A Q&A with The IBEW's Power Player
Most IBEW members are more familiar working with the kind of power that flows through wires than the kind of power that moves through the marble halls of the Capitol.
But as the Electrical Workers' recent series about members in elected office shows, the IBEW is a crucial part of raising the voice of working families.
One of the most successful and highest-profile trade unionists in politics today is one of our own, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, a journeyman inside wireman from Folsom, N.J., Local 351 since 1983.
Norcross was elected in a special election last fall to replace the incumbent who had retired before his term ended. Norcross — then a state senator from the Camden area, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — won the election, and unlike most newly elected representatives, he went straight to Washington to finish the remainder of his predecessor's term. It gave Norcross a few months seniority over the rest of the incoming freshman class but it also meant that, for a month, he was simultaneously a member of Congress and a business agent for Local 351.
The Electrical Worker sat down with Norcross in July in his office in a House office building south of the Capitol.
EW: How has the transition to Congress been going?
DN: In New Jersey I had relationships built over 25 years so I knew the people, the players. When I went to Trenton, it was just an expansion of that to the northern part of the state where I knew many of the people, but we knew them very quickly. Here, my relationships were few and far between. So it is about building new relationships and finding new ways to work together.
EW: Have you had moments where you were able to make a difference because you were not just another lawyer?
DN: It was coming near the end of 2014 and the [The Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act] was coming to the floor [the bill updated rules governing underfunded multiemployer pension funds.]
Rep. George Miller [former Democratic chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, who retired in 2015] was ending his career. He was an old friend of labor and had been working for so long on that and at the last minute something finally got patched together to help some retirees facing real hardships because their pension plans had been poorly managed.
I was traveling back and forth to New Jersey, and the night before I am delivering my very first speech in Congress, in my mail, I had my first pension check, which was from a multi-employer pension. Here we are trying to save multi-employer pensions, and we had tough choices to make, and I have this envelope in my hand that almost nobody else in Congress would get.
It means something. It means something very much to me. I understand how important it is to save those pension funds.
I spoke on the floor and the law was passed and signed by the president. It was incremental. We got halfway home to where we need to be to make the correction. There is still work to do, but it was incredible timing to say the least.
EW: President Bush issued an executive order forbidding project labor agreements in federal contracts. President Obama reversed that with his own executive order in 2009, but union contractors are still having a tough time. What are you doing about that?
DN: This is a big concern of mine and I had a meeting with Rep. Derek Kilmer out of Washington state on this.
When I was president of the New Jersey Building Trades, I negotiated well over a 100 project labor agreements, just in my area. And in the U.S., in total, since 2009 when President Obama issued an executive order allowing project labor agreements to be signed with the federal government, we have nine federal PLAs in the whole country. In nearly six years. Nine.
Derek Kilmer had one of them [in his district]. So, he and I are working together, meeting with the building trades, to try to reignite and to address the reasons why this isn't happening. There are systemic problems, with people who have been there so long they pushed the executive order aside.
EW: You mean the career military procurement officers are resisting signing the PLAs?
And what we want to get across is that they aren't just about putting local people to work, but giving them the training to have a trade for life. It is also about the women and minorities that we recruit every month, it is about putting our veterans to work through Helmets to Hardhats. So when I hear project labor agreements are no good, I think, this is about paying back a debt we owe to these veterans for putting their lives on the line for us.
EW: Last December, I saw a picture of you with the president, flying to your district on Air Force One. Was that your first time flying on the presidential plane?
DN: Yes it was. It was a remarkable day. We got a call here, asking if I would like to ride with the president up to the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst for his speech thanking the troops [and marking end of combat operations in Afghanistan]. So I checked my schedule… [laughs]
I drove over to Andrews, walked in to the waiting room, and we were about to get on and I asked, "Where is everyone?" and they said, "You're it."
And at that point, it was remarkable. From working in refineries, splicing wire, I am about to go on the most famous plane in the world with the most powerful man to have a discussion about issues of concern to us.
We had a few minutes to sit down and talk about my priorities, and certainly to hear the president's, and thank him for the work he is doing.
While we were waiting for the president they gave me the full tour of Air Force One, and as an electrician I'm looking and thinking about how it is all put together. It never leaves you.
EW: So what did you talk about?
DN: As you can imagine there is such an array you can get your hands around, but coming from where I come from, where every day you are trying to put members to work, and with the horrific unemployment we have been having, that sticks with you.
