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January 2019

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Remembering IBEW 'Visionary' Ed Hill

International President Emeritus Edwin D. Hill, a transformative trade unionist who modernized and shepherded his beloved IBEW through one of the deepest and most painful recessions in history, died Dec. 1. He was 81.

"The labor movement has lost one of its great visionaries and leaders," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, who succeeded Hill upon his retirement in 2015. "We join with President Hill's friends and family in mourning his loss.

"But while this is a moment of great sadness, we draw inspiration and joy from President Hill's nearly six decades of service to working families and the union that was the cause of his life: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers."

Under Hill's leadership, the IBEW held fast to its history and traditions while making key changes to modernize and preserve the Brotherhood's influence as one of North America's most powerful voices for working people.

Key to that influence was Hill's core belief that everything comes from organizing. When he ascended to the office of international president in 2001, he wrote:

"Some leaders in Washington revel in hobnobbing with the powerful. I recognize the importance of a strong presence in the halls of power, but I know that any power we wield comes from our strength in numbers and our solidarity as working people."

It was a lesson Hill had learned over the course of his 54 years as an elected union officeholder, starting in 1961 at Beaver, Pa., Local 712 on the political action committee just a year after he topped out as a journeyman wireman.

A second-generation IBEW member from Center Township, Pa., Hill's long belief in the collective power of working people was his guiding star through decades of vicious attacks from union-busting politicians, misleading campaigns from companies seeking to maximize profits on the backs of workers, and ultimately, from the most devastating economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In large part, it was his response to that once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis that cemented Hill's status as a leader willing to consider challenges to tradition if it would preserve the Brotherhood and the labor movement he loved.

Whether it was rethinking the relationship between employers and unions that led to the creation of the IBEW's Code of Excellence and the Business Development Department or his willingness to take on powerful voices within our own union that led to the alternative classification system, Hill was always ready to do what it took to put current and future IBEW members to work.

"Ed Hill woke up every day with a singular focus," Stephenson said. "Making sure that he, his staff and the international, district and local leadership were doing everything they could to put IBEW members in a position to be successful. Sometimes that involved killing off a sacred cow or two, but Ed was fine with that as long as his union brothers and sisters came out on top.

"His efforts ensured that the IBEW not only survived through the toughest of times but expanded and grew," Stephenson said.

That expansion wasn't by accident. Hill's experience, from his time as a local president and business manager through his rise to Third District vice president, international secretary and then international secretary-treasurer, taught him that growth in the face of adversity was the only way to maintain collective power.

As secretary-treasurer, he invested in the modernization of the IBEW's record-keeping and membership databases and worked with then-President J.J. Barry to add needed resources to organizing. He continued that expansion when he succeeded Barry as the union's president in 2001, directing his staff in the Membership Development Department to harness new technology and tools for organizers in every branch of the IBEW.

"The IBEW is where it is today because of the leadership of Ed Hill," said International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper. "As secretary and then as secretary-treasurer, Ed Hill gets much of the credit for bringing this Brotherhood into the 21st century. He saw early on that the old ways of doing things could be improved, and his leadership even before his time as international president allowed the IBEW to keep its focus on the people who mattered most — the members."

Hill's most lasting legacy, however, may be his thorough re-evaluation of the relationship between employers, employees and the unions that represent them. He knew that organizing meant little if the IBEW couldn't put those members to work, so Hill took a nascent idea started in the Eighth District and breathed fire into it.

That idea was the Code of Excellence, a commitment from IBEW members and signatory contractors to set the gold standard for quality work in the electrical industry.

"Anti-union propaganda had created a perception that hiring union workers was bad for business, but we knew better," Hill said at his retirement. "We just had to remind our customers, and truth be told, some of our members, that high standards of craftsmanship and productivity are hallmarks of the IBEW and the foundation of a profitable business."

Under Hill's leadership, the Code grew from a single district and branch — construction — into a hallmark of the IBEW's identity across North America and all seven branches of the union. It also worked hand-in-hand with another of Hill's innovations: business development.

Early on, Hill noticed that signatory contractors were missing out on big construction projects, depriving the industry's best-trained electricians of sorely-needed jobs, especially during the recession that started in 2008. His solution was to get the union involved in those sorts of projects at the planning stage, well before contracts were drawn up.

The IBEW's Business Development Department was created under Hill's leadership to build relationships with the owners of large projects and work with them from the early stages, leveraging the IBEW's significant influence in the halls of power to help make their projects a reality. The side benefit — for both sides — was the use of industry-leading IBEW electricians once ground was broken.

