|Record Snow Turns Out Calif. Lights;|
IBEW Turns Them Back On
With winter comes snowstorms, and with normal snowstorms come power outages and emergency work for tens of thousands of IBEW lineworkers. Even a few inches of snow and ice can knock out power for hundreds of thousands of people.
Lake Tahoe, Calif., received more than 23 feet of snowfall in January.
Three feet fell in a single day. Since the ski season began in November, resorts ringing the azure blue lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains have received more than 30 feet of snow.
For skiers who could get there, the snow was almost miraculous, a story they will long remember. For the members of Vacaville Local 1245 responsible for maintaining PG&E, Nevada Energy and Liberty Energy's power grids, the memories won't be of endless runs on downy powder.
January was the month snowdrifts the size of buildings couldn't keep the power off in the Sierra Nevadas.
"It felt like we got nine years of snow in three weeks," said Local 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell. "We have plenty of members with 30 years on the job and none of them could recall so much snow in such a short time."
There were tens of thousands of outages in the Lake Tahoe valley, but the storms didn't just hit the Sierra Nevadas. At lower elevations, from the Bay Area to the foothills east of Sacramento, all that snow fell as rain, and high winds knocked down thousands more poles.
"There was a sea of outages from the coast out past the mountains," Dalzell said. "We probably had more than 1,000 IBEW members involved. We had our utility members of course, but it was way more than they could handle and hundreds of contractor linemen were brought in too. They were in trucks, snowcats, on snowshoes, and in helicopters but we also had clerical, warehouse, supply and maintenance people supporting them."
Dalzell said the outages outside the mountains were repaired within "minutes to hours" but in the Sierras and Lake Tahoe, it was a different story.
"If we could get to you, it was fast. But if you lived up in the mountains, and it was hard to get to you because of road blockages, downed trees or snowdrifts, it could be days. In the mountains near Calaveras, they used snowcats (specialized trucks designed to move on snow) and snowshoes.
Liberty called more than a dozen Local 1245 line crews from Par Electric, Titan, and Summit Line to get the power back on.
"This is probably the worst snowstorm I've seen in a long while," Par Electric crew foreman Dan Michael told Local 1245's Utility Reporter. "The biggest challenge here is definitely access. We're on snowshoes and using snowcats, and they're bringing in some helicopters for some of the poles we need to set."
Michael and his crew were faced with trees on the line and a downed primary and had to rebuild the poles and change out several transformers before turning the power back on.
"I'm a third generation lineman, so I'm a pretty strong IBEW member," Michael said. "My grandfather was in the union back in the late 1890s. My dad retired with over 40 years of service. I'm at 30 years myself. The retirement, the benefits and the quality of life are what I like most about [the union]."
Looking to the Past for the Future of Organizing
With new advocacy groups popping up all over the internet and worldwide marches starting on Facebook, it may seem old-fashioned to think that organizing lessons can be found in a book about someone born at the beginning of the last century.
"America's Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century" by Gabriel Thompson teaches us that even stories rooted in decades past have lessons that still hold true today.
"He was the greatest community organizer who ever lived," said Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell, who worked with Ross during the '60s and '70s when they were organizers for the United Farm Workers. He also hired Ross' son, Fred Jr., in 2009 to lead the organizing program at Local 1245.
Described by Thompson as one of the most influential community organizers in American history, Ross trained thousands of organizers, some of whom — like his son — have gone on to train even more. Among his lessons was the home visit as a form of organizing, which he pioneered.
"As my father knew very well, technology is a tool to accelerate organizing, not a replacement for it," said Ross Jr. "He valued relationship building and listening. It's easy to move fast and not spend enough time having conversations, but that's where the stories are."
Born in 1910, the elder Ross got his start during the '30s in rural California. He covered the same terrain as folk singer Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, who was then gathering information for his book, "The Grapes of Wrath," about Depression-era tenant farmers.
