The Electrical Worker online
May 2022

index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr User Daniel Gillaspia

For the fifth time, the IBEW is calling delegates from across North America together to the Windy City.

Only the union's birthplace, St. Louis, has hosted more conventions, but it's been nearly 70 years since the last time delegates gathered at America's great crossroads.

The last time the IBEW convention came to Chicago in 1954, half the working population of the city had a union card in their pocket.

And while the numbers today aren't quite so overwhelming, delegates are still coming to one of America's great union towns.

"There's never been a nonunion tower crane in this city. Not ever," said Chicago Local 134 Business Manager Don Finn. "We are the number one union town in America. The IBEW wouldn't be the IBEW without Chicago."

Chicagoland is a vast nation within the nation starting at Lake Michigan and extending across at least 16 counties, three states and more than 10,000 square miles.

And it has room to welcome all May 9 to 13. McCormick Place, delegates' home for the weeklong gathering, is the largest convention center in the country.

But there is no traditional host committee, because where does one draw the cutoff?

Six locals have Chicago addresses, but another 13 have jurisdictions within reach of The Loop, Chicago's downtown core, doing every kind of job in the IBEW.

They include one of the first chartered locals in (nearly) continuous operation for 130 years and another chartered less than 25 years ago.

"Every single branch of the brotherhood is covered in Chicagoland. We're very proud of that," said Fifth District International Executive Council member Frank Furco, business manager of Lisle, Ill., Local 701.

Together, they tell the story of organized labor in North America in all its breadth, variety and change.

Just south of The Loop is the gleaming new hall of Local 134, the largest of the Chicagoland locals and, at 122 years, one of the oldest.

Local 134's more than 12,000 members are as varied as inside construction can be. More than 7,000 "A" inside wiremen, 5,000 commercial and tenant improvement electricians, 1,700 communications workers, and more work under more than 1,000 contracts for 643 — and counting — contractors and 45 manufacturers.

Since the end of a protracted construction trades lockout in 1906, union members have built every monument of stone, steel and glass that make Chicago a world wonder. They built the factories that made it the steel mill for the world and the thousands of bungalows that sheltered generations of the city's working families.

Even as the pandemic ground the economy to a halt and killed the convention business that made up 10% of their annual hours, the lines for the apprenticeship test have never been longer.

"We have to spread the test to three weekends now," Finn said. "The want and need to be a member of 134 has never been greater."

And the city has never needed the IBEW more, either. Generational projects like Lincoln Yards and "The 78" — which alone will have 70 buildings, including the city's first casino — are a generation's worth of work.

Chicago, Finn said, is what it has always been: the IBEW's past, present, and future.

"It is a complete honor that we will host the convention," he said. "Welcome to our home."

The honor of being the oldest Chicago local goes to Local 9, chartered in 1893. It is one of three remaining original single digit locals, along with St. Louis Local 1 and Toledo Local 8.

Local 9 remains a pre-eminent outside construction local today, with about 94% market share.

Few Chicagoans know the city better than Local 9 members. They work on power lines and traffic signals in the city and in surrounding municipalities including Naperville, Cicero, Elmwood Park and Oak Park. They also maintain wireless communication networks and keep the Chicago Transit Authority running, including the city's legendary "L" system.

Local 9 also has members working in government, utility, cable television and line clearance and tree trimming.

"We're in a very good spot because of a lot of hard work and the relationships with our partners and our customers," Business Manager William Niesman said. "Our membership prides itself on working hard and sticking together. We all have a common-sense, blue-collar mentality."

Niesman said Local 9 has been successfully reaching out to local high school students, teachers and administrators about the value of a career in the trades. The Middle States Electrical Contractors Association, Local 9's signatory contractors, recently spent $40 million to upgrade the apprenticeship as more of them join.

He's also proud that Local 9 negotiated a lower retirement age from 62 to 60.

"Our members work out in the elements, not in a building; that wears your body down," Niesman said. "We want to give people who work an opportunity at a good career and a long retirement."

The airwaves in Chicago are no exception to the city's strong union culture. Chicago Local 1220 was formed in 1939 when more than 400 radio broadcast engineers moved from Local 134 to the Midwest Associated Broadcast Technicians Unit. ABTU was created because the International Office decided "it took a radio man to organize a radio man."

Two years later, it was officially chartered as Local 1220 of the ABTU of the IBEW.