Because we can get bogged down in the minutiae. We can forget that we are trying to put people to work.
I told him, and he agreed, that the best social program is a job.
EW: Would you say that is your top priority, jobs?
DN: It is all around jobs. When I was a business representative for Local 351, it was my job to get work for the members. Now I have half a million constituents and I want to make sure the economy works for all of them, not just those on the top.
The stories I heard in the building trades, about people giving up, taking their lives, you don't forget that. I never want to go to another member's funeral, and look at their wife or kid … that someone would lose all hope and think that was their only way out. That sticks with me, and I am willing to share that story.
When people are sitting at home, they aren't paying taxes and it is a drain on their self-esteem. It can get to you.
So I keep that with me, we have to remember why we are here.
EW: So how do you do that?
DN: Diversity comes in many shapes and sizes and one of them is your background and experiences. There are 211 lawyers in Congress; there is one electrician now. And I am proud to be it.
I bring those experiences. Time after time it comes back to affordable education opportunities. And I believe that. But not everyone goes to college. Now we have college. It is called our apprenticeship program.
EW: Why isn't apprenticeship included in national conversations about higher education?
DN: Education is key. But education comes in many shapes and sizes.
I had a conversation two days ago where I asked a colleague what was the largest private group of educators in the country. If it were a college it would be the third largest university in the U.S. It's called the union apprenticeship systems. We have over 900,000 apprentices.
Whenever we talk about affordable education, nobody seems to talk about what is already in place and the value we get for it.
EW: With so few working class members of Congress and so many lawyers, what do your colleagues simply not understand?
DN: During the pipeline discussion, I heard comments from the floor, that these are only part-time jobs, short duration jobs.
It infuriated me. That is my life. Short-term jobs are what make a career!
Not that there was anything sinister, there was just a lack of understanding that this is what the building trades do.
The day you start you are working yourself out of a job. But that is the nature of it. That is what happens. So when we talk about the highway bill or infrastructure, that is in my wheelhouse. So one of my primary jobs is to educate members about what our life is like, and what our priorities are.
I remember when I was a young apprentice, the first time I collected unemployment, it was devastating. My vision of unemployment was, you lose your job, that is the end. Well losing your job in the trades is the end, but it also the beginning of a new one. It is what we do. We go to work. We get laid off. We go to a new job. That is how it works. Start a new one.
It is a very different perception than the average guy on the street, or member of Congress, understands.
EW: You opposed passage of fast track authorization for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Efforts to deny it looked strong at first, but ultimately failed. What happened?
DN: That was one of the saddest days I've had here. We worked very hard but the fact is when every Republican and some Democrats, very few, wanted it to happen, it is going to go through.
It is giving me flashbacks to NAFTA, which we fought and that was 25 years ago. It is remarkable. Last week, just across the river from me in Pennsylvania, there is a Nabisco factory that makes the Ritz and Oreos. They announced it was being shut down and it was moving to Mexico. That would not have happened if NAFTA didn't pave the way. It wasn't that the plant was losing money. It was profitable. Just not making enough money.
So the next Oreo you bite into will be made in Mexico, off the backs of the 350 people who were laid off. And this happened last week.
So when you talk about these trade agreements, when you talk about the entire economy, it might marginally help us. But let's talk about the losses.
All the working people down below are paying an ultimate price.
And for people who talk about trade adjustment programs, it is like offering a condemned man a last meal. The food might be really good, but he is still dead at the end; they still lose their jobs.
The jobs don't come back. And if they do, it is under different conditions, you make less, less benefits, and the pension is completely different. And these were the conversations we had in the caucus, but the vote was what it was.
I still believe for the U.S. this is a very bad deal.
EW: Why is it important for our members to run, to get involved politically beyond supporting candidates?
DN: Why is that important? Every dollar spent by the New Jersey government comes under prevailing wage. There is no debate. It is part of the law. We can do project labor agreement as part of the law. We have family medical leave. It is part of the law. That is because people who hold the values we do understand that on a different level.
It is not just about corporate profits, it is about fairness across the board.
But when you are running for the first time, it is tough. You have no frame of reference. How do you put together a campaign committee? What are you going to run for? But once you see people in organized labor doing it, it is easier for the next guy to think, "I can do that!" and they can build on what we've learned.
So I need friends in Congress. I could use them. Because there are not enough of us. I need more friends. Run.