The Electrical Worker online
November 2014

Everyone a Member on Day One
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Every day, several hundred organizers head out into the field to bring new members into the IBEW. They work in every state and province to meet the first and third objectives of the IBEW as laid out in the constitution written in 1891: to cultivate feelings of friendship with those in the industry and organize everyone in it.

At the 38th Convention in 2011, delegates approved a target growth plan: 1 percent a year through 2015. As things stand in September, the IBEW is just over 32,000 new members shy of next year's target.

"We can still make the goal. I think we can beat it, but we have to be smart," said Ricky Oakland, Special Assistant to the President for Membership Development. "When you are trying to do something difficult, you start with the low hanging fruit."

You start, Oakland said, with nonmembers that are easy to find. And there are tens of thousands of them. We know where they work, because they work under IBEW negotiated contracts. They just aren't members.

They are the focus of a new initiative launched by the IBEW, called Membership on Day One.

"We don't have to look for them and we don't have to educate them about the benefits they get from the IBEW," Oakland said. "If everyone we represented was a member, we would increase our membership by 5 percent."

There are more than 31,000 people working under IBEW negotiated contracts who are not members. Some might be fervent union haters, others might live in right-to-work states and have decided not to join, but many would be members already, Oakland said, if we just stopped keeping them out.

"We've been talking about the importance of organizing for decades, but somehow we are still putting up barriers in front of people who want to join," Oakland said.

Every Apprentice, On Day One

Oakland estimated that 5,000-6,000 are apprentices that are not initiated into the local until they finish one, two or three years of work and training.

"Are we nuts?" Hill said at the September Membership Development Conference. "Does this make sense? They are contributing to and getting the benefits of the IBEW. Why shouldn't they be on our rolls and carrying a card?"

Oakland said some business managers expressed concern that immediately making apprentices members violated IBEW rules or would force the local to allow any member to sign in for job referrals.

"I'm not sure where those ideas come from, but membership from day one is explicitly allowed in the constitution," Oakland said. "Membership does not prevent an apprentice from being removed from the program, nor can a non-journeyman member sign up for jobs they are not qualified for."

In many states, it is also illegal for someone to work under a collective bargaining agreement for longer than a month, in some cases a week, without joining the union.

"It almost always comes down to the same thing: we do it this way because it's the way we've always done it," Oakland said. "That just isn't a good enough answer when every member counts."

Even if all of the nonmember apprentices were initiated tomorrow, it's still far short of the target.

Good news in the construction industry makes for more effective organizing campaigns, Oakland said, and he believes construction organizing will bring in another 10,000 new members.

But construction only fills half of the member shortfall. There is a gap of at least 17,000 new members that must be made up by June 2015, more once the normal loss of members to retirement, factory closures and career changes are accounted for.

Using Our Muscle

There are nearly 27,000 non-members working in utility, manufacturing and telecom jobs in right-to-work states. Oakland said they are likely to be more receptive to organizing than nearly anyone else.

"They can see the benefits they get from the IBEW. The key to our success will be finding the right strategy for every local and every unit," he said. "I don't expect to sign up every one, but 75 percent [19,500] is realistic, maybe even pessimistic."

Heading up the campaign is the Director of Professional and Industrial Membership Development Carmella Thomas, who says the resources and planning in this internal organizing drive are unlike any in the union's history.

By Nov. 1, every local with nonmembers working under our contracts will have designed a campaign plan with the help of their business manager, staff organizers, the district vice president, and the International lead organizer and the regional organizing coordinator.

"Every plan will be unique to the local, but every local will have one," Thomas said.

The plans will involve combinations of member-to-member trainings, informational meetings, home visits, hunting and fishing trips or whatever else might make nonmembers sign up. Thomas said it might be as simple as just asking them to join.

"Over the last decade, we have worked very hard to bring back a culture of organizing to the IBEW. We're not finished, but it's time to take advantage of the progress we've made," she said. "We've been going to the gym, now we're ready to get in the ring and use our muscle.


Ricky Oakland


Carmella Thomas