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March 2020

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Workplace Organizing Gets Boost with PRO Act Passage

An effort in Congress to make it easier for working people to join labor unions like the IBEW took a big step forward on Feb. 6 when 234 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

"It's unfortunate that workers need an act of Congress to get us back to the original intent of the National Labor Relations Act," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "But it's heartening that House members from both parties can agree on a strategy for strengthening this landmark law that has helped make the lives of countless working people better over the last 85 years."

Sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia and introduced last May, the PRO Act calls for modernizing the definition of unfair labor practices and for allowing fines or lawsuits against employers who keep workers from forming workplace bargaining units, among other reforms.

"Evidence and experience demonstrate that labor unions are one of the most powerful tools workers have to improve the standard of living for themselves and their families," said Scott, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. "The PRO Act is a comprehensive proposal to ensure that workers have the right to stand together and negotiate for higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions."

The act, H.R. 2474, aims to repeal so-called "right-to-work" laws, enacted in 27 states, that openly discourage workers from organizing and allow employees to be free riders, reaping the benefits of union membership like contract negotiations and enforcement without contributing to their costs.

"The PRO Act would help stabilize the power balance in the workplace and empower the middle class to grow stronger," said Political and Legislative Affairs Director Austin Keyser, who noted that recent national polls have shown that approval of unions in general is trending upward, with about half of all non-organized workers saying they would join a union if they could.

Labor activists hope the stronger penalties prescribed by the PRO Act will make employers think twice before interfering with workers' rights to organize and bargain for contracts. The bill also targets the captive audience meetings that employers often use to bully workers who are thinking about unionizing.

The House Education and Labor Committee approved the PRO Act in September, and then it sat untouched for months. But thanks largely to a steady stream of pressure from members of the IBEW and other labor unions, Keyser said, 76 representatives were moved to sign on to a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California in January asking for a full House vote on the measure.

Folsom, N.J., Local 351 member Donald Norcross, a former business agent who has represented New Jersey's 1st Congressional District since 2014, was among those who signed the letter to Pelosi. He was also one of the PRO Act's original co-sponsors.

"As an IBEW member and a lifelong labor leader, I can attest to the importance of giving workers a voice in the workplace by protecting them from violations of unfair labor law and practices," Norcross said. "The PRO Act restores fairness to an economy that's rigged against workers by closing loopholes in federal labor laws and increasing transparency in labor-management relations."

Shortly after the letter was sent, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland promised, via Twitter, to bring the PRO Act to the House Floor for a vote prior to the President's Day district work period.

Next, the bill heads to the Senate, although the Republican majority there has shown little interest in considering worker-focused legislation. Even so, Stephenson said, IBEW members should be proud of the progress that we've made so far.

"It took years for working people to finally get the Cadillac tax repealed," Stephenson said. "But we won that fight against unfair taxes on our health benefits, and we'll win this one too.

"We can and should keep up the pressure on our senators by telling them to support H.R. 2474," Stephenson said, "and by reminding all of our legislators that working people will remember their support for our priorities — or their lack of support — on Election Day."


Among the original co-sponsors of the PRO Act was Folsom, N.J., Local 351 member Donald Norcross (in bucket), a former business agent who has represented New Jersey's 1st Congressional District since 2014.

Idaho Locals Helping Lead Statehouse
Battles for Good Jobs, Workers' Rights

Lobbying for union jobs and workers' rights isn't easy in a state as red as Idaho, but IBEW activists are playing a robust role in bridging the divide.

With about 35 members from six locals, IBEW members were a major contingent in the union army that descended on the Capitol in Boise for Lobby Day in mid-January.

"They always make us proud," said Idaho AFL-CIO President Joe Maloney, a journeyman wireman and organizer with Pocatello Local 449, who was elected to lead the state federation two years ago. "The IBEW is really strong here in Idaho."

In addition to Maloney's local and Boise Locals 291 and 283, Seattle Local 77, Spokane, Wash., Local 73 and Salt Lake City Local 57, all sent members. The out-of-state locals represent workers in Idaho.

Like many states, a major issue for Idaho's building trades is saving the journeyman-apprentice ratio on construction sites. While it's an uphill battle, and some damaging legislation has already passed, Maloney said, "we've got quite a few Republicans on our side."

Alicia Davila, president and co-founder of the women's committee at Local 291, had a unique perspective among IBEW members on the ratio, which ensures safe, quality construction while providing unparalleled training for apprentices.

"People were really curious, asking, 'Are you an electrician?' Davila said. "I work in telecommunications. I told them, 'I'm here because I don't want somebody who isn't trained in our registered apprenticeship to be working on my house.'"