During Ross Sr.'s five decades of organizing, he created a list of principles, the "Axioms for Organizers." An axiom is something widely accepted to be true. A selection is included in the appendix for "America's Social Arsonist," the title of which is taken from the axiom, "A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire."
"Those axioms still apply today," said Carmella Thomas, IBEW's director of professional and industrial organizing. "Different time, different era. Same issues."
One of the axioms, "an organizer is a leader who doesn't lead but gets behind the people and pushes," was a guiding principle during the January win at utility company BGE in Maryland that created a new local, Baltimore Local 410, with more than 1,400 members.
"We were clear from the start. We were not organizing them. It was their campaign and we would do everything we could, throw everything we had, at supporting them. But they had to do it," said Fourth District International Vice President Kenny Cooper.
Ross Sr. wrote that "Good organizers never give up — they get the opposition to do that." At Electrolux, a manufacturing plant in Tennessee, the organizing team lost its first campaign by 59 votes. But they came back 16 months later — and won, bringing hundreds of new members into Memphis Local 474.
"We put our heart and soul into it, every one of us," said Ricky Oakland, special assistant to the international president for membership development.
Ross Jr. said he hopes that readers are inspired by the people who aren't the focus, the rank-and-file, which is likely what his father would want too. Even students who went on to become prominent leaders in their own right recalled the respect Ross had for everyone he worked with.
"I watched him at first very closely for the signs of paternalism and superiority. Never ever did I see those signs in Fred. He never looked down on us," said Cesar Chavez, former student and legendary leader of the United Farm Workers, when he attended Ross' memorial in 1992.
Respect and hope are requirements for this type of work. So is a belief that change is possible, no matter how long it takes. As Ross told Chavez when he asked him how long a project was going to last, "I had to tell him. I said, It's going to last forever."
"Even after a campaign ends, it doesn't end," said Thomas. "Not everyone out there's union. Maybe that's when we stop."
RENEW Gets Political in Iowa
February was a devastating month for unions in Iowa. Following November election wins in the House and Senate, Republicans, already in control of the governor's office, commanded the entirety of the state's legislative process for the first time in two decades. And they wasted no time in coming after unions.
One of the first pieces of legislation introduced was a bill taking away public employees' rights to negotiate with the state. Similar to Wisconsin's Act 10, passed under Gov. Scott Walker in 2010, the measure will likely have catastrophic results for public sector unions, whose numbers declined by more than 130,000 after the law took effect.
But young members in Iowa are ready to fight. Jeff Cooling, 29, a Cedar Rapids Local 405 journeyman wireman, led a delegation of young members to the state AFL-CIO's political and legislative conference and followed it up with a day of lobbying members of the state legislature in Des Moines.
"That very day, they announced the bargaining bill," Cooling said. It was Tuesday, Feb. 7, and on Sunday, he went back with his wife to rally with working people on the statehouse steps. On Monday, Cooling made the two-hour trip for the third time that week, and when he arrived, he was asked to address a group of pro-labor leaders speaking out before the bill's public hearing.
"I stand in solidarity with my sisters and brothers in the public sector today because an injury to one is an injury to all. My neighbor, who has two boys, works for the City of Marion and is at risk of losing security and stability for his family. The state Legislature is trying to take away collective bargaining from state and local government working people and that's just wrong."
The collective bargaining issue has woken a lot of people up, Cooling said. Labor is on its heels in states like Iowa, where project labor agreements are next on the GOP's chopping block.
"We all hear that elections have consequences," he said. "What we bargain with our employers can be taken away by lawmakers who only want to destroy unions." All members, he said, but especially young ones, need to be involved in fighting back. "Whether you like politics or not, it's important, and it's important that we get involved at all levels of government."
Even on losing efforts like the collective bargaining issue, showing up makes a difference, said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "Getting active in politics is no longer a choice in the times we're living in, and we're proud to see our young members helping to lead the fight for working people across the country."