The Electrical Worker online
October/November 2016

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson's
Keynote Address

index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

Delegates to this convention, Brothers and Sisters, all those who share our commitment to make a better nation and a better world for working men and women.

Thank you for this opportunity to serve you, to lead the greatest labor union in North America.

As I mentioned earlier today, 25 years ago I was here in St. Louis as a delegate to our 34th International Convention, celebrating our 100th anniversary. I was president of my local back then. And I couldn't have ever imagined standing up here today as your International President.

Honoring me by electing me as president of the IBEW is truly humbling. To stand in the shoes of people like Henry Miller, Charles Pillard, J.J. Barry, and Ed Hill. It's one of the greatest moments of my life. Thank you.

The first thing I learned as a young apprentice so many years ago was that the IBEW has never been about "I". It's about us.

There are no lone wolves in this union. Everything we do, from the work site to the union hall. It's all a team effort.

And I couldn't do what I do without my team in D.C.

First off, let me thank my support staff Jenny Smith and Christine Jordan, who work very hard to make sure my and Sam's office work smoothly and professionally.

And I want to thank my executive assistants, Brian Baker and Sherilyn Wright. When I first came on as your president, there was a big learning curve to get up to speed. They have been absolutely invaluable to the operations of the union. They know it inside and out. And their dedication to the IBEW is unquestionable and I thank them for everything they do every day.

I also want to thank the best working partner I could ask for: Sam Chilia. He deals with some of the toughest portfolios at the I.O. But his record of leadership and success is impeccable. I look forward to continuing to work with him.

Let me thank someone else: you. The business managers and local union staff, presidents and officers, organizers and stewards and our rank and file members. Because our strength and our power derives not from an office in Washington, D.C., but from our members across our two great nations.

We might come from different industries and different districts. Here today, we've got delegates who represent wiremen working the skyscrapers of Manhattan and delegates who represent linemen working in the wilderness of Alaska.

We've got delegates who represent workers in the rail yards of North Platt, Nebraska. And delegates who represent workers that help keep the lights on in Hollywood.

We've got delegates who represent TV cameramen right here in St. Louis. And delegates who represent the workers who keep the phone lines running in New England.

We've got delegates who represent coal power plant workers in Illinois. And we've got delegates who represent hydro-dam workers in British Columbia.

We are a diverse union. And we all face unique challenges. But we're united in one cause.

Because there isn't a construction IBEW. Or a utility IBEW. There isn't a telecommunications IBEW or a railroad, government or broadcast IBEW. There is one IBEW.

And we are committed to keep fighting for dignity, for justice and for solidarity among all working people.

We gather here in the great union city of St. Louis to honor our founding. It was 125 years ago this year that 10 linemen gathered in Henry Miller's small boardinghouse to make history. Only just a mile or so from here.

That building still stands. Many of you have gotten the chance to see it. I want to thank the hard work of Local 1, and everyone across the IBEW who contributed to turn this once abandoned building into something that truly honors the memory of our first president and all those men who were there for that historic meeting back in 1891.

It is with great pride that we have two additional items that will be exhibited at the museum. We have received two flags.

The first is an American flag that was flown over the United States Capitol. The inscription reads, "This is to certify that the accompanying flag was flown over the United States Capitol on August 24, 2016 at the request of the Honorable Steve Cohen, member of Congress, this flag was flown for Lonnie Stephenson, President of the IBEW."

The second item is a Canadian flag with the inscription, "The Henry Miller Museum. In honor of the 125th anniversary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers founding, please accept this Canadian flag, which was flown at the East Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 8, 2016. The Honorable Judy M. Foote, Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Receiver General for Canada."

It shows how far we've come and how much respect we've earned in the last 125 years.

Let me say that in the case of Canada, it usually takes about 60 years to get a flag that flew over Parliament Hill.

But this time the Canadian government rushed to get us their flag for the Henry Miller museum. That's respect, brothers and sisters, and I thank them for it.

So if you haven't already, I strongly encourage you to check it out before this week is through.

For those who have visited it, take a moment to imagine what that first convention must have been like.

There weren't thousands of delegates. Just 10. There were no big CEOs in attendance. There weren't any governors or senators. Or presidents or prime ministers wishing us well.

Just 10 linemen. And a vision. A vision of a national union of electrical workers — united together and speaking with one voice. Fighting for one goal: to raise the moral, intellectual and social conditions of our members and their families. Only a few years later, that vision spread north to Canada.

They didn't have many members. They didn't have much money in the bank. They didn't even have a real office.

