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January 2019

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Joseph S. Davis

Fifth District Vice President Joe Davis, a leader in the labor movement in the Deep South, retired Jan. 1, marking the end of an illustrious 55-year IBEW career, including the final 12 as a vice president.

Davis was first elected vice president at the 2006 International Convention in Cleveland. He was re-elected twice more in 2011 and 2016. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense but ultimately fair negotiator who was respected by both labor and management.

His retirement caps a path that began when Davis was hired as a driver at an Emerson Electric plant in Tupelo, Miss., in 1963.

"Few people have had more of an impact on our Brotherhood than Joe Davis," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "His wisdom and counsel were invaluable to me when I served as Sixth District vice president and in my three years as president. His leadership has kept the IBEW strong in a part of the country where the labor movement faces many challenges.

"Part of me is saddened he's retiring, but I'm also thrilled because he certainly deserves it. What an amazing career he's had, and I thank him for his service."

Brother Davis was born in Blytheville, Ark., and grew up in a farming family. They first moved to the Mississippi Delta and later to the northeast part of the state, where he attended what is now Itawamba Community College in Tupelo.

Davis met his future wife Kaye at Itawamba and enlisted in the Army National Guard. He later worked for a traveling contractor installing microwave dishes before nearly taking a job in California. But Kaye urged him to hold off because she wouldn't be able to join him during the first year. So, he went to a local unemployment office to apply for benefits.

It turned into a life-changing move. The office told Davis the nearby Emerson manufacturing plant had an opening for a driver. He applied, and because he already had his driver's license to operate heavy vehicles, the company hired him on the spot.

Sixty days later, the 22-year-old Davis became a member of Tupelo Local 1028, which represented the plant's non-management employees. For the first five years, he worked the night shift so he could also build two houses — one for his young family and another that he sold.

He also took an interest in what was going on around him at the local union.

"I just went to every meeting they had," Davis said. "Every month, I thought it was some kind of obligation."

In 1968, a friend nominated him for the executive board. Even though he wasn't informed beforehand and "didn't know what the executive board duties were," he won the election. He was named Local 1028's president the following year after the previous president resigned.

He was elected business manager in 1971 and re-elected two more times.

"Being part of the IBEW helped me, and I really wanted to help other people,'' Davis said about his decision to seek union office again and again. "We had some people that really needed the help, and that's why I got involved."

After his third successful run for business manager, then-International President Charles H. Pillard appointed him in 1979 to be an international representative in the Fifth District, which includes Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, along with Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Panama Canal Zone.

Davis started as the service representative for the broadcasting, manufacturing and telecommunications local unions, but his duties expanded to all locals across the district. He also handled training for officers and stewards. Additionally, he served as the spokesman for labor during multi-union strikes against major paper mills.

He was a leader not just in the IBEW, but in the labor movement across the South. He served as president of the Mississippi Electrical Workers Association and also as an executive board member of the Mississippi AFL-CIO and president of the Tupelo Central Labor Council.

After 27 years in the district office, he successfully ran for vice president and easily won re-election two more times.

"He is the one of the most, if not the most, widely respected officers in the entire IBEW and the electrical industry," then-Atlanta Local 613 Business Manager Gene O'Kelly told the 2016 convention while nominating Davis for a third term.

Davis said helping develop the IBEW's Code of Excellence — which promises superior quality to partners and customers and sets the IBEW apart from its competitors — and bringing the Code to all the branches of the Fifth District is one of his proudest accomplishments.

Other highlights were developing the district's small works agreement to help improve market share, serving on the 2011 and 2016 convention finance committees and serving as a trustee on the National Utility Industry Training Fund.

Davis also oversaw the IBEW's role in a 6,000-worker strike at the Northrop Grumman Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., in 2007, which led to double-digit wage increases and improved benefits for strikers. He helped coordinate the IBEW's response after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, overseeing the distribution of water and other relief supplies for members working on the island and effected families.

Davis turned 77 in July, long past the age of most retirees. He didn't mind.

"I had no hobbies," he said. "My hobby was the IBEW.

"Years and years ago, I used to go hunting and fishing a little bit. My son and I bought this house in Florida and I bought all this fishing equipment, thinking I was going to get back into it. I think I used it maybe twice."