Today, Local 1220 represents crews at some of the city's most prominent TV and radio stations, including CBS affiliate WBBM; WGN; WSCR-670, home of the Cubs; employees under national pacts at CBS and Fox Sports; and public TV's WTTW, where the community rallied behind striking workers during a three-week walkout this spring.

"Our members were unified and selfless on the picket line," Business Manager John Rizzo said. "Their sacrifices made this contract possible."

There's other success brewing at the local. "I'm the new coffee king," Rizzo laughs, cheering last year's wins at the Colectivo coffee chain and hinting at more to come.

In a triumph over union-busting, baristas in Chicago and Wisconsin voted to join a combined unit represented by Local 1220 and Milwaukee Local 494 and are preparing to bargain a first contract. Rizzo encourages convention-goers to roll out the welcome mat.

"There are five Chicago locations, so if you're out and about, stop by for a great cup of coffee or tea and let them know we're happy to have them with us," he said.

Railways fueled Chicago's rise from remote settlement to the city it is today. It is fitting that rail locals comprise one-quarter of the Chicagoland IBEW.

At its peak in the first half of the 20th century, there were 4,500 miles of railroad track within Chicago's city limits and, on average, a train arrived or departed every minute of every day.

Today, it remains the most important interchange point for freight traffic between the nation's major railroads. Six of the seven Class I railroads meet in Chicago; only the Kansas City Southern Railway doesn't.

Keeping it all humming are the locomotive, telecom and system electricians and HVAC crews that form the core of the IBEW's rail membership, spread across five locals, each covering different rail lines.

In Chicago, Local 533 contracts with BNSF and Canadian Pacific while Local 214's 250 members work on Chicago & Northwestern Transit and Union Pacific lines and engines.

There is a separate contract for Amtrak, served by Local 794's 165 members who maintain the largest Amtrak hub outside the northeast corridor, said Railroad Director Al Russo.

The 95 members of Joliet, Ill., Local 757 maintain the railstock and communications equipment for Canadian National, Belt Railway of Chicago, Gary Railway, and CNR, a holding company that runs the Chicago, Central & Pacific Railway, Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, Illinois Central Railroad and the Wisconsin Central Railway.

Just outside city boundaries and across state lines is the fifth, Gary, Ind., Local 186. The small shop founded just over a century ago has just 25 members today covering two freight rail companies, Indiana Harbor Belt and CSX.

Chicago history is full of labor battles centered around the rail lines from the Great Strike of 1877 to the Haymarket massacre. Rail barons then or multinational conglomerates today, rail workers have always had to fight exploitation.

Unfortunately, the past isn't always past, said Local 533 President Mauro Navarro. His local's recent struggles with employers are emblematic of the sector generally. Wages and conditions were already bad, he said. When COVID-19 hit, management saw their chance.

"They used it as an excuse to close a repair shop, putting 30 of us out of work in September 2020. Meanwhile BNSF was recording record profits," he said.

Fortunately, other IBEW locals took in many of them.

"Chicago is the end of line, but it's also where it all begins. We are the hub at the center, and even if it is less of a union town than it may once have been, we're still strong and we will get stronger," he said.

Construction is booming in the greater Chicagoland area, and nearly a dozen inside construction locals are at the heart of it.

North and west of the city, Elgin Local 117's jurisdiction straddles the border between the suburbs and the country. The local's 400 members, nearly all inside wiremen, do a combination of commercial, prevailing wage and residential, though that business was hit hard by the Great Recession.

In recent years a fair bit of the local's work has come from conveyor belt-filled distribution centers popping up in former corn and soybean fields, Business Manager Jesse Lenart said.

Despite being in the Hoosier State, Gary and Hammond, Ind., Local 697 members can often see Chicago's skyline — especially if they are working the BP Refinery in Whiting, the sixth largest in the United States. Working at the refinery has been a rite of passage for generations, especially since it began a $14 billion modernization effort in 2012.

The steel industry remains an important force in the region, with Inland Steel and U.S. Steel still there. Employment among steel workers is a fraction of what is once was, but Local 697 members played a key role in the plants' modernization and ongoing maintenance.

Business Manager Joree Richards said Local 697 benefits from its proximity to Chicago in many ways, not least having the highest wage scales in Indiana. The traditionally strong union state has been plagued by a generation of anti-union governors and legislators, however, and became a right-to-work state in 2012.

But in the northwest part of the state, known as The Region, unions remain strong and the future looks better than it has for a long time.

