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September 2021

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Austin Keyser

Political and Legislative Affairs Director Austin Keyser has been appointed to the newly created position of Assistant to the International President for Government Affairs, effective July 1. As part of the change, the department has been reorganized and renamed Government Affairs.

Brother Keyser took over as director of the Political and Legislative Affairs Department in 2017 and led the IBEW's political outreach and grassroots programs through one of the most contentious and important presidential elections in U.S. history.

"These have been some of the most consequential and challenging years in our brotherhood's history. So much has been at stake," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "Austin's judgment, work ethic and reputation in Washington, D.C., and nationally have been crucial for the political successes we have had."

Keyser played a key role in coordinating with the Biden presidential campaign, including the IBEW's key decision to endorse Biden early in the primary campaign, a decision that built considerable trust, friendship and access in the new administration.

During the transition, Keyser served as co-chair of the Climate, Energy and Environment Policy Committee and as a senior advisor for policy and appointments throughout the executive branch.

During the campaign, Keyser led the department's outreach effort that trained hundreds of IBEW grassroots leaders and registrars as election outreach specialists, and directly contacted more than 63,000 union members in crucial Midwestern swing states and held more than 150,000 phone conversations with IBEW members.

The department was not only focused on elections, however. Keyser led the IBEW's political fights in Congress and in the regulatory agencies to protect organized labor from the excesses of Trump appointees committed determined to gut worker wage and safety protections.

"Some of our greatest successes were what we stopped: the radical plan to hand apprenticeships over to management, hang struggling pension funds on healthy ones and gut collective bargaining rights," Keyser said. "We took some heavy losses under the prior administration, but we did remarkable work winning enough friends to hold off catastrophe."

Now that the most labor-friendly president since Franklin Roosevelt is in the White House, Keyser said there is real opportunity to win ground back, not just hunker down.

Brother Keyser became a third generation IBEW member when he joined the apprenticeship at Portsmouth, Ohio, Local 575 in 2001. Even before he topped out, he was tapped to serve in positions normally only held by journeymen, including as a steward and on a standing committee at the local.

He served as assistant business manager, treasurer and membership development coordinator before he was elected one of the youngest business managers of a construction local in 2008 at age 29.

In 2011, he was hired as the AFL-CIO's Ohio director, taking over the entire Midwest in 2014 before coming to the International Office.

"Our highest priorities line up closely to President Biden's highest priorities: rebuild the nation's infrastructure and pass the PRO Act to give more people the chance to benefit from coming together in union," Keyser said. "We have been waiting decades for this chance."

The officers, staff and entire membership of the IBEW wish Brother Keyser the best as he takes on his new position.


Austin Keyser

Danielle M. Eckert

Danielle Eckert has been appointed director of the IBEW's Government Affairs Department, effective July 1. She replaces Austin Keyser, who was elevated to assistant to the international president for government affairs.

"I come from a working-class family," said Eckert, who hails from Homosassa, Florida, about an hour's drive north of Tampa on the Sunshine State's west coast. Her father was a drywall finisher, and after Eckert was born, her parents moved the family back to their native Buffalo, New York, and then later settled in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

After graduating from high school, Eckert joined the Army Reserve in part to gain access to the service's education stipend, which helped her pay for her degree from nearby Mt. Aloysius College, where she studied history, political science and secondary education.

Eckert wanted to become a teacher but discovered how difficult it can be to obtain a permanent, full-time teaching job in Pennsylvania. So, to help support her growing family, she worked as much as she could as a part-time substitute teacher while supplementing her income with a job at a chain convenience store. She excelled so much at her backup job at the store that within just a few years she was promoted to a position in the store chain's corporate office.

Seeing how Eckert was juggling two jobs to get by, one of Eckert's Army Reserve "battle buddies" who worked an IBEW gig at Norfolk Southern Railroad's Juniata locomotive shop in Altoona encouraged her friend to apply for a position there. "I kept hearing how there was good, steady union work there," Eckert said.

Enticed by the security that a union job offers, Eckert took her friend's advice and filled out an application. Norfolk Southern quickly hired her, first as a janitor before moving her over to forklift operation. In 2014, Eckert took, and passed, the test to become a locomotive electrician, which led to her initiation into Altoona Local 2273.

Eckert jumped into union activism right away, at first by planning events and outings for workers and their families, including a massive Christmas party for all the members of the various union locals working in the Juniata shop.

Two years later, Eckert got her first taste of government affairs work when she volunteered to serve as the railroad local's political registrar, setting up meetings with local congressional representatives — "or really, whoever would meet with us," she said.

An impressed Local 2273 Chairman Dan Dorsch encouraged Eckert to run in 2019 for an open seat on the Executive Board. "I didn't think I had a chance," Eckert said with a laugh, "but I wound up winning the election."

"She was one of the best students we ever had here," Dorsch said. "Danni is a very hard worker and a fast learner, and she has a work ethic that can't be beat."

At one time, Altoona's various railroad facilities combined to make up the largest railroad shop complex in the world, employing thousands of workers. But in recent years, most major U.S. railroads, including Norfolk Southern, have adopted a radical efficiency scheme known as precision scheduled railroading, a penny-pinching strategy that has resulted in the elimination of hundreds of IBEW and other union workers' jobs.