But those pioneers tapped into a resource that has nourished this union throughout our history. The blood, sweat and tears of our activists. Activists who gave their time and energy to organize new workers. To build new relationships. To spread the good word about the IBEW and how we could give a voice to working families.

They didn't do it for a paycheck. There were a lot easier ways to make a living. In fact, they sacrificed a lot to build the IBEW.

Just take a moment to imagine the challenges they faced. This was a world without labor law — where unions were functionally illegal in the government's eyes. A world without safety rules. A world without any kind of regulation. A world where whispering the word "union" was enough to get you run out of the industry for good. Or worse.

But in the years and decades to come — the IBEW grew. Through recessions and boom years alike. Through two world wars. Through massive economic, social and political revolutions that changed the face of our two nations.

And that vision born here in 1891 has been renewed by subsequent generations of new members.

Just look at what we've done. Our brothers and sisters help build North America's greatest architectural marvels: the Gateway Arch, the Hoover Dam, the CN Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge, among the many.

We helped build the World Trade Center. And some of our members gave their lives when it was brought down. And when it came time to rebuild it — our brothers and sisters were some of the first to sign up.

We helped land a man on the moon. And we helped broadcast it to the world as well. We laid the phone lines and the powerlines that connect our two nations from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

And today we're connecting our two nations to the power of the sun and wind. And building the infrastructure that is making North America energy independent for the first time in decades.

And we helped lay the foundation for the middle class. By fighting for good wages, decent health-care and a secure retirement, we brought millions of working people — didn't matter if they worked with a pair of Kleins, labored on a factory line or carried a camera — into the ranks of the middle class.

And by doing so we opened up opportunities for their children to pursue their dreams — dreams their parents might have never imagined possible.

So we've enjoyed many victories along the way. And some defeats as well. Today, even with the setbacks to organized labor over the last couple decades, the IBEW stands strong.

We just have to look around this hall to see that's the case. We've got members in every state and every province across North America, not to mention Guam, Puerto Rico and Panama. We're known and respected by the leaders of some of the biggest corporations.

We've got members on city councils, in state houses and even in Congress and Parliament.

Just look at our speakers list and you'll see the respect we've earned from political, business and labor leaders.

But we're not here to pat ourselves on the back. To be satisfied with past victories. We're here to learn the lessons of the past to equip us to face the challenges of the future.

We're here to take a very close and honest look at what works and what doesn't when it comes to building the IBEW. Because let me be clear: our future is at stake.

I'm always struck when talking to our members about how many of them are second, third, or even fourth generation IBEW.

Whether you're fourth-generation IBEW or first-generation like me, everyone here today is the product of the sacrifices made by our forefathers and mothers to build our great union.

They didn't take the easy road. They made the tough decisions and took the barbs of sideline critics for it. They sacrificed so much so we could enjoy the blessings of this union.

My question to you is this. What will you do — both here today and over the next five years — to guarantee that those opportunities will be there for the next generation of IBEW members?

Because it is the choices we make here in St. Louis — every one of us — that will determine whether this union will be around for another 125 years.

Let's look at the choices we made at our last convention. Just think back to 2011. Memories of the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression were still fresh in our minds. I remember it well. I remember sitting in Vancouver — knowing that back home in the Sixth District too many of my brothers and sisters were waiting by the phone. Hoping to get that call for work. I sat in Vancouver dreading the news about the latest round of layoffs or a plant shutdown.

Things had been looking good before then. Many of the programs and initiatives that came out of the 2006 convention — like our rejuvenated membership development program — had been bearing fruit and producing results.

But the economic crash put it all at risk. Unemployment in construction was running double-digits. Factory after factory was shutting down. Hiring was practically frozen.

Now we could have battened down the hatches. Said forget about organizing, forget about jobs fairs, forget about outreach.

I'm sure you heard it many times: "Why the hell are we bringing in new members when I can't get a job?"

I've been out of work before. I understand the frustration, the anger. But we didn't change course.

That's because we knew what didn't work. When we put up walls to repel people. When we act more like a college frat than a trade union.

That's a recipe for decline, defeat and our eventual destruction. You might as well put up a sign to the world that says: "Sorry, we're closed."

Instead our delegates doubled down on membership development, rededicating ourselves to those programs started back in 2006.

We invested even more resources into our membership development department — from hiring new organizers to developing online tools that help our locals find new members and new shops. We recommitted ourselves to alternative classifications that proved so successful in getting us work and growing our ranks.

And we unanimously voted to support a new business development program so we could go after not only new members, but new work.

