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August 2021

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Wisconsin Member Turns
Pandemic Downtime into Scholarship

Pablo Baxter knew nothing about unions five years ago when he looked into an apprenticeship with Madison, Wis., Local 159.

Despite a humble, working-class childhood, he said, "I didn't really know that unions existed growing up."

Nowadays, the new journeyman wireman can't stop talking about them.

"I'm all about getting the union buzz out there," Baxter said. "I want to bring unions back into the discussions around the dinner table and water cooler."

He's better prepared for that mission after finishing a labor studies program paid for by the Union Plus free college benefit.

Available to union members and their families, the benefit covers tuition and other expenses for a wide array of associate and bachelor's degrees, and certificate programs.

Baxter had an impressive resume already on top of his IBEW training: a bachelor's degree in business administration; fellow in the New Leaders Council; chair of Local 159's RENEW committee of young activists; co-chair of the regional AFL-CIO's parallel committee; and a long list of other activism, volunteerism and continuing education.

Frittering time away simply isn't in Baxter's DNA, he said. So, he was determined to put his free hours to good use when COVID-19 slowed down construction in 2020.

"I'm always about self-improvement, and being efficient with my time," he said. "I thought I might as well look into learning if I'm going to be off work."

He started out as a skeptic, even though he'd heard about the benefit at conferences for RENEW and IBEW women. "Initially, I thought, 'What are they trying to sell here?'" he said. "Then I did some more research."

He found a fully accredited program through Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio with the flexibility of online classes divided into eight-week sessions. And that magic word: free.

"As much as I love education, I've got enough student loans to pay," he said. "This was free. It literally covers every last dollar to fill the gap between your tuition and any federal or state grants you receive — which they help you apply for. It couldn't be easier."

Baxter wasn't accustomed to help like that. "I knew from an early age that whatever I wanted to do, I had to do myself," he said.

He'd grown up in the Sacramento area in a family with few means. He put himself through college at the city's Cal State campus, earning a business degree and indulging his passion for art with a course in gallery management. He hoped to make a career of it.

Heeding a professor's advice, he headed to one of the nation's art hubs as soon as he graduated. "I bought a one-way train ticket, grabbed everything I could carry, and took a three-day ride to Chicago," he said. "I told myself, 'sink or swim.'"

Baxter couch-surfed at night and explored the city by day, keeping an eye out for galleries.

"I'd go in and ask if they needed any help. I got responses ranging from 'no,' to 'please leave' to 'we're painting our back wall today, we've got beer and pizza.'"

He was having a ball, but rarely had more than $20 in his pocket. Within a year, he followed his then-girlfriend a few hours north to Madison and worked a series of low-wage jobs before landing a better-paying gig as a glass company driver.

But he wanted a real career and began analyzing his options. "I didn't want to sit in front of a desk," he said. "I wanted something different, something physical and challenging, a blend of using your brain and your body."

After exhaustive research online he settled on the trades, narrowing his choice to plumber, equipment operator or electrician.

Asked how he made up his mind, he laughs.

"I chose electrical because the IBEW website was the easiest to navigate."

The freshman apprentice still knew next to nothing about unions. "I started poking around, visiting the hall, started going to meetings, and then I learned about RENEW," Baxter said.

He was chair of the group by his second year and has been leading young members in community projects ever since, from clothing and food drives to a polar plunge for charity, service days at a local hospital, adopt-a-highway cleanups, sponsoring a music festival, and more.

The good works put Local 159, the IBEW, and unions in general in a good light, but it's not just PR. It's education, Baxter said, thinking back on his lack of awareness.

"I want to reverse that," he said, full of thoughts about marketing and outreach, including his own visits to high schools to talk about the trades.

"Why don't I see union billboards on the highway?" he asked. "I know all about Coke and Pepsi."

At his suggestion, RENEW members also spent six months viewing and discussing a series of labor history videos, some of the same materials that popped up later in Baxter's curriculum.

"Watching the videos reinforced the solidarity and the brotherhood, learning together about struggles of labor in the past," he said.

Baxter's certificate in labor studies builds exponentially on everything he's taught himself and experienced in recent years, and he has nothing but praise for the Union Plus benefit that made it possible.

"It's an awesome program," he said, urging all union members who think education is out of reach to look into the benefit for themselves or their families.

Areas of study vary among the associate, bachelor's and certificate programs, but dozens of choices are offered, from business and arts to hospitality, cyber security, criminal justice, marketing, accounting, health care and many others.

"It's something that's there for you on your own time, super flexible and very rewarding," Baxter said. "Because union members have banded together and used their collective strength, these kinds of benefits and opportunities are available. We should make the most of them."

Union Plus offers scholarships in addition to the free college program. Learn more about both at


Journeyman wireman and Local 159 activist Pablo Baxter, pictured with other RENEW volunteers at a Wisconsin food bank in April, took advantage of COVID-19 downtime to earn a labor studies certificate using the Union Plus free college benefit. Union members and their families can study for a wide variety of college degrees through the program.

'Unusual' NRC Commissioner Puts Workers First

It isn't unusual for Nuclear Regulatory Commission members to visit operational powerplants to see for themselves that safety and performance expectations are met.

But it has been historically uncommon for commissioners to spend time speaking to the workers who benefit from and carry out those regulations.

"We often get ignored," said Utility Director Donnie Colston. "Utilities will roll out the red carpet and make a big show, and most of the time, we watch from the side."

