The Electrical Worker online
June 2018

Legislative Conference Energizes,
Inspires Local Leaders in Critical Election Year
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More than 300 union leaders converged on Capitol Hill in April to talk with lawmakers about issues vital to IBEW members' jobs and economic security, as well as the broader fight for workers' rights.

The lobbying visits capped two days of rousing speeches and workshops at the IBEW's annual Political-Legislative Affairs Conference, where the power of union families to elect worker-friendly candidates in November's midterm elections was the predominant message.

Unions proved it this spring with U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb's win in deep-red southwestern Pennsylvania. "It would never have happened without you," Lamb said, thanking IBEW members. "Week after week, when it was cold outside, snowing, raining, I saw what happened when labor decided that no matter what, it was going to make its voice heard at the ballot box."

In addition to Lamb's seat in Congress, about 40 statehouse seats and even one in the U.S. Senate have flipped from red to blue in special and scheduled elections since November 2016.

"I want you to think back one year," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said in his opening address. "Congress and the courts were in the hands of politicians committed to chipping away every victory won by the labor movement in the 20th century — things like workers' rights, retirement security, health care, and safety regulations."

Lamb's victory "is a wake-up call for every politician," Stephenson said. "We made it loud and clear: If you try stripping away our rights at work; if you try coming after our health care, our pensions; if you try slashing our pay and taking away our voice… then it's your job that's on the line."

What members achieved in an afternoon of lobbying suggests politicians are paying attention. Five days after hearing the IBEW's case against the Tribal Sovereignty Act, senators voted it down. The bill, passed by the House earlier this year, would have exempted businesses owned and run by Native American tribes from federal labor law.

Members argued that it was a thinly veiled attack on unions and collective bargaining rights that would hurt thousands of workers at casinos, power plants, saw mills, construction companies, hotels, mines and other tribal employers. (See story, Move to Weaken Workers' Rights Fails in Senate, in this issue.)

"We won the tribal sovereignty vote in large part due to the flood of members we sent to the Senate side of the Hill," said Austin Keyser, director of the Political and Legislative Affairs Department, which put on the conference. "It demonstrates how our concentrated efforts can change the lives of working people for the better, and why we need to keep building on them."

IBEW leaders stressed that the union's support goes to candidates who stand with labor and working people, whether they are Democrats or Republicans.

"We say to every candidate for higher office — I don't care if it's the local water board or school board or the United States Senate — that if they want our vote, if they want our support, then they must be loud and clear in their support of the fundamental and inalienable right of working people to come together in unions," International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper said.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a freshman Republican from suburban Philadelphia, told members that he wants to be the "voice that gets us to where being pro-labor and supporting the working class is never a partisan issue."

A member of the House's bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Fitzpatrick has bucked GOP leadership several times, including voting against repealing Obamacare. "A movement can't depend on one-party support," he said. "It has to be based on organic support based on the justness of the cause and include as many diverse groups as possible."

A growing number of IBEW members are throwing their hats in the ring, running for city councils, school boards, statehouses and even Congress. They include Baltimore Local 24 member Cory McCray, who was elected to Maryland's House of Delegates in 2014 and now is running for state Senate.

McCray, a strong advocate for apprenticeship programs, has fought to expand prevailing wage and for a law making general contractors liable for subcontractors who fail to pay workers. "If not us, then who?" he asked his audience. "Who is better to tell our story than the IBEW?"

While not a union member himself, a blunt-spoken West Virginia state legislator made clear his respect for labor. Richard Ojeda, a retired U.S. Army major who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, grew up seeing the coal industry mistreating miners while the Mine Workers fought for them. "It's always been the unions that stood with the people," he said.

He urged members to get active in campaigns, register voters and make sure friends and family vote even if it means driving them to the polls. "I'm not a polished guy. I'm not a polished politician," Ojeda said. "I got into this because I got tired of it, and that's how you have to be."

Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio delivered a fiery speech condemning partisan tactics that divide the middle class and divert focus from issues that directly affect their lives, such as retirement security.

"We've got to put an agenda forward that says if you work hard for 35 years, you're never going to lose your damn pension," Ryan said.

Without naming names, he criticized "slippery politicians" for promising to open shuttered coal mines and steel mills, then passing a tax reform bill that heavily favors high-income earners.

"We've got work to do and it starts in this election," said Ryan. "It starts with you and every single town you come from. We have an opportunity to win with candidates that will vote with you and in districts we haven't won in a generation.

"I will tell you right now: If we're going to move this country forward, it will be led by the union movement of the United States of America."


U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan delivers a fiery pro-worker speech at April's conference.