We believed what Henry Miller did: that organizing truly was the lifeblood of this union.

And thank goodness we did so. Let me run through the membership numbers since 2011. On the "A" side, we've added 133,000 new members. They come from new apprenticeships, as well as new members we've organized.

On the "BA" side, we've added more than 120,000 new members. Some of those came through existing collective bargaining agreements and many through increased internal and external organizing.

Altogether, that's an increase of 253,000 members. Fantastic.

However, due to retirements, deaths and dropped members, we've lost 250,000 members over that same time period. That's why I'm so thankful for the decisions we made in Vancouver, because today, in total, we've made a net gain of 2,342 members since 2011.

Members like Frank Drakeford. Frank works for the public works department in the city of Ocala, Florida. Now Ocala is a real conservative town — not much in the way of unions at all.

But Frank and more than 400 of his co-workers were fed up. Fed up about not having a raise in six years. Fed up with cut after cut to their retirement benefits. Fed up with having their opinions ignored and feeling like they didn't have a voice.

We had been in contact with city employees about joining the IBEW in the past. But what sealed the deal with many of them was seeing our commercial during the NFL playoffs. Soon after they voted 2 to 1 to join Local 1205.

Now says Frank: "Tomorrow looks very bright. We're in for better times."

I couldn't agree more. We're rebuilding our market share that was lost during the recession.

Satellite installers. Tree-trimmers. Broadcast professionals. Wind-turbine workers. They've all found a home in the IBEW because of our actions.

We're still very far from where we need to be. But after years of playing defense, of just trying to stop the bleeding — we are finally positioned for real success.

So this isn't time to let up. We still face enormous challenges. The biggest is keeping up with attrition. First off, more than 100,000 "A" members will be retiring in the next 10 years.

That's a huge chunk of our workforce.

And while we've done a bang up job with P and I organizing, as I said earlier, it's barely keeping up with the members we're losing because of retirements and deaths, not to mention plant shutdowns and offshoring of jobs.

Retention continues to be a particular challenge. We can recruit them — but in many ways keeping them is proving to be the hardest part.

And think about this. The construction industry is pretty much running on full blast right now. But if we're still only doing 30 percent of the work — that means our competition is growing because they're doing about 70 percent of it.

And that's creating even more competition for our contractors. We're even seeing it in solid union cities like New York and Boston. We can't expand market share if we don't expand our membership.

So unless we double down on our commitment to organizing here at this convention. Unless we commit even more resources and time to membership development — then all those gains we've made will be gone sooner than you think.

When you're on the right road, that's not the time to put on the brakes. It's time to put your foot on the gas.

But it won't happen without you. Without the commitment of every single IBEW member to organizing. Not just as another thing we do, but as something central to our daily activities.

We've got a great membership development team — both at the I.O. and in the field. They do so much and work very hard. But what they can't do is organize for you.

The job of knowing your community, knowing the companies, knowing the industries in your area — only you can do that.

With all the time we spend staring at screens these days, it's easy to forget the most effective communication is still done face-to-face. That's how our founders built this union. And that's how we are going to keep growing in the years ahead.

That's why I need every business manager, every president and secretary, every staffer and yes, every member, to adopt an organizing mindset. Organizing isn't something we do some of the time. We must be thinking about it all the time.

And that means talking to people in your area. Building relationships with workers and contractors. Organizing a workplace isn't something you do overnight. It takes months, sometimes years to make it happen.

Just ask some of our brothers and sisters in upstate New York. Recently three of our locals up there worked together to organize a 40-person contractor. It was an especially sweet victory because it took them 10 years to do it.

It took a lot of convincing and a lot of conversations. But in the end, their patience paid off. They added another employer and a talented group of electricians to the IBEW.

It was a long process sure. But as has been said before, organizing isn't a sprint. It's a marathon. And it will take every one of us to make it happen.

While I'm on organizing, I want to talk about something closely related. Something vital to the future of this union. I'm talking about making sure the faces of the IBEW look like the faces of our two nations.

Both the United States and Canada are more diverse and multicultural than ever before. And so are the industries we represent.

Every year, we see more women and more people of color working in our branches. Now sometimes when I start talking about diversity, peoples' eyes glass over. Well let me tell you. It's time to listen up.

Because I'm not trying to shove political correctness down your throats. I'm reminding you of your fundamental mission as trade unionists. To represent, to fight for all working people.

Because if we don't look like today's workforce. If we aren't out organizing every community, color and gender — then we'll face major challenges ahead.

