The Electrical Worker online
October/November 2016

Who We Are
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to
The IBEW Saved His Life, Now He Saves Others'

Five years ago, Charles Slay was 'Little Man', a convicted murderer finishing a 27-year stretch in prison.

In five years Slay will be an IBEW journeyman wireman in Los Angeles Local 11, a homeowner, a provider for his family and a peacemaker in Crenshaw, the troubled South-LA neighborhood he calls home.

In between, Slay met Los Angeles Local 11 member John 'Big John' Harriel through the weekly classes he teaches at 2nd CALL. Slay said 2nd CALL and Big John have transformed his life.

"There were a lot of adjustments I had to do to mentally get back on track," Slay said. "Everything moved so fast and I was moving slow. I was relating to society in prison terms. I was looking for something. I was ready to take off my sharp edges but I had no definitions to put to it and I knew something was wrong."

2nd CALL (Second Chance At Loving Life) is a community-based nonprofit serving at-risk and proven-risk residents of South Los Angeles, Compton, Watts and Inglewood, neighborhoods that have been struggling under the weight of poverty and gang violence for decades.

It was founded by Skipp Townsend and Kenny Smith 10 years ago to intervene in gang conflicts and teach life skills and career classes to people who no one else would help. In 2008, Johnson met Harriel, who had been bringing young men and women into the trades on his own.

"Big John had been helping people into the IBEW for years but he didn't have a platform. We did life skills classes, not to make them better employees but to make them better people," Townsend said. "With John, we focus on getting people into the trades and he is the best that there is at that."

Just before Harriel connected with 2nd CALL, he was the focus of a story in the IBEW Journal ("The IBEW Saved My Life," March-April 2007) that chronicled his path from federal prison to project foreman.

Soon after that story, Harriel shifted from saving his own life through the power of a union career to transforming the lives of others by bringing them into the trades.

"We are not out for jobs. This is about independence and careers," Harriel said.

But to be valuable to contractors, the aspiring journeymen had work to do. The combination of Harriel's character and commitment and 2nd CALL's curriculum of life-skills and anger management was like rich soil. Harriel took over the Thursday night meetings that changed Charles Slay's life and the lives of nearly 400 other men and women who have become members of Los Angeles trades unions, including plumbers, carpenters and electricians.

"If you follow the guidelines of what it means to love yourself and then get people into a meaningful path of work, it will change lives," Harriel said. "We had to get rid of the obstacles facing these young men and women and the biggest was how to deal with emotions, and to talk about anger and depression."

The class works, both Harriel and Slay said, because it focuses on job skills, but also the negative emotions and old life patterns that can get in the way. Everyone speaks in first person. No one gives advice or tells anyone else what they should do.

"2nd CALL teaches us how to get the emotions out of it and just focus on the facts in front of you," Slay said.

We learn, Harriel said, from all of our struggles. And out of that come not just good workers, but better people whose future is not dictated by their past.

"I had never entertained the idea of being an electrician. I thought I was too old. No one will give me a chance," Slay said. When he first came to 2nd CALL he was working for minimum wage as a laborer at the Port of Los Angeles, as a part-time gang intervention counselor and as security for night clubs.

Harriel told Slay what he had to do to get in, but that it was up to Slay to do the work.

Slay said he was skeptical, that prison had made him defensive when people told him what to do. Even if it was good advice, he said, he wouldn't hear it.

Harriel's classes demand a kind of radical honesty, even vulnerability that can be unfamiliar and confrontational.

"But you are emotionally and physically safe in our meetings," Harriel said. "What makes it easy is that I come from it. I walked this path and I am still working the job every day."

The benefit for the new apprentices and journeymen is obvious, but Local 11 wins too, said Apprenticeship Coordinator Eric Brown. If the mission is to organize everyone in the electrical industry, and it is, then, Brown said, the IBEW needs to see all people as potential brothers and sisters.

"I see our apprentices and when you look at them it looks like nowhere but Los Angeles. We are proud of that and, more importantly, it has made us stronger," said Brown. "Big John has turned into one of our most productive members and he has used the opportunity to reach back. He is living proof that the IBEW not only transforms individual lives, it can change the lives of hundreds of people."


Los Angeles Local 11 member John Harriel has helped hundreds of at-risk and proven-risk men and women become successful union trades workers.