That may be changing for good.

In late May, when NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran visited Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga., he not only insisted the tour be led by members of Atlanta Local 84 and Augusta Local 1579, but he also tweeted about it. Twice.

"I really appreciate hearing the perspectives of the operators, maintenance workers, electricians, and other IBEW members working at the operating plant and construction site," he wrote.

Meeting with union workers and putting them front and center during his visits has become a habit for Commissioner Baran, first nominated to a five-year term by President Barack Obama in 2014 and re-appointed in 2018.

"He makes it a point that labor is part of his walk through," Colston said.

The nuclear industry is the most regulated in the United States, and the NRC controls everything from hours of work to tools to work practices and building maintenance," Colston said. Because of all the regulations, regulators have unique power to shape how 20% of the nation's energy and more than half of its carbon-free energy is produced.

"It's common for the NRC to discuss safety and working conditions. It's uncommon they discuss it with us, except for Baran," Colston said.

Baran visited not just the two operational units at Vogtle, he also toured the sites for Units 3 and 4, the largest IBEW project in North America and the only new nuclear reactors under construction in the U.S.

It is one thing to stand for pictures, Colston said, something that many commissioners have done over time. And Baran is far from the only member that has done so, including the current Chairman Christopher Hanson, who was appointed to that post in January by President Joe Biden.

"No question organized labor has a friend in Chairman Hanson," Colston said.

What distinguishes Baran, Colston said, is not just that he goes out of his way to stand with our members in pictures, he stood up for labor when the cameras weren't there.

In 2015, an IBEW member was denied access to all nuclear power plants because he failed to disclose he had received a traffic ticket. His employer declared him unfit to serve, effectively ending his career in the nuclear industry nationwide. The company then refused to answer the IBEW demand that they show just cause for implementing the so-called "death penalty," as required in the contract, saying that under the Nuclear Regulatory Act companies have an unchallengeable right to make fit-for-duty determinations.

"Baran stuck with us," Colston said.

Through the successful federal court challenge and in the effort to get the NRC to change its rules giving that power to utilities, Baran made a point of speaking for labor in rooms where labor wasn't allowed to speak for itself.

"Baran gave us credit for producing the evidence that disproved all of the utilities' claims and worked hand-in-hand with the IBEW to successfully block the proposed rulemaking," Colston said.

Wins don't get much bigger than that one. While the photo-op showed a federal bureaucrat standing with a few nuclear workers, the truth behind the picture shouldn't be lost.

"He's been a real friend," Colston said. "And not because he has to be. It's because he's a public servant who cares about the people who make the nation's nuclear power work."



NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran (center) was shown around Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga., by members of Atlanta Local 84 and Augusta Local 1579.

Illinois Member's IBEW Training
Helps Avert a Crisis in Afghanistan

When Springfield, Ill., Local 51 member Tim Burkhart, was deployed to Afghanistan he probably didn't think he'd be called on to use his IBEW training to save the day, but that's what happened.

"It was very gratifying to be able to help," said Burkhart, a journeyman lineman and guardsman with the U.S. Air Force. "We were definitely the heroes for a couple days at the camp."

In July 2020, a total power system failure occurred at Camp Stevenson in Afghanistan, creating a potentially serious situation. The base was completely mission ineffective and at risk of losing critical base defense systems and medical supplies. Fortunately, Burkhart was there, as well as another guardsman who also had electrical experience, Lt. Matt Denault.

The power had been off for about four hours when Army staff woke up Burkhart and his fellow guardsman to help. Using his IBEW training, Burkhart says they started at the source and then worked their way downstream until they found where the problem was and began troubleshooting the specific issue.

It turned out the transfer switch control panel didn't have power because of faulty batteries. It had been overlooked by the contractor because the rack itself had a generic voltmeter falsely showing good voltage on the batteries. All in all, it took them about an hour to troubleshoot the issue and then another hour to swap out all the batteries.

"Everyone was shocked that we were able to quickly identify the problem and get the power back on so fast," said Burkhart who is now back in Illinois and working for utility company Ameren. "Situations like this are what make guardsmen unique. We bring so much more to the fight than our primary duties in the military."

Burkhart, who served in Afghanistan for nine months as a technical sergeant and joint terminal attack controller, says the base mechanic may have been a little embarrassed about the situation but was ultimately grateful for their expertise.

"It shows how valuable good quality training is regardless of where you may find yourself putting those skills to use," Burkhart said. "The IBEW, like the Air Force, has very high standards and strives for excellence in everything we do. The mission comes first overseas, just like when storms and outages hit stateside. Linemen go to work and do what it takes to ensure safe restoration to all customers."

While power outages on a base are relatively common, Burkhart says they are rarely as long as the one he experienced. And if they hadn't been able to solve the problem, it would have been days before a contractor would have been able to get to the base. In fact, Burkhart and Denault were awarded commander's coins, which are given by senior leadership to show appreciation for an exceptional job done on the spot, and Army Achievement Medals.

"I couldn't be prouder of Brother Burkhart's dedication and service to our country and the IBEW. Tim is a great example of the level of training and ability that the IBEW provides and helped end an event that could have jeopardized lives in that region of conflict," said Local 51 Business Representative Jed Dooley. "I am truly proud to know Tim and appreciate all he and his fellow servicemen and women do to ensure our freedoms."



Springfield, Ill., Local 51 member Tim Burkhart used his IBEW skills to restore power to his base in Afghanistan.