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August 2023

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'Real People Doing the Real Work'
White House Embraces Wisconsin Locals in First‑of‑Its‑Kind Summit

Even as they passed through White House checkpoints and stepped into the marble halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door, the IBEW local leaders visiting from Wisconsin didn't know what to expect from the Biden administration's invitation.

Would it be mainly a tour? Or more like Lobby Day at the state capitol, walking from one far-flung office to another, shaking hands and talking for a few minutes about IBEW issues?

Instead, they were ushered into the opulent Secretary of War Suite, where senior White House advisers and policymakers rotated in and out over the next four hours, listening intently, asking and answering questions, taking vigorous notes, and promising ongoing help.

"It was phenomenal," said Green Bay Local 158 Business Manager Jesse Jacques. "These were the real people doing the real work in Washington, D.C. We could have been there another five hours and I think it would have been just as productive."

Their afternoon visit on May 22 was unique, an experiment by a pro-worker White House in the value of meeting with a group of ground-level officers from a single union in a single state.

The welcoming words of President Joe Biden's head of the Office of Public Engagement almost went without saying, but Steve Benjamin, former mayor of Columbia, S.C., put it on the record anyway: "The White House is a union house!"

Participating staff came from the upper echelons of a dozen departments and agencies, including Labor, Energy, Transportation, Education, the vice president's office, the Domestic Policy Council and teams implementing the $2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, which contain strong prevailing-wage language and other worker protections.

The conversations haven't stopped, with staffers true to their word about following up on inquires made during and since the meeting.

Local officers have contacted them about such matters as expediting a utility company's grid-resilience grant, regulatory approval of a new power plant, and linking up an IBEW manufacturer needing domestic components with the administration's Made in America office.

"The meeting really cut out a lot of layers that we'd normally have to go through to get answers to things," said Sixth District International Vice President Mike Clemmons, who attended with several of the district's international representatives.

"We built direct contacts with people who are directly in charge of implementing policy and getting all this money out on the street — money that's generationally going to affect our core industries and jobs for IBEW members," he said. "It was unbelievably substantive."

The meeting's origins go back to February, when Dean Warsh, then business manager of Milwaukee Local 494, attended a Wisconsin summit at the 150-year-old Eisenhower building — home to Vice President Kamala Harris' ceremonial office and steps away from the White House's West Wing.

That event was part of an ongoing "Communities in Action" series bringing together mayors, business owners, labor leaders, service organizations and other activists, one state at a time.

Warsh, who began a new job July 1 as a Sixth District international representative, chatted with White House staff in charge of the meeting. He said they mentioned wanting "to get as close to the ground as possible and hear directly from union locals."

He and the president's labor liaison, a Wisconsinite, put their heads together and, three months later, 18 Badger State business managers and assistants made history.

"The earlier meeting was great. I was proud to be there," Warsh said. "But this meeting was all about the IBEW and our members. All our sectors. Everyone was represented."

Whether the White House will host more forums with individual unions remains to be seen. But staffers were upbeat when they took their IBEW visitors bowling later that night at the two-lane Harry S. Truman alley in the Eisenhower building's basement.

"Being the first meeting of its kind, they didn't know what to expect any more than we did," Warsh said. "They were very pleased. They felt it was super informative all the way around."

It's been a win for IBEW employers, too.

For Milwaukee-based We Energies, it means a grant application is no longer languishing at the DOE, thanks to the efforts of Local 2150 Business Manager Jim Meyer.

"The most important thing I learned is that our input matters," Meyer said. "We asked for an update on the status of the grant, and they said, 'The more labor interaction we have, the higher it gets pushed up the pile.'"

With a critical shortage of tree trimmers, We Energies is seeking federal funds to recruit and train more crews to protect the electrical grid from storm damage. The grant also would help launch a program to introduce inner-city students to careers in the utility industry.

Local 2150's assistance came on the eve of bargaining a new contract at We Energies. "The timing is perfect," Meyer said. "The awarding of these funds is probably going to happen during these negotiations."

Duluth, Minn., Local 242 leaders have been using their new contacts to advance Minnesota Power's planned Nemadji Trail Energy Center, or NTEC, a natural gas plant project in Superior, Wis., currently in the regulatory stage.

Assistant Business Manager Kyle Bukovich brought up NTEC during the meeting, hoping to counter environmentalists' concerns. He explained that the project will replace two coal plants and that emerging technologies will allow NTEC's turbines to be converted to generate 100% hydrogen power in the future.

"I wanted them to know what NTEC is, to give them a little more insight on what that plant can do and will do, and how much it means to our region," said Bukovich, who is also president of the Northern Wisconsin Building Trades and routinely calls on local, state and federal officials.

"Having friends in those places, especially at the White House, definitely strengthens our relationships with employers," he said. "Every time I've reached out to someone in the Biden administration, they've always been responsive."

Sometimes at lightning speed, as happened with Meyer after the meeting. He'd posed a question to the director of the Made in America office on behalf of wind-turbine maker Ingeteam, which is expanding in Milwaukee to produce 500,000 electrical vehicle chargers over the next five years and is looking for U.S. suppliers.

"I said: 'Here's my business card. Can you send information on what they need to do?'" Meyer said. "Before I got back to my hotel room, her email was waiting."

As his fellow business managers also stressed, Meyer noted how valuable it was "just to learn who to interact with, who the correct people are — that this goes through Commerce, this goes through Transportation, this goes through Energy. Before, I never would have known who to ask."

The byproduct of that knowledge is IBEW jobs.

"The faster you can cut through some of the red tape, the faster our employers can get projects off the ground and put our members to work," Warsh said. "The Biden White House has opened those doors for us."

Business managers brought that message home to their locals, no longer talking in the abstract or quoting others about the depth of the administration's commitment to good jobs and workers' rights.

"You can't always rely on what you hear in the media," Bukovich said. "We heard it firsthand, sitting face to face with these senior advisers and other people who roll up their sleeves to make policy and pass laws that are directly benefiting us."

In his newsletter column for Local 158 members, Jacques listed the staffers they met with and issues discussed: from Biden's historic legislation to apprentice training and jobsite ratios; prevailing wage; solar, wind, hydrogen and nuclear power; battery storage, EV charging stations and training; diversity and mental health in the trades and more.

"I told them the IBEW would have never been invited to something like this in past administrations, Democrat or Republican," Jacques said. "This administration genuinely wants to make life better for working people in this country. It's not a campaign slogan. They keep doubling down on their promises with their actions."


Wisconsin business managers such as Local 2150's Jim Meyer, at head of table, raised IBEW issues during a meeting with White House senior staff in May.


Participants at right include Local 494's Dean Warsh and Sixth District International Vice President Mike Clemmons, who called the afternoon "unbelievably substantive."