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October/November 2016

FOCUS: Politics

Political Speakers: Our Strength is People Power

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Retired Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin reminded delegates to the 39th International Convention that while opposing forces usually have more money, they and the rest of the IBEW membership have one important factor in their favor.

It's the truth. And it's their job to spread it.

"We must keep pointing out to the American people," Harkin said, "that it was no coincidence that when America was the most productive, when our economy was the best for everyone, when workers got a better share of the national income, when inequality was the least, when education was good and affordable, and when workers could look forward to a decent retirement, that union membership was at its highest."

Harkin was a longtime friend to working families during his 40 years in Congress. He also has been a friend to the IBEW, so much so that he was named an honorary member before his retirement in 2015.

His words were especially relevant this convention, the first held during a presidential election year since 1996.

With the specter of that — along with important down ballot races and concern over the success right-to-work advocates have had during the last five years — Harkin and other speakers during the convention and Political Caucus on Sept. 16 warned delegates that now is not the time to sit on the sidelines.

Pre-Election Message: Get Involved

All union members and friends need to get involved in the political process, members and delegates were told. Convention delegates passed resolutions encouraging members and local unions to contribute more to the IBEW Political Action Committee, noting the success of pro-labor politicians in last year's federal elections in Canada.

Delegates approved resolutions reconfirming the IBEW's commitment to organizing, noting that four more states had passed right-to-work laws since the 2011 Convention in Vancouver; pledged to defend public sector workers' right to organize; and urged members and local unions to use all political tools made available by the international office and AFL-CIO during this election year.

"In the business I'm in, which is public service, it's never been more important for you to get involved," said Gov. Jay Nixon, whose veto pen has kept Missouri from becoming a right-to-work state, but who is prohibited by state law from running for a third term. "Elections really, really matter."

Former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie told the delegates on Sept. 23 that growing income inequality during the last 30 years has made people increasingly receptive to the union message.

The response to that is greater political activism, he said.

"What you have to bring against the money power is people power," Abercrombie said. "You've got to bring the membership power up against them. You've got to be able to fight. The building trades have got to lead the charge. The word has to go out. The message has to be delivered.

"If you want a job, a good-paying job, you want a union. If you want equal opportunity, you want a union."

Labor Rights Under Siege

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster noted the IBEW's presence in Missouri carried more symbolism than as the IBEW's birthplace on the anniversary of its founding.

"It is also important that you have chosen this community because it is on the frontline this year in the fight for workers' rights in this country," he said.

Right-to-work laws have been passed in recent years in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Republicans have been unsuccessful in doing so in Missouri, even though the GOP has a super-majority in both the state House and Senate.

Right-to-work attacks have also led to attacks on prevailing wage laws. Delegates passed a resolution affirming the IBEW's support for the Davis-Bacon Act, passed in 1931 that guarantees prevailing wage standards will be used on federally-funded projects.

New Jersey Rep. Donald J. Norcross, the only active IBEW member serving in Congress, took it a step further. He urged members during the Political Caucus to run for office themselves.

Norcross said unions in New Jersey have been successful in electing union members to various offices across the state. He served in the state Legislature beginning in 2009.

While he was there, the state's project labor agreement law — which specifies wages and other working conditions for publicly funded construction projects — was strengthened.

"It's different when you're in the room," said Norcross, a journeyman inside wireman and former business agent at Folsom, N.J., Local 351. "When we had an infrastructure where we could talk to each other, that's when things really lit on fire."

Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said unions must continue to reach out to groups that have traditionally been disenfranchised. She said 176,000 people of color have registered to vote in Georgia since 2014, much of that with union help.

"Vote for what you need and your family needs," Abrams said. "Vote for someone that believes in labor."

St. Louis Local 3 member Jacob Hummel, who was recently elected to the Missouri Senate after serving as the state's House minority leader, said if IBEW members vote in greater numbers, candidates supporting policies that aid working families often get elected, especially in down ballot races.

But he quickly noted that in 2010, the Republicans in Missouri secured their super-majority in the state House not because the GOP had more voters than two years earlier. It was because Democrats stayed home, he said.

"They say politics doesn't mix with a lot of things," Hummel said. "Well, too bad. We have to be the ambassadors out there. We have to make sure our way of life is being preserved."

"It's our job to make our friends and family understand what we're fighting for is important," he added.


Retired Iowa Senator Tom Harkin gives a thumbs-up to convention delegates on Sept. 22.


Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon welcomes the IBEW to St. Louis during the opening session on Sept. 19.


Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said the state is at the frontline in the battle for workers' rights.


Former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie said more union activism is needed, when he spoke during the closing session on Sept. 23.