Local 291 Business Manager Mark Zaleski said it's too early in the legislative session to know what all the 2020 challenges will be, but there's concern that state licensing requirements for tradesmen could be watered down, or worse.

"We haven't seen a bill yet, but we think there's a creeping attack, possibly doing away with licenses altogether," Zaleski said. "Many in Idaho government think that licenses are a hurdle for people to go to work. The fact is, we have people lining up to be apprentices. There's no hurdle there."

Assaults on licensing and on the journeyman-apprentice ratio are threats to good jobs and public safety, he said, and the IBEW will continue to be vigilant. "Lobby Day is a great opportunity — we lobbied during the day and had the meet-and-greet at night, with tons of representatives coming out. But we fight it out here every day."

It's an especially steep battle in Idaho, with supermajorities hostile to labor in both legislative chambers and a Republican governor.

But Maloney said there has been progress, such as legislation last year giving workers more time to file claims for unpaid wages, and another bill that provides workers' compensation for first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Gov. Brad Little signed both into law.

"We have a good relationship with the governor, where at least his door is open and he'll sit down and listen to what we have to say," he said. "He's not a champion for labor, but he's not out to hurt us."

Maloney is encouraging unions to spend more time with lawmakers on the opposing side, even by sponsoring tables at GOP fundraisers in their districts "so they see you in the public eye."

"We don't care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat as long as you're voting for labor," he said. "We strive every day to break those barriers down."

He noted that on the PTSD bill for police officers and firefighters, some legislators asked why unions weren't fighting for all workers to be included. Because, he explained, they knew the financial impact of a bigger bill would kill it altogether, and no one would be covered.

"The way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and that's what we're doing," he said. "We're getting little wins and building on those."

For Local 291's Davila, Lobby Day was a first. As she raised building trade and broader workers' issues, such as the fight for a higher minimum wage, she shared her own story — a mother of four who grew up in Idaho and strongly opposed the state's right-to-work law long before she was a union member. She eagerly joined the IBEW when she started working at an AT&T call center in early 2018.

She was exhilarated by her day at the Capitol. "I felt like it went really great," she said. "To be there as a union sister advocating for labor rights and for women's rights in the workplace, it was empowering."


Idaho IBEW members converged on the state Capitol in January to lobby for pro-worker bills and legislation vital to safety and quality in the building trades.

Credit: Robert Struckman, AFL-CIO

Kentucky's New Labor-backed Governor
Moves Quickly to Protect Workers

IBEW activists and other working people in Kentucky can claim another victory as labor-backed Andy Beshear, in one of his first official acts as governor, reinstated the state's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board in January.

"Organized labor helped get out the vote for Gov. Beshear last November," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "And within months he brought back the standards board, showing us that when he said he'd stand up for working people and on-the-job safety, he meant it."

Established in 1972 and chaired by the governor-appointed Labor Cabinet secretary, the 12-member standards board is tasked with enforcing Kentucky's worker safety rules, required by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act to be at least as stringent as the national standards.

The previous governor, Republican Matt Bevin, was Beshear's polar opposite when it came to labor issues. In 2017, Bevin signed into law two bills that the General Assembly had rammed through as "emergency legislation:" one making Kentucky a right-to-work state, and the other repealing the law mandating payment of the prevailing wage on public construction projects.

The following year, Bevin issued an executive order eliminating the standards board and placing sole authority over workplace safety decisions in the hands of his labor secretary.

"The men and women who are most knowledgeable of the safety and health of our workers must, by law, make up the board, not an 'at-will' employee who answers to the governor and not our workers," argued Beshear, a Democrat who was serving as Kentucky's elected attorney general at the time.

Frank Cloud, a Fourth District international representative who supervises the IBEW's grassroots political and legislative activism program in Kentucky, agreed. "This order took labor out of the picture and made our workplaces less safe," Cloud said.

Not long after Bevin's order, an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting discovered that the state's worker safety program had neglected to follow up on almost all of the workplace deaths that had occurred over the previous two years.

Fed-up labor activists around the state rallied to help Beshear defeat Bevin in last November's elections, emboldened after Bevin's proposal to replace teachers' pensions with a hybrid investment and defined-benefit plan, which prompted statewide teacher walkouts in 2018 and 2019.

"This was our first chance to respond to Bevin directly, and our members spoke loud and clear at the ballot box," wrote Bill Finn, a former business manager of Louisville Local 369 who now serves as director of the Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council, in an email to the members of Kentucky's AFL-CIO chapter.

Beshear's father, Steve, served as Kentucky's governor from 2007 to 2015 and was himself a noted friend of working people, so it came as little surprise to Gene Holthouser, Local 369's political director, that the younger Beshear didn't just re-establish the board at the very start of his term, he packed it with labor voices.