"I think of Ed as a pioneer, always looking for new ways to help IBEW members in this changing economic environment," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said at Hill's retirement. Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125 and one of Hill's former executive assistants, praised her former boss's willingness to embrace the new and unfamiliar. "He often said, 'Making mistakes is good. It's better to try something and fail, than not try at all — because if you're not failing once in a while, it means you're not doing anything new.'"

Retirement and the Future

Hill took over as business manager of Local 712 when he was in his early 30s, a rarity in the union 60 years ago. He was at the vanguard of his generation, and, in his heart he never stopped thinking of himself as a youthful reformer. said former Third District Vice President Don Siegel.

It was part of the reason he threw his weight behind the creation of the IBEW's Reach Out and Engage Next-Generation Electrical Workers, known more familiarly as RENEW/NextGen. And it was also a significant part of his decision to retire when he did, Siegel said.

"After he retired, he told me he'd have had a hard time going to the convention and running again at age 79 after telling every young person that they needed to get involved in the future of the IBEW," Siegel said. "He knew that he needed to make way for the next generation that he'd worked so hard to empower, and it was his leadership that influenced my decision to retire when I did. … It's hard to imagine a world without Ed. I am heartbroken. He was my mentor, but he was also my friend."

When he retired, he left a gift for Stephenson that former president J.J. Barry had left for him, a note in calligraphic script reading, "Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me … or the Brotherhood today that You and I together can't handle."

It was a message that carried Hill through the darkest days of the Great Recession and, Stephenson said, one that has carried him through the challenges of leading a sprawling union in an age of rising business power and great uncertainty.

"When I look at it, which is often, it connects me to Ed and all the men who had this role," Stephenson said. "It was thoughtful, of course, but it also captures something essential about the job. The enormousness of the task is obvious, but with that small gesture, Ed taught me the only way to meet this great responsibility is through a combination of humility and faith."

After retiring, Hill moved back to the low, wooded hills of western Pennsylvania, the landscape that shaped him.

He didn't rise to prominence from inside one of the large urban locals. From the beginning, Siegel said, he made his reputation as a listener in meetings filled with talkers.

"I can't tell you how many times in meetings Ed would stay silent until the last five minutes. Then he would speak up," Siegel said. "When we got stuck on an issue and debated it and couldn't come to a resolution, it would come down to, 'Ed what do you think?'"

Robert Nixon first met Hill in those early years at Local 712. He was the first black apprentice in the local's history, and Ed Hill was in his first term as business manager.

"He was unequivocal. He told everybody, 'You mess with Bobby, you mess with me,'" Nixon said. "Ed had my back. I never had to worry."

It is only one part of Hill's legacy, making sure one member had the opportunity to benefit from this union, and the union had the benefit of Nixon's membership. But, Stephenson said, it was also everything about the man, what drove him and what he cared about.

"He believed in the power of decent wages, good benefits and a dignified retirement to transform not just one life, but generations," he said. "And he wasn't afraid to make up new rules to spread that gift as widely as possible, no matter what wall needed to come down to clear the way."

The officers, staff and entire membership of the IBEW wish to thank Brother Hill for his lifetime of service and commitment to the Brotherhood he so loved. Our thoughts, prayers and deep gratitude are also with his wife Rosemary, the couple's three children, Ed Jr., Michelle and Toni, five grandchildren and Brother Hill's countless other family and friends in this difficult time.

Hill's Second Legacy

In the years after his retirement, Ed Hill turned much of his attention to nurturing Electrical Workers Without Borders North America, a global nonprofit aid organization that sends expert craftsmen and equipment to countries in desperate need of their skills.

From Haiti to Angola to Surinam and more, EWWBNA's goal is utilize the membership's skills to improve the condition of life on the planet and give electrical workers around the world the skills to be safer on the job.

Hill chose EWWBNA as the charity he wanted his memory to support and the family requested donations be sent to instead of flowers.

"Better yet, for those who are able, the best way to honor a man committed to the power of organized labor would be volunteering your time and knowledge," Stephenson said. "Using our skills and knowledge to help others would be the most fitting tribute to Ed."



Hill was a labor activist from his earliest days. Here, he leads a labor rally as the young business manager of Beaver, Pa., Local 712 in 1973.


Hill, center, takes the oath of office as international secretary from then-President J.J. Barry. He replaced Jack Moore, left, in 1997.


Hill speaks at the Women's Caucus at the 2006 International Convention in Cleveland.


Before she was AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, Portland, Ore., Local 125 member Liz Shuler served on Hill's senior staff at the International Office.


Hill with his successor, then-Sixth District Vice President Lonnie R. Stephenson.