Davis said he plans to spend more time with his two grown children, three grandchildren and other friends and family. One granddaughter will graduate from the University of Mississippi later this year. He still owns a home in Tupelo and likely will spend additional time in the Florida Panhandle, where he still owns property. Kaye Davis was stricken with cancer and died in 1998.

"I think everything is going pretty good in the district," Davis said. "It's going about as good as I could expect. I've got 55 years in. It's time to let someone else take over and I'll chase after grandchildren."

That someone is Fifth District International Representative Brian K. Thompson, who has been appointed to fill Davis' position.

"Brother Joe has always looked out for the membership we serve," Thompson said. "He has served tirelessly and made the personal sacrifices it takes to be a leader in the IBEW by promoting teamwork, respect and loyalty. Brother Joe has brought the Fifth District and its local unions closer together than we've ever been."

The officers, staff and members thank Brother Davis for his long service and wish him a long and happy retirement.


Joseph S. Davis

Brian K. Thompson

International Representative Brian K. Thompson has been appointed Fifth District International Vice President, effective Jan. 1. Thompson replaces Joe Davis who is retiring.

Thompson joined Punta Gorda, Fla., Local 641 in 1984, six months after he was hired as a power plant helper at Florida Power and Light. Before his first anniversary in the Brotherhood, he'd joined the executive committee and he was tapped to be business manager after only seven years.

In 1993, Thompson was brought on as senior assistant business manager at System Council 4, which coordinates the 11 locals — including his own — with Florida Power and Light contracts.

In 1999, he was appointed business manager of SCU-4, a position he held until he was asked in 2005 by former International President Edwin D. Hill to become an international representative in the Fifth District, where he serviced locals in every branch of the IBEW.

Thompson said he is proud that he never started in a new job by winning an election, though he won many re-election votes. He was always asked by his brothers and sisters to take on more responsibility and higher-profile positions.

"I take real pride in those taps on the shoulder," he said. "It means someone saw something in me; I buried myself in the work and someone noticed."

At age 27, when he left his job working as an auto and truck mechanic with no benefits, Thompson said he had no aspirations for a life as a trade unionist that would take him to the very peak of the IBEW.

"At the time, I felt it was pretty remarkable just to get health and retirement benefits," he said.

But when he came on, he saw that the contract was more often breached than honored.

"My dad taught me you don't have a right to say anything unless you get involved," Thompson said. He learned the contract backward and forward, he said, and then he started to speak up and out.

"Even while I was on the six-month probation before I could join the IBEW — we fixed that a long time ago — people were asking me to be a steward," he said.

Thompson's career spans the deregulation era. In 1986, in response to the first rounds of utility deregulation, FP&L launched what became decades of restructuring by hiring a union-busting executive from Bell Telephone. In 1992, just as he was joining the staff of SCU-4, the Energy Policy Act deregulated competition in utilities in some states, splitting distribution from generation. Thompson said his job became managing an endless series of skirmishes as the company changed work rules, cut benefits and outsourced and combined jobs.

"At times it felt like the whole industry was coming apart," he said.

Once he was appointed an international representative, for the first time in his IBEW career work wasn't completely dominated by the policies and people of a single company.

"When I walked out the door of the system council, I realized it was a different world. It wasn't what I thought. Other utilities were quite different. There are different labor laws in other branches. It was a big adjustment and a steep learning curve," Thompson said.

He says he owes a great deal of thanks to the business managers he worked with and the leadership of retiring Fifth District International Vice President Joe Davis.

"The job he has done, the way he brought the Brotherhood to the front in this region, I just want to continue his legacy. I have some ideas of where I see opportunities, but everyone knows the foundation was Joe's," he said.

"Brian has some big shoes to fill, but given his history of stepping up when the Brotherhood came calling, I'm absolutely certain he'll be the leader his brothers and sisters in the Fifth District need," said Stephenson. "He's going to do a tremendous job for the IBEW in this new role."

Thompson, who has served for years as the IBEW's political coordinator for the Fifth District and the state of Florida, said he sees tremendous potential for organizing and political success building on the last two years' election results. Many of the IBEW's friends were unable to win their races in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, but they came closer than anyone has in more than a generation and the gains are real.

"We can build on this. And if we can get into the conversation on how maps are drawn, the next decade will look very different than this one past," he said.

The officers, staff and membership of the IBEW wish Brother Thompson success in his new position.


Brian K. Thompson