"In the last two years, what's been interesting to me is that, in a political setting, it's been OK to use the word "union" again. That's a welcome change," Richards said.

Lisle, Ill., Local 701 has just a single county, DuPage, to call home, but its impact within that space is immense, Assistant Business Manager Tony Giunti said.

The local is primarily an inside construction local with some municipal employees, but it has long represented employees at two major U.S. Energy Department Facilities: Argonne National Laboratory, the largest research laboratory in the Midwest; and Fermilab, which specializes in high-energy particle physics. Both are part of the famed Illinois Technology and Research Corridor.

Work remains strong at both facilities, as it does at most of Local 701's major employers, and apprentice classes are larger each year.

Giunti said the staff and members take pride in Business Manager Frank Furco being a member of the International Executive Council and in being the home local of Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Jerry O'Connor, who served as its business manager from 1978 to 1987.

In 1914, Lake County, just north of the Chicago on Wisconsin border, was spun off from Local 134 and Waukegan, Ill., Local 150 was chartered.

Lake County is home to 12 Fortune 500 companies including pharma giants like Abbott Labs, AbbVie, Medline, Horizon Therapeutics, Baxter, Takeda, and Pfizer.

The 1,000 members of the primarily inside local average over one million hours per year in just a 25-square-mile jurisdiction.

"Chicagoans are known for our quality of work, work ethic, and the diversity of our workforce. Rain, sun, or snow, we always get the jobs done," said Business Manager Steve Smart.

Smart said the membership is getting excited about the coming convention, eager to show off how the region has changed.

"The city has changed so much over the past 20 years with new towers, renovation of stadiums and Navy Pier and the expansion of O'Hare Airport that it will be very impressive to showcase to the entire IBEW," he said.

Southwest of Chicago is the energy, chemical, and manufacturing hub of Illinois, centered in Joliet and the jurisdiction of Local 176, which covers the I-80 corridor from Indiana to Iowa.

"We have two nuclear power plants (Dresden and Braidwood), two oil refineries (ExxonMobil and Citgo), and numerous petrochemical and chemical plants and many other manufacturing facilities," said Business Manager Mike Clemmons.

While logistics facilities are becoming a central business for the IBEW, few can compete with Local 176, which is home to several rail/highway facilities, including the 6,400-acre CenterPoint Intermodal Center-Joliet, North America's largest inland port.

"We have over 100 million square feet of logistics space built out in our local with more coming online each day," he said.

Clemmons hopes the collar counties will not be forgotten in the convention.

"Our area is a stronghold for the labor movement, ranking consistently in the top 10 in the IBEW in market share. We are blue-collar, hard-working middle-class people with a great work ethic," he said. "We are steeped in labor history; we continue to make history, and we're dedicated ensuring the future success of the labor movement in our local."

Like so many locals, Rockford, Ill., Local 364 Business Manager Alan Golden said his is blessed and busy.

A single, 10-year, $3.4 billion data center job is employing nearly 700 of his 800 members.

Meanwhile, the local's traditional mix of industrial, powerhouse and residential work goes on. The Dresden nuclear plant — Illinois has the largest nuclear fleet in the nation — keeps nearly 100 members busy each year and a new Hard Rock Casino means the 104-year-old local is hosting more than one traveler for every member that calls Rockford home.

"It's been nuts," he said. "It's all good in northern Illinois right now."

Golden said one of the best parts of working in Rockford is that all the trades have been around for nearly a century — though he proudly claims his local as the oldest of the lot — and job sites work smoothly and cooperatively.

"Everybody works well together. The attitude is, 'Whatever comes our way, we can deal with it,'" he said. "And after the pandemic, there are no obstacles we can't overcome."

Rockford is also home to an outside local, one of the oldest in Chicagoland.

Local 196 was chartered in 1901 and has jurisdiction in 14 counties in northern Illinois, stretching from the Wisconsin border to the far western Chicago suburbs all the way west to the Quad Cities area on the Mississippi River.

Business Manager Eric Patrick said most of the members are outside linemen, but it is home to utility, telephone, maintenance, and government members as well as the bus mechanics and custodial staff at Rockford Mass Transit District.

It got a massive boost in 2011, when the state Legislature passed a 10-year, $2.6 billion grid improvement program for ComEd, the primary electric supplier in the northern part of the state. Local 196 members and other IBEW locals lobbied hard for the bill's passage.

"That's meant a lot of great stuff for an outside local," said Patrick.