Hill made a point to be on the front line of labor struggles. Here, he's pictured standing with striking workers at Fairpoint Communications in New England in 2014.


Hill, second from right, with then-International President J.J. Barry, center, and others.


Hill at the 2011 IBEW International Convention in Vancouver with then-International Secretary-Treasurer Sam Chilia.


Hill confers with longtime speechwriter and Media Director Jim Spellane at the 2006 International Convention.


Hill with his good friend Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.


Hill was a tireless advocate for the IBEW in the halls of power. Here, he meets with former President Bill Clinton during the 2008 campaign.


Hill loved the IBEW's annual motorcycle ride and the opportunity it gave him to connect with members from across the Brotherhood.


Hill on his beloved Harley-Davidson during one of the many IBEW motorcycle rides he led as international president.


Hill at the 2001 Convention with then-Secretary-Treasurer Jerry O'Connor and country duo Brooks and Dunn.


In 2014, Hill visited the World War II Memorial in Washington to personally deliver a 75-year IBEW pin to veteran and Kansas City, Mo., Local 124 member Jimmy Kice.

Hill's Lasting Influence

Liz Shuler
Secretary-Treasurer, AFL-CIO

"Ed was a trade unionist to the core, always doing what was best for his members and working people, across backgrounds and borders. He never spoke up just to hear his own voice. Ed didn't strut. But when he talked, people listened."

Richard Trumka
President, AFL-CIO

"The entire labor movement mourns the loss of our friend and brother Ed Hill. When disagreements threatened to divide us, he was a voice of solidarity."

John M. Grau
President Emeritus, NECA

"Ed Hill was a devoted champion of the electrical construction industry, and he was a tremendous partner and friend during my tenure at the National Electrical Contractors Association. … His remarkable life and legacy of service at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will be remembered as a time of great progress and cooperation for our industry."

Jerry O'Connor
Former International Secretary-Treasurer, IBEW

"No matter how high he rose in the IBEW, Ed Hill was always a journeyman wireman first. Every move he made, he thought about how it would affect the members first. … Ed always treated me as a partner. He was a confident leader, but he always listened to my opinion — didn't always agree with it or follow it — but he'd always make the right decision in the end."

Lindell Lee
Former International Secretary-Treasurer, IBEW

"I can think of a hundred things to say about Ed, but nothing is more important than the way he kept the IBEW together in very dark times. He was a great working partner and a good buddy. … His relationship with employers impressed me so much. He knew we couldn't make a living without them, and his focus was always on putting IBEW members to work."

Salvatore J. Chilia
Former International Secretary-Treasurer, IBEW

"I first met Ed in the '70s when I was still working with the tools. I stopped into his hall to sign his book. He took the time to open the window and chat with me. He had thousands of guys working for him, but he took the time for me, not because I was special, but because, until the day he died, he was thinking about the individual member. Throughout the years I worked for him as a business manager, an officer and eventually as the secretary-treasurer, he was the same guy who opened that window for me."

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

"Ed was driven by an inexhaustible passion for improving the lives of America's workers. He believed that all Americans were worthy of respect, and deserving of the strongest protections of their rights in the workplace. … He knew that the American Middle Class has a union label on it, and that achieving better standards and pay for workers would lift up all families in America."

Tom Harkin
Former U.S. Senator, Iowa

"Ed had a persona that let you know that he was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, in a gentle kind of way. If you disagreed with him, he never got mad or tried to overpower you with brute force. He would let you know why your position wasn't valid and he always had the facts and the data to back it up. I saw that happen more than once on the Hill, and even senators who disagreed with us on labor issues, they genuinely liked him. They respected him."

Rick Bloomingdale
President, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO

"Pennsylvania has been proud to claim our Beaver County brother, IBEW's International President Emeritus Ed Hill, as one of the finest labor leaders our Commonwealth has ever produced. For decades, Ed Hill provided wisdom and guidance to our movement as vice president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Executive Council. Through the difficulties our movement has faced in the last few decades, Ed Hill was a reasonable and calming voice in turbulent times."

Brady Hansen
Co-Founder, Electrical Workers Without Borders North America

"Ed brought the backing of the IBEW when he came on board [with Electrical Workers Without Borders North America]. He changed it from being something a bunch of members got together to do into an official nonprofit that had a voice, credibility and global reach. We built a solar system on a hospital in Angola, training centers in Haiti, have run linemen safety initiatives in Surinam, Cuba and El Salvador, and we run a distance learning program with the ETU in Australia for linemen in Bangladesh and India. Ed made that possible."