"Local 2273's membership has just been decimated by PSR," said Eckert, who was herself furloughed only a few months after winning her e-board election. Dorsch strongly encouraged Eckert to remain a member of the IBEW, however, and with his support and the backing of Third District International Vice President Michael Welsh, she was appointed an international representative in the Political and Legislative Affairs department in 2020.

And after serving more than 13 years with the Army Reserve, Staff Sergeant Eckert finished her contract with the military the same year.

"Even before Danielle started working with us here, I knew that good things were in store for her and for the entire IBEW," said Keyser. "I am very pleased to have such a qualified union sister working on behalf of all of our members, and I'm equally pleased to consider her a friend."

Eckert, who also holds a master's degree in management and leadership from Liberty University, lives with her husband, Jason, and their child, near Washington in Rockville, Maryland.

When she's not working to promote IBEW members' legislative and political interests, Eckert likes to run, work out, camp out, and hang out on a beach.

Please join the officers and staff in wishing Sister Eckert the best as she assumes her new role.


Danielle M. Eckert

Joel Bell

Joel Bell, a longtime IBEW leader in Arizona who served as an outside construction representative in Business Development for the last six years, retired effective June 1.

"Joel has an unbelievable understanding of the regulatory processes, which vary greatly from state to state," Business Development Director Ray Kasmark said. "Transmission projects take literally years, if not decades, to go from planning and regulatory to culmination.

"These are long ordeals. He had an intuitive ability to pick ones that had the best chance to come to fruition and where to best put our resources."

Retirement wrapped up a 44-year career for Brother Bell, who got a first-hand look at a lineman's life earlier than most. His father, Ray, was a member of Phoenix Local 769.

"I would spend my summers with him wherever he was working," said Bell, whose parents divorced when he was in the first grade. "He worked construction and I always would go to work with him. Even early on when he worked utility, I always rode with him in the truck on trouble calls.

"I got a pretty heavy exposure to line work and figured out that's what I wanted to do."

That would have to wait a few years, however. In 1974, when Bell graduated from high school, Local 769 didn't accept an apprenticeship class because of a slowdown in the Arizona economy.

So, he traveled to Alaska and worked as a mechanic for the next three years on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, becoming a member of the Operating Engineers. Bell enjoyed the work but quickly said yes when he was accepted into Local 769's revived apprenticeship program in 1977. He became a member one year later and completed his apprenticeship in 1980.

"I enjoyed the guys and it truly felt like a brotherhood," he said. "Line work is a pretty small world and the people I worked with knew me as a kid.

"When you work as a lineman, you come to an understanding that you put your life, to some extent, into someone else's hands. Whether you're working energized or you're setting steel, it's important you form a pretty tight bond."

Bell was active in Local 769 from the start of his career. He served on various committees and was elected to the Executive Board in 1984. He became board chairman in 1988.

By 1994, Local 769's business manager was nearing retirement and asked Bell to run for his position. He won that election and was re-elected six more times, facing no opposition in any of those races.

His proudest accomplishment was turning around Local 769's struggling financial situation. By 2013, when he left for the Seventh District office, it had $5 million in the bank and owned its new union hall outright. That put it in a more advantageous position to secure work and organize, he said.

"You've got to be able to fight the fights when you need to," Bell said. "If people think you have the resources, they might not take you on."

In 2013, Bell was appointed a Seventh District international representative, servicing locals in Arizona and New Mexico. He thought he might retire in that role before he was tapped to fill the newly-created position for an outside representative in Business Development in 2015.

"It was interesting because it is a lot like organizing," Bell said. "You talk to a lot of people, you put in the work, and then you think it's just dead and it's never going to happen. That can be disheartening at times.

"Then, a year or two years later, it develops. What you sowed comes back and starts paying off. When you have something that works in your favor after you talk to the right people and get the right projects for members, it's rewarding."

Tiler Eaton, another Business Development international representative who also focuses on outside work, said Bell was "so full of knowledge. You could ask him a question and every time, he would have a fix or a solution for everything you asked."

Eaton, who has known Bell for nearly 20 years, said the respect Bell garnered from the National Electrical Contractors Association and signatory contractors was invaluable.

"People meet Joel and they remember him," he said. "He never got upset. I almost felt like an apprentice to him because it was like he trained me. He taught me to think outside the box."

In retirement, Bell said he likely will sell his home in Chandler, Ariz., which he built nearly 35 years ago with his wife Josie, who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. He plans to make another home he owns in northern Arizona his permanent residence. He's also looking to purchase a new RV and do some traveling.

"I've got friends all over the country," he said. "There are some places I want to see on a retirement basis as opposed to from a hotel room."

He has one daughter, Amanda Ponikvar, and one grandson. Justin Ponikvar, his son-in-law, is a Local 769 member. So was his son, Clinton, who was killed in an automobile accident. Local 769 honors Clinton's memory with an annual blood drive in his name.

The officers and staff thank Brother Bell for his many years of service and wish him and his loved ones a long and happy retirement.


Joel Bell

Executive Reorganization at the International Office
International President Lonnie R. Stephenson has made organizational and responsibility changes at the International Office. International President Lonnie R. Stephenson has made organizational and responsibility changes at the International Office.

Darrin Golden, who was serving as Senior Executive Assistant to the International President, has been renamed Chief of Staff.


Darrin Golden

Sherilyn Wright, previously Executive Assistant to the International President, has been renamed Senior Executive Assistant to the International President. The changes took effect July 1.

In addition, the Political and Legislative Affairs Department has been renamed the Government Affairs Department.


Sherilyn Wright