To meet the workforce demands, Local 196 recently opened a new training facility on a 5½-acre lot in Genoa, Ill., about 30 miles southeast of Rockford.

As far out as the Chicagoland umbrella may spread, one of the locals included in the Convention family sticks out a bit farther.

With as many counties in Iowa as Illinois, Rock Island Local 145 sits clear across the state from Chicago and looks to the Great Plains more than it does the Great Lakes, said Business Manager Cory Bergfeld.

The local can't really claim to be at the heart of Chicagoland, but it does have a claim to the spotlight. Long before he accepted the international presidency, Lonnie Stephenson sat in the chair Bergfeld occupies today.

"Most of the people who knew Lonnie when he was working the tools have retired, so we give the new ones an education," Bergfeld said. "I am proud to be sitting in his seat, but it is humbling."

Today, Local 145's 1,200 members are about evenly split between a closed shop state (Illinois) and a right-to-work state (Iowa), with nearly all their work in the industrial and commercial center known as the Quad Cities: Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline across the Mississippi in Illinois.

One of their major employers is the Rock Island Arsenal, the only active U.S. Army foundry, but they also have contracts with John Deere, 3M, the Quad Cities nuclear plant and Arconic (formerly Alcoa) as well as a handful of outside contracts for local utilities and co-ops.

"We are a walk through and have been for the past 9-12 months," he said. "We kept on trucking right through the pandemic."

Bergfeld says his members are rightly proud of their corner of Illinois and can hold their head high in any company.

"We are hugely proud to have the leader of the IBEW come from our own," he said.

Keeping the lights on is all in a day's work for the men and women of Chicagoland's utility sector, who are excited to welcome delegates to their hometown.

"It's a big deal," said Terry McGoldrick, business manager of Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15, whose local represents 3,500 workers at ComEd in northern and central Illinois. "We're obviously excited, a little nervous."

But Local 15 has plenty of experience of succeeding when the stakes are high. Over the past three years, it led the fight to save two Illinois nuclear plants and save more than 200 IBEW jobs.

McGoldrick was there when Gov. J.B. Pritzker ultimately signed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act last September, preserving the existing fleet of nuclear reactors as part of the state's clean-energy strategy.

"It was nothing short of amazing. We were there every single day of the legislative session," said McGoldrick, who is quick to credit fellow IBEW locals, union allies, and the AFL-CIO for critical support.

McGoldrick said the political win was fueled in part by goodwill earned by his members who help every charitable project they can, particularly the United Way.

"It's all employee-driven — our people go out and do all the soliciting, and they've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years," he said. "I don't know of any major companies that have such a strong program."

Covering much of the same footprint as Local 15, Aurora Local 19's 1,400 members serve the area's 2.2 million Nicor Gas customers across 34 counties.

They, too, are active volunteers in the region, raising money for United Way, collecting food and winter coats, painting houses, and otherwise helping their far-flung communities, Business Manager Andy Nacke said.

Chartered in Downers Grove, Local 21's jurisdiction is the largest in Chicagoland. Once a month, Business Manager Paul Wright drives up, down and across Illinois, as well as to the northwest corner of Indiana, to hold seven membership meetings, returning to a new three-story local hall in Lisle, Ill.

Most of Local 21's 4,500-plus members work for AT&T and its offshoots, as well as other telecom and cable TV companies.

Over his decade in office, Wright is proud of the progress his local has made in growing to look more like the communities it serves. An executive board that he says was "mostly white telephone repairmen" now has a Black chairman and minority and women members.

Local 21 also represents health care workers at state-run nursing homes. Until recently, there were two, but despite the local's best efforts, one closed. Wright still gets heated recalling not only the loss of 160 members' jobs, but the cruelty of a conservative county board that shut the facility down and kicked out its residents several months into the pandemic.

The local also represents two 911 call centers, including Chicago's. Should convention delegates have cause to call the line during their stay, they'll be talking to an IBEW member, which should be a comfort.

When the convention arrives, Chicago will welcome members from every country and classification under the wide tent of the IBEW.

They will come, like so many who came to Chicago from around the world, on a mission to accomplish something great and with a work ethic second to none.

The "City of Broad Shoulders," as poet Carl Sandburg wrote, will welcome them with open arms, just as it has so many millions in its 185-year history. Then, it will put them to work.


Local 176 members work on the CPV Combined Gas Plant Project.


Local 364 members install the final piece of underground at a Dekalb data center.


Local 1220 members rally during a recent three-week strike at WTTW.