.

In some ways the area is a fertile region for union labor. Ready access to the Mississippi River and cheap land make the area an attractive location for many industries. And Des Moines and Lee counties are more used to people leaving than coming, making the job market tight.

But the local's success is due to more than just geography and local demographics.

The advanced skills set and commitment to safety IBEW contractors bring to the bidding table gives Local 13 a strong competitive advantage when going after the large industrial projects still dominating the construction market.

"We don't have lots of people, so you're not seeing chain restaurants or condos going up," Weyer said. "Industrial is the main game in town when it comes to construction, and we're doing the work."

Local 13 started an aggressive organizing plan in 1995 in response to declining ranks. "We hadn't really organized since the '40s," Weyer said. Key to its success was tapping into their own members' personal and community networks.

"We started ID-ing everyone in the local, and asked them who they knew," Weyer said. "In rural areas, you know who your neighbors are."

Members were encouraged to talk to people in their neighborhood working nonunion. Or their spouses.

"If we knew the wife of a nonunion guy, we would talk to her about the health benefits that come from joining the IBEW," he said. "For a family just starting out, that's a big deal."

They also emphasized the training the IBEW offered and the opportunities it opens up for newcomers to the industry.

The local also understands that winning work is also about building relationships — reaching out to elected officials, business leaders and the community and showing the role the IBEW plays in growing the local economy.

"They pushed the idea of local jobs for local people when going after the fertilizer plant," Bourne said.

Community and political outreach combined with aggressive organizing and business development makes Local 13 a model for other locals to emulate, Bourne added. "These guys are doing everything right."



Photo credits: Photos used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Loco Steve