And it's not enough to just say, I would never discriminate against anyone because of their color or sex. I'm sure you wouldn't. But it's going to take more than that. It's going to take proactive outreach on our part to communities underrepresented in our ranks. It's going to take us encouraging new leaders and new activists to take the lead.

And that requires us giving full support to our activists who have worked so hard to break down barriers and open the doors of opportunity for new members and new communities.

People like Jeri Porter. Always interested in construction, as a kid Jeri preferred erector sets to dolls.

But back then — this was the 1970s — women just didn't go into construction. But while still in college, and with money running low, she didn't care what other people said. She decided it was a good time as any to pursue her dream. So she signed up as an apprentice with the IBEW in Washington state.

She was the first woman electrician in her jurisdiction. And some of her co-workers weren't happy about it. She faced dirty looks, muttered insults. One time, when she was named foreman on a project, her workers — all men — walked off the job in protest.

But it didn't slow her down. It didn't stop her from striving to be her best — and from being the best damn IBEW member she could be.

Today there are a lot more women working in the electrical trades in Washington compared to when she first started.

And you won't find many of them who weren't inspired by Jeri's example, who looked up to her as a role model and a mentor. As she told the Electrical Worker: the only limitations we have are the ones we put on ourselves.

We're a stronger union because of people like Jeri.

That's why I'm asking you to give your full support to groups like the Electrical Workers' Minority Caucus and our Women's Caucus.

In nearly every endeavor of this union — political action, organizing, community service — they are always there, out front and doing the hard work.

I also need your support for another important initiative: RENEW here in the U.S. and NextGen in Canada. RENEW was born when 48 youth delegates were brought together at our last convention. Since then, RENEW and NextGen committees have formed in every single district. We have a RENEW/NextGen steering committee that regularly meets and plans activities. Most importantly: it's run exclusively by young workers, for young workers.

As you know, the baby boom generation which has run this union for so many years is on its way out the door.

We need to be ready. We need to make sure that the up and coming generation is ready to take the reins when we're gone.

I've been deeply impressed by the young people I've met in RENEW and NextGen. By their understanding that the true power of the union comes from its membership. By their willingness give something back to this union. By their stepping up and saying: what can I do to grow the IBEW?

I remain fully committed to supporting RENEW and NextGen. But they need your support as well. Believe me, there are young activists in your local who want to get involved. Want to do something more than just collect a paycheck and come to meetings once in a while.

But they need your support. They need your commitment to mentor them, teach them the ropes.

Everyone here today. At one point in our careers, someone took us under their wing. Because someone saw something in us, saw that we could make a real contribution. So please, let's return the favor to the next generation of the IBEW.

Now here was another choice we made at the last convention, to recommit our support for the Code of Excellence.

If you've heard me speak recently, you know I like to talk about the Code of Excellence. A lot. Here's why. For me the code isn't just a piece of paper. Or a PR scheme.

It sums up our entire philosophy as a union. It isn't just about doing your job the right way or showing up to work on time. You're supposed to do that anyway.

No, the Code embodies a whole approach: how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us.

It reminds us that we are the best in our industry. That we are true professionals — whether you are wiring a building, assembling transformers or filming a TV show.

And it says that we as a country work best when employers and employees take the high road.

We work best when both sides promise to honor and respect each other. We work best when employers invest in their workers, when they see organized labor not as an adversary, but as a partner.

As you know, that attitude is lacking in many corporate boardrooms and on Wall Street these days.

But we've made a few believers over the last five years. Like the Intel Corporation, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of computer chips.

When it came time for a massive multi-billion dollar expansion of one of its facilities in Oregon, they couldn't afford to cut corners. As Jill Eiland, head of corporate affairs told us, "We have very high standards at Intel. We want partners who will deliver that same kind of exemplary work product."

So when they heard about our Code of Excellence, they found the partners they were looking for. So the Code isn't just about saying we're the best, although we are. It says we want to be partners in getting the job done right, whether it's at a construction site, a lighting plant or a TV studio.

And that's why the Code is at the core of our business development efforts, which we launched five years ago for our construction branch. We get work when we convince the customer that we are a worthwhile investment.

In today's construction market, they have a lot of choices. We can't just say it — we need to show it. The Code is written proof of our commitment to do the best job every day, to work safely and to always remain at the top of our field.

Ask anyone who sat in a meeting with a big customer and they'll tell you. The Code is one of our biggest selling points.

Today I'm proud to report that the Code is at work in every branch and in every district. But now I'm challenging you to take it to the next level.

