The Electrical Worker online
November 2015

'A' Membership Reaches All‑Time High
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Sometime last summer, the IBEW set a record for the part of the membership traditionally comprised of construction workers.

There are now 352,000 'A' members, 18,000 more than at the last convention in 2011, and more than any time in the 124-year history of the brotherhood.

That number might include a new outside lineman or a wireman, who are automatically brought into the IBEW as 'A' members. It might have been an existing 'BA' member who upgraded a membership, as any IBEW member can.

"For the first time in what seems like a decade, we're not just playing defense. We're not just worried about stopping the bleeding, we're going for growth. We're going for market share," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "We are on the verge of truly living up to our mission for the first time in many decades: to organize every worker in the electrical industry."

Any member of the IBEW can become an 'A' member, but an increase in 'A' membership has historically been a measure of growth on the construction side of the IBEW. Participation in the IBEW's pension plan is the primary difference between 'A' and 'BA' members. But only 'A' members are also eligible for death benefits and can serve as local union financial secretaries, international representatives and international officers.

Although 'A' membership is at an all-time high, the IBEW as a whole is smaller than it was in the '70s and '80s. Membership took a substantial hit after the Great Recession nearly a decade ago. Tens of thousands of jobs, particularly in manufacturing and telecommunications, either disappeared, were outsourced to nonunion employers, to other states or out of the country entirely.

But nearly two-and-a-half years ago, total membership stopped falling and began to grow again, the result of an all-out commitment to a culture of organizing, as well as a concerted effort to boost 'A' members.

Since 2011, a total of 6,000 'BA' members upgraded their membership.

'A' membership has been steadily rising since July 2012. Every district saw an increase in 'A' membership since 2011. The largest growth, more than 5 percent, was in the First District, driven by the massive energy infrastructure projects underway across Canada.

"These are good numbers, but it is not time to break out the champagne," said Construction and Maintenance Department Director Jim Ross. "The demand for construction electricians is growing and we are not keeping up with that demand."

Ross said his biggest concern is overall market share, which has hovered around 30 percent since before the end of the recession.

"I am cautiously optimistic because we did not lose a great deal of ground during the downturn, but we face a real challenge if we are going to increase our work and replace the 26,000 construction members who will retire in the next five years," Ross said.

The local that has seen the largest growth in 'A' membership is Diamond Bar, Calif., Local 47. Since 2011, Local 47 brought in 1,600 new 'A' members, a 66-percent increase.

Local 47 Business Manager Pat Lavin said about 700 of the new 'A' members were already IBEW members who switched from 'BA' status. (See sidebar.)

"We have encouraged all of our new members and existing members to become 'A' members because of the supplemental retirement, and it's an investment in the IBEW," said Lavin, who is also the Seventh District member and secretary of the International Executive Council.

The other 900 new 'A' members were brought in after Local 47 signed an agreement with Southern California Edison that made all tree trimming, transmission and distribution, substation and underground work on utility property IBEW work. The result was that Local 47 organized a large number of nonunion contractors.

"Those contractors and their 900 workers are now signed on with the IBEW for everything that falls under our scope of work, even when it isn't for SoCal Edison," Lavin said. "It just shows that the best organizing tool is a job."

The largest percentage increase in 'A' membership was at St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Local 1620, which has grown from fewer than 100 'A' members to more than 1,100 since 2011. The expansion is due to the CA$8.5 billion energy infrastructure project that will harness Labrador's wealth of hydroelectric power and bring it under the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland. (See "Canadian Members Help Build Historic Dam, Transmission Project," October 2015 issue of the Electrical Worker.)

"We have not peaked in membership but expect our membership to be around 2,500 before both this project and a concurrent project, the maritime link project, have plateaued in 2017," said Local 1620 Business Manager Terry Rose.

Local 1620's agreement with project owner Nalcor gives IBEW signatory contractors much more than just the electrical construction work.

"The membership growth is all about the Muskrat Falls transmission project," said First District International Vice President William F. Daniels. "We represent the construction electricians on the job of course, but also equipment operators, brush clearing, even the people who cook and clean."

Daniels said keeping the new members is now his largest concern.

"Organizing gets people in, but it takes everyone in the Brotherhood pulling in the same direction to keep them," Daniels said. "Do we perform well on the job so employers want to keep working with us? Are we developing the new business to keep everyone working? Are we educating the new people about the value of the IBEW beyond the job? Keeping them isn't magic."

Keeping New Members is Today's Challenge

The growth of 'A' members is unquestionably good news, said Director of Construction Membership Development Virgil Hamilton, but he agreed that it is only half of the story.

"Despite the growth in members, we are not seeing a growth in market share for a simple reason: we are very poor at retaining the new members we bring in," Hamilton said. "Now that we are bringing people in, we have to concentrate on turning them into trade unionists so they don't drop out the minute a job ends."

