The Electrical Worker online
April 2020

index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to
Local 3 Sculpture Celebrating Workers
Selected for Public Art Competition

As kids, we're told that everyone can be an artist. But as we age, the message changes. Real artists are fancy people with fancy degrees. Art is made with materials you don't even know where to buy, let alone afford. Where does someone even find a block of marble?

Especially for working people, the message is clear. You are — at best — an artisan or a craftsman. Construction workers can build the museum, but rich people put their names on it and someone else fills it up.

It's all a lie of course — we know how beautiful conduit runs can be, but does anyone else? What makes it a particularly nasty and stubborn lie is that it is one we tell ourselves.

The Workers Art Coalition in New York is all about smashing that lie, and the proof of their success is a 10-foot-high spiraling helix of conduit, junction boxes and Mae West conduit hangers proudly glowing in a Queens sculpture garden on the East River waterfront.

"Muscle Memory" was chosen by the Socrates Sculpture park from hundreds of applications to appear in its emerging artist show this winter and spring. The selection of WAC — founded in 2014 — as the only collective for the show is testament to the artistry of its members, mostly students and graduates of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at the State University of New York-Empire. Apprentices from New York Local 3 all take classes there as part of their apprenticeship. The lead artist on the project, Paul Vance, and key collaborators Lowely Cheung and Sue Sheinen are all Local 3 journeymen.

"It is material we use all the time, but never for fun. It was abstract and simple, very beautiful and professional," Cheung said. "Normally on the job, you work to a drawing and the work is done when reality matches the instructions. It was very different with "Muscle Memory."

"We didn't have a mental image of it exactly when we started. That was exciting. Our job was to keep going up and keep it from collapsing, working until it was done," she said.

The base of the sculpture was built from heavy galvanized conduit. But, Cheung said, it needed to be taller. So, they switched material to EMT, which is lighter but prone to rust — so far it's holding up despite its six months of exposure to the saline air of a New York winter.

"One day, we looked at it and we knew it was done," she said.

Prof. Barrie Cline teaches the public art course at the Labor Center and is one of the founders of WAC. She said the vision for the sculpture was a representation of the social structures that form the ladders to power, ladders that often place working people at the bottom. Vance initially conceived of the double helix structure as a reference to DNA, positing the question, "Aren't we all made of the same stuff?"

"Public art is about starting a conversation, and people in the trades need to start the conversation that they want to have," Cline said. "Ideally, we as workers rise."

Too often, Cline said, art that gets celebrated is the result of many hands, many skilled "artisans," but only a single superhero artist gets to stand in front and take the credit. It is to the credit of the Labor Center — and visionary Local 3 leader Van Arsdale himself — that they recognize the importance of the artistic impulse in a construction-world apprenticeship program that is often only focused on getting the job done, she said.

"Harry was always dedicated to the worker as a whole person," Cline said.

Cheung put it differently: "Everyone has a right to bread, yes, but they have a right to roses, too."



"Muscle Memory" (top), built by the Workers Art Coalition, won a sculpture competition and is on display at a Queens sculpture garden. WAC includes members from many trades, but the core are members of Local 3 like journeyman inside wireman and artist Lowely Cheung (bottom).

Recruitment Records Fall in Right-to-Work Alabama

In some of the deepest right-to-work territory in the United States, Sheffield, Ala. Local 558 Business Manager Tony Quillen recently swore in 107 new members — a record in the local's 102-year history.

"It has been a madhouse here. There is so much work around us," said Quillen, who noted that the previous record was an also impressive 63 new IBEW brothers and sisters. "It helps that we're the largest skilled-trade union in Alabama. We don't struggle for applicants."

Bounded by the banks of the Tennessee River, Local 558 has jurisdiction over eight counties in the northwestern corner of the Alabama, plus four across the border in Tennessee. Since 1953, Alabama has been one of 27 so-called "right-to-work" states, where employees are able to freeload off the benefits of working in a union shop without having to contribute money toward the costs of contract negotiations or enforcement of the collectively bargained agreement.

Tennessee adopted this same union-starving strategy in 1947, and now activists from the IBEW and other labor organizations are fighting that state's attempts to make right-to-work part of the state's constitution, a stunt Alabama pulled off in 2016.

As far as Quillen is concerned, these are merely quirks of geography and history, and they challenge him and his local's leaders to push back against some of the biggest stereotypes about the southern U.S. And it's working. Local 558 has been adding new IBEW brothers and sisters — it's gone from 1,670 members to more than 1,900 within the past 12 months.

This is all part of a coordinated effort, Quillen said. "We've really been able to up our game on recruitment," he said, finding particular success in meeting directly with students at high schools and trade schools.

Of course, many of these eventual applicants discover that the electrical trade is not for them, the business manager said. Out of about 500 recent candidates, just over half passed the aptitude test, with nearly half of those reaching the apprenticeship interview stage.

But thanks to Local 558's early recruitment strategy, "We're still seeing a lot more young people come in to the IBEW," he said.

It also hasn't hurt that news has spread quickly about some big construction developments coming to the area.

"One reason our attrition rate is very low is because we're able to provide immediate employment," Quillen said. "The value of the work is obvious."

Among these major projects is a joint venture between Mazda and Toyota, bringing what will become one of the largest automobile manufacturing plants in the world into the area — and with it, the need for hundreds of qualified electricians.

"Most plants produce about 150,000 cars a year," Quillen said. "This one should roll out three times that when it's done."

Announced in 2017, the $1.6 billion Mazda-Toyota plant is set to bring under one roof an area roughly three times the size of New York City's Central Park. It's expected to be finished sometime next year.

Even without the planned mega-plant, Local 558 has been steadily gaining market share, Quillen said. With some successful gentle arm-twisting by the IBEW and partners at the National Electrical Contractors Association, for example, a data center project in Huntsville could soon switch from nonunion to union, potentially providing 250 new members with several years of steady employment.

And as these and other projects come online, it becomes evident that Local 558's recruitment efforts are helping it to stay ahead of the demand. Meanwhile, the North Alabama Electrical Training Alliance, also based in Sheffield, recently began offering an accelerated four-year apprenticeship program in addition to the more traditional five-year program to help Local 558 keep up with the demand for highly trained electrical workers.

To hear Quillen tell it, though, this is simply how things have been trending in Local 558's jurisdiction. "In the past year, our apprentice school went from 160 students to 275," he said. "That's larger than a lot of locals."

And it's a success story that doesn't appear to be slowing down despite the anti-union roadblocks from state and local governments. Next year's class possibly could be even larger, he said.


In February, Sheffield, Ala. Local 558 Business Manager Tony Quillen swore in a record number of new members, thanks largely to his local's coordinated recruitment effort.