In the coming year you're going hear a lot about a core training program launched by our branch departments and our Education Department. It's not a new Code — instead it's a recommitment to our core values of excellence. And we've identified those core values as SPARQ. That's spark with a q at the end.

Here's what that stands for: safety, professionalism, accountability, relationships and quality. This core is about standardizing our code training across the IBEW. Right now being code-certified in one local might mean something different in another.

What we want is to make sure that no matter where you are or where you are working — every member shares the same values of excellence.

That's because we want our contractors and customers to know. Regardless of what part of the country you're in or where our workers come from, they can be confident knowing that anyone they hire with an IBEW Code of Excellence card in their pocket — they know what our commitment to excellence is all about. And we will be held accountable to it.

Of course each branch and each local will have their own specialized needs for their specific Code of Excellence program. Needs that go above and beyond the basic core curriculum. You'll still have the freedom to customize and add more to the training as you see fit.

But a core program based on our SPARQ values means we are all speaking the same language so to speak.

We all share the same message of excellence in safety, quality, professionalism, accountability, relationships and quality.

Our great staffers with our Education Department will be helping you every step of the way. So look for it. Because our job at the I.O. is to make your jobs easier, not harder.

This brings me to another important part of the Code. I'm talking about accountability. When something goes wrong at a worksite or company we represent. That doesn't look bad just for you. It looks bad for the entire IBEW.

Every member going to work each day isn't just representing himself. They are representing this union past, present and future.

Now the Code is a two-way street. We demand as much from our employers as we do from ourselves. The Code is not a license to chip away at all the gains we made at the bargaining table over the years. If sacrifices have to be made, we'll make them — as long as management shares in the sacrifice as well. But what we won't do is turn back the clock on all our achievements, achievements that make IBEW jobs good jobs. Because the Code is about always moving forward — not backwards.

You know this is bigger than just us. As we all know, the attitude among many in the corporate world is this: make money for the shareholders first and foremost and skimp on everything else.

In other words, short-term profits should trump long-term prosperity.

On Wall Street, the idea that corporations should invest in their workers or that they aren't just another cost, but partners in production, is totally alien.

Oh and of course, the idea that unions are always bad news, bad for business, is a given.

With the Code, we're proving in practice that yes, union and management can take the high road, that a commitment to good jobs and good workplaces isn't at odds with running a profitable company. In fact, we can make your company better.

To be clear, this isn't a top-down process. The Code isn't a piece of paper from the I.O. It's fundamentally about empowering our members. About giving them the power to make our jobs, our communities, our union a better place.

Because in the end, we are a union of members — and it's those members who will make the Code work.

The late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone once said: "If we don't fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don't really stand for them."

This is the question I ask myself every day. Am I doing enough, am I fighting hard enough for this union that has done so much for me and my family?

It's a question I put to you as well. And it's a question I want you to put to your members. Because this is your union. It has changed your life, it has changed your family's life for the better.

But we're not putting in the time just for ourselves. You're not sitting at another meeting when everyone else is home with their family for a few extra bucks. You're not driving halfway across the state for the third time this week for selfish reasons. You're not standing up in the front of the hall talking about making hard decisions and then getting burned by Monday morning quarterbacks because you think it will get you ahead. You'll be doing pretty well no matter what decisions we make here.

The truth is, you could call it quits when you get home and you'll do OK. But you won't do that, because you know this union is bigger than you. Bigger than everyone sitting here today.

This isn't about us. It's about the members to come. It's about the legacy we'll leave to future generations of working people.

We celebrate with pride that first meeting here in St. Louis 125 years ago because of the legacy they left. A legacy we're all products of.

What we're deciding here today — and the actions we take over the next five years — is whether future generations will look back at this convention and say. "They rose to the challenge. Because of them, I'm blessed to be a member of this great brotherhood. Because of them, I had an opportunity to make something of my life. Because of them, me and my family are proud members of the middle class. Because of them, I am blessed to belong to the greatest union in the world, the IBEW."

Believe me, I have full faith in every one of you that you will do what needs to be done.

Standing at Henry Miller's boardinghouse, I could feel the passion, the flame of solidarity that burned so brightly 125 years ago here in St. Louis. And I can feel it here today: stronger, more powerful than ever.

It is up to every man and woman in this hall to write that next chapter of our history.

Now let's get to work. Thank you, Brothers and Sisters. God bless you and God bless the IBEW.







International President Lonnie R. Stephenson was unanimously elected to his first five-year term, becoming the 18th elected president of the IBEW.