"He also didn't come into office thinking he already knew everything," Holthouser said. "He's relying on us to be the experts, and we have a seat at the table now. Before, we were kicked out of the room altogether. It's like night and day."

In fact, one-third of the board's members come from unions: Caitlin Blair, from United Food and Commercial Workers' Local 227 in Louisville; John Holbrook, business manager of United Association Local 248 in Ashland; Keith Murt, from UA Local 184 in Paducah; and John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783 in Louisville. And new labor secretary, Larry Roberts, is a former state director of the Kentucky Building Trades who previously served in that role from 2012 to 2013 under Beshear's father.

"This is just one step that we are going to take to make sure that when our Kentuckians leave their family in the morning and head to work, it's in the safest environment possible and that they know that they've got a state government that is looking out for their safety," Beshear told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

But with worker-friendly representatives in Kentucky's General Assembly in the minority, other labor priorities like repeal of right-to-work and restoration of prevailing wage realistically seem out of reach for now.

"Elections have consequences, though," Holthouser said, "and we're never going to let those things get out of people's minds."

Bluegrass State voters will have a chance to select more advocates for working people in November, when every Kentucky House of Representatives seat is up for election as well as half of the state's Senate. "It's a chance for us to build on the gains we made in 2019," Holthouser said.


Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, left, earned the support of Bluegrass State union leaders and rank-and-filers ahead of last November's statewide elections.

IBEW Leader Appointed to Key Role in
Michigan's Labor Department

Michigan's working families have a powerful new voice in government with the recent appointment of Muskegon, Mich., Local 275 member Sean Egan to the state's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

"We couldn't have a better representative of the IBEW in Michigan government than Sean," said Local 275 Business Manager Jonas Talbott. "His focus has always been on labor and working families over himself. It's evident in pretty much everything he does."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Egan deputy director for labor in the Michigan Labor Department. The role is part of the executive leadership team and provides direct oversight of the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Michigan Workers Disability Compensation Agency, the Michigan Bureau of Employment Relations and the Michigan Wage and Hour Division. The larger department also encompasses the Unemployment Insurance Agency, the Workforce Development Agency and a new Department of Prosperity.

"The department touches on nearly all aspects of a person's working life, so it's imperative for labor to have a voice at the table," Egan said. "We usually do have friends in the legislative halls, which is important, but the real work of government happens in the departments and the agencies that establish the rules of the game."

A journeyman wireman by trade, Egan served as business manager of Local 275 from 2007 to 2017, and as president and assistant business manager before that. During that time, he also attended law school, graduating from Western Michigan University's Cooley School of Law in 2013 with honors.

"Law school just kind of happened for me," Egan said. "There were times when I'd be in meetings with executives and realize that, while I had their respect, I felt they were still looking at the trades as less educated because I didn't have a college degree. Being a hardheaded Irishman, I decided I would get a degree with classes in the evenings and weekends."

Egan has also served as president of his local labor council and as the local building trades president. In 2017, Grand Rapids, Mich., Local 876 was going through a leadership transition and Business Manager Chad Clark asked Egan if he would come on board and assist the local as it navigated 30-plus contracts, the transition, operational needs and other issues. So Egan made the move to serve as the local's general counsel. He credits the move with giving him experience in the utility, government, and outside branches of the union.

"I had never really intended to leave Local 275, but a culmination of factors pushed me in a different direction," Egan said. "Having the ability and fortitude to pursue this level of education has proven invaluable for our brothers and sisters through negotiations, grievances, organizing and so much more."

Egan's background isn't one often found in government positions, even those tasked with overseeing the lives of working people. He and other Michigan labor leaders know he'll bring a unique pro-worker perspective to the role.

"I have not yet met an attorney on our side or management's that has the mix of experience I have," Egan said. "The most important thing we bring with us from the field to our leadership roles in our union, in politics, or in my case the department, is our experience. As a wireman, I fully understand what our brothers and sisters experience every day and the threats they face."

Egan also volunteers with the A. Philip Randolph Institute's annual "trunk or treat" event at Halloween, as a tax preparer through the United Way for low-income people to maximize the Earned Income Tax Credit and Michigan-specific tax credits, Labor Day events, his local union audit committee, and with other service events through his local and labor council.

Whitmer, a Democrat, won election in 2018 and ended eight years of Republican leadership under Gov. Rick Snyder that was hostile to unions and working families, including pushing through a controversial right-to-work law in 2012.

"Gov. Whitmer has been a friend to working families for her entire life and fully comprehends the role that labor plays," Egan said. "After enduring eight years with an administration that had no interest in communicating, supporting or otherwise engaging labor or working families, she has opened the door. We have a seat at almost every table now."


Muskegon, Mich., Local 275 member Sean Egan will be a powerful voice for Michigan's workers in his new role with the state's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.