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February 2024

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A Seat at the Table

Politics has always loomed large in the fight for workers' rights. It is why, in 1920, the IBEW relocated its International Office to Washington, D.C. But proximity is only half the battle; electing leaders who are receptive to the IBEW's message is the other. When labor has allies in Washington, the IBEW gets a seat at the table.

This has never been more true than now, with the IBEW exercising unprecedented influence in the Biden administration. That influence has resulted in several pieces of major legislation paving the way to tens of thousands of union electrical jobs, as well as favorