The Electrical Worker online
December 2018

Election 2018:
Union Legwork Helps Strengthen Workers' Voices in Congress, State Government
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As the ballots were counted Nov. 6, IBEW volunteers saw their hard work pay off in vital races around the country — the nights, weekends and lunch hours spent knocking on doors, making phone calls, writing postcards, leafleting job sites and other efforts to ignite voter turnout for pro-worker candidates at all levels of government.

From flipping control of the U.S. House to lawmakers who ran on workers' issues, to electing seven new labor-friendly governors in states where leaders had been on a rampage against unions, to statehouse and local victories, IBEW and fellow union activists played an essential role.

"We have some great victories tonight and reason to celebrate, but I know we have a few disappointments as well," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said in an election night message from Wisconsin, where Democrat Tony Evers defeated Gov. Scott Walker, ending his eight-year reign bulldozing workers' rights.

"Regardless of the final outcome, I want to say thank you!" Stephenson wrote. "We all are associated with the greatest labor union in the world and I am proud of all your work over the last several months."

In addition to Wisconsin, six other governor's offices flipped in workers' favor, with wins by J.B. Pritzker in Illinois; Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan; Steve Sisolak in Nevada; Laura Kelly in Kansas; Janet Mills in Maine; and Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico.

Workers also regained a voice in six state legislative chambers, with the Senate changing hands in Colorado, Maine and New York, the House in Minnesota and both chambers in New Hampshire.

Understanding what was at stake, more IBEW members hit the campaign trail every week as Nov. 6 grew closer.

"They're motivated. They get it," said Sixth District International Vice President David Ruhmkorff, pointing to fallout in parts of his Midwest region from right-to-work and attacks on prevailing wage laws. "They've seen the direct results of how the wrong people in leadership impacts their livelihood, and they're doing something about it."

"It's so important," said Jennifer Wilson, a journeyman inside wireman at San Diego Local 569 who took her sons along on weekend labor walks sponsored by the city's building trades. "The more we get involved, the better chance we have of electing politicians who will have our backs on issues that affect us and our families."

From collective bargaining rights to retirement security, health care and more, "this election could be a three-generation game-changer," said Joshua Fluharty, active volunteer and journeyman inside wireman at Colorado Springs, Colo., Local 113.

"We've got a voice, and now's the time to use it," he said. "The future's at stake, for us, for our kids and for our grandkids."

Knock, Knock

Going door to door can be daunting at first, as any seasoned canvasser will tell you. And, for volunteers who aren't comfortable doing it, there are myriad other ways to lend campaigns a hand.

But when it comes to voter turnout, personal contact is the gold standard. Research over the past 20 years shows it can increase the number of ballots cast by 6 to 12 percent in national elections and up to 14 percent in local elections.

Greg Vogt, registrar for Pittsburgh Local 5, visited IBEW homes in Allegheny County every weekday afternoon for weeks leading to Election Day and took part in larger labor walks on Saturdays.

"Many of our members haven't seen a Local 5 person come to their door before," said Vogt, whose last name is appropriately pronounced "vote." "Maybe they'll get a phone call or see our newsletter, but the actual face-to-face, they'll remember that. And hopefully that translates into them going to the polls."

Together with Local 5 organizer Bill Garner, Vogt had knocked on about 200 doors by mid-October. With one exception, he'd had warm receptions. He even left one retiree's home with a jar of homemade pickles.

"I look forward to talking to our members, finding out a little about how they live and what they do, and if they have any concerns," he said.

Wilson, of Local 569, said she learned to "kill them with kindness" if voters at the door weren't friendly right away.

"I was scared when I first started to do it, fear of confrontation," she said. "But after the second or third door, you'll find that people are more receptive than you imagine. Even when you do get someone disgruntled, a little rude, you just smile and say, 'Have a great day!'"

Her Local 569 brother Roman Villalpando, a third-year apprentice and U.S. Navy veteran, was turned away from a few homes. But when reluctant union members were willing to listen, he told them, "This is important — the candidates who support labor are the ones who help us get jobs and put food on your family's table."

Like almost everyone who canvasses and makes calls for candidates, Villalpando was rebuffed at times by people who mistook his efforts for soliciting and claimed he was breaking the law. Not true.

"The only thing I'm selling is the democratic process, and it's everyone's duty to participate," he said.

Eyes Wide Open

Union leaders saw a clear link between the energy members brought to the 2018 elections and greater understanding of the role that politics plays in everyone's lives.

Not that long ago, recalls Wheeling, W. Va., Local 141 President Doug Giffin, "we'd have one guy stand up at our meetings and give a political report." That changed after 2014, when Republicans took control of the state House and Senate and went on the attack against unions, passing right-to-work and repealing prevailing wage.

"The newly elected officials were taking marching orders from some pretty deep pockets," Giffin said. "We hit back with local campaigns, member education and did radio shows with the Upper Ohio Valley building trades."

Between those fights, the aftermath of the 2016 elections and the way West Virginia teachers galvanized the union movement earlier this year, Giffin said it's not unusual at today's meetings for eight or 10 people to talk about politics.

"With prevailing wage and jobs going away, and right-to-work, they could see that politics does have a big outcome on your ability to earn a living," he said.

In Colorado's El Paso County, Local 113 Treasurer Ken Schauer said he and others knocking on doors saw a sharp shift in union members' focus about a month before Election Day. "It was like one day everyone woke up and educated themselves," he said. "I think the election switch finally got flipped."

In the Sixth District, where members helped elect four new governors and re-elect four U.S. senators, Ruhmkorff said local leaders did an excellent job educating and motivating volunteers, drawing a direct line between their family's economic security and the people in power.

In Illinois, for instance, they saw the Democratic-controlled legislature derail Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's anti-worker agenda — his push for laws to end prevailing wage and enact right-to-work, among other attacks. On Election Day, voters sent Rauner packing and expanded the pro-worker majority in the statehouse.

Amid a flurry of pre-election activity, Ruhmkorff said it was exciting to see IBEW members so motivated and mobilized in his district and beyond.

"A lot of the credit goes to President Stephenson for getting us started earlier," he said. "I think it's paying dividends, being out there in July and August and getting volunteers engaged instead of waiting until after Labor Day."

Stephenson urged IBEW members to focus on how much they accomplished at such a critical moment for America's workers.

"We helped put the brakes on a runaway train that was headed for the economic security of working people and their families," he said. "Everything unions fight for was at stake.

"Now we have to make sure those brakes hold, and that they get stronger with every election. Thanks to the solid foundation we laid leading up to the election and the lessons we learned along the way, we're ready for those battles."


Worker-friendly candidates in Michigan rallied the Sunday before Election Day at Detroit Local 58's hall. Election Day winners pictured include U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, whose campaign shared the photo.


San Diego Local 569 member and active volunteer Jennifer Wilson regularly brought her family along for weekend labor walks. From left: Wilson, sons Christian,13, and Jacob, 17, and her partner, Alexandria.


Sixth District International Representatives Robert Koerschner knocks on doors in Wisconsin.