For example, in the last year, the IBEW has signed up close to 30,000 new 'A' members. But over the same period, 6,600 IBEW members died or retired and about 15,000 dropped out. The net new 'A' members was 8,000.

The reality, Hamilton said, is many of the new members came on for single jobs, and when those jobs finished, many did not see a reason to stay in the union.

"Construction careers are built one job after the next. If we don't have a next job, nonunion contractors will," Hamilton said. "If we give people a choice between feeding their family and staying with the union, they will choose to feed their family. That isn't their problem, it is ours."

The result is that even though the construction membership has grown, the IBEW's overall market share has been locked at nearly 30 percent since the 1980s (although it dipped to 28 percent in the worst days of the recession).

"If we could close the back door we would be setting records and gaining market share," said Special Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland. "The only way to do that is teach people that the most important thing is what our founders knew 125 years ago when market share was zero: the most important thing is a strong union because it means we all do better. The job is a blessed side effect of more workers speaking as one."

The difficulty, Oakland said, is that too little effort is being made to get the message to new members. Many of the new 'A' members are not coming through the apprenticeship and don't know about the history of the IBEW and organized labor. And since many members do not come to local meetings and there is usually little conversation about trade unionism between workers on the job, they simply never get the message about what makes a union strong.

"If the unrepresented workers in the industry completely understood who we are and what we are about, they would all join right away. They would know that only organizing leads to better wages and more secure work," Hamilton said. "Too many of our existing members do not bring the message about solidarity to the jobsite."

Keeping new members is as much a cultural question as it is about the next job.

"Right there in the IBEW Constitution it says we have a duty to seek out and cultivate feelings of friendship amongst those of our industry. Why? Because simply paying dues and working an IBEW job isn't what makes you a trade unionist," Hamilton said.

A Way Forward from Out of the Past: Salting

Oakland and Hamilton said one of the most powerful tools to keep new members in the IBEW is also one of the oldest: salting.

Being a salt isn't as simple as taking a job with a nonunion contractor and continuing to pay your dues. When done correctly, salting is a powerful organizing tool. But only when the IBEW member keeps in contact with the local, does a workmanlike job and speaks honestly with other workers about the advantages of organizing.

"In 1891, all IBEW members were salts. Henry Miller was working a nonunion job when he died," Hamilton said. "One of the most effective ways to organize can be by salting. We can get to know the unrepresented workers and our members can keep working."

A common objection to salting is that it helps a nonunion contractor to succeed, but Oakland said this misses the larger point. If the goal is to organize the entire industry, every contractor has the potential to be a signatory and every contractor needs to be organized. Having a member on the job can make that a lot easier.

"Members hired as employees in nonunion companies have far greater rights to campaign at the worksite than non-employee organizers," he said.

Oakland said business managers are encouraged to use the boilerplate salting agreement created by Membership Development.

Oakland said he sees no reason to expect the growth to slow. After growing by 18,000 in four years, his goal is 14,000 more by the September 2016 convention in St. Louis.

"There are a lot of people out there who would be much better off inside the IBEW," Oakland said. "It's ambitious, but we hold ourselves to high standards in the IBEW and we are up for the job."





Historically a measure of construction members, anyone can upgrade to 'A' status and thousands do every year.



The IBEW's next challenge is retaining the members brought in.



What Are the Benefits of
'A' Membership?

There are two main types of membership in the IBEW, 'A' and 'BA.'

The most important difference between the two classifications is that 'A' members participate in the Pension Benefit Fund, the pension plan administered by the IBEW. All IBEW construction branch members are automatically enrolled as 'A' members. Any member can choose to convert their 'BA' membership.

'A' members receive a pension once they meet the PBF pension requirements. For example, if you retire at 65, and you have been an 'A' member continuously for at least the preceding five years, you get $4.50 per year of continuous membership per month.

After three-and-a-half years, retired 'A' members make back everything they put in.

Death Benefit
All active 'A' members for at least six months are covered by a $6,250 benefit for death by natural causes, and $12,500 for accidental deaths, on or off the job. No vesting or years of service are necessary.

The benefit for retirees is different. Retired 'A' members are eligible for a death benefit between $3,000 and $6,250, depending on how much of their pension they have received, but the amount does not go below $3,000.

To be a delegate to the convention with the right to vote on every topic, you have to be an 'A' member.

There is another, less tangible, impact. The International Office can count retired 'A' members and includes them in the membership. When an 'A' member retires from the IBEW, the relationship with the union changes, but it does not end. Those 100,000 'A' members drawing a pension are an important part of the strength of the union.

'A' and 'BA' membership dues are $17 a month. To become an 'A' member is $33 a month, which is $17 membership dues and $16 PBF contribution plus a one-time $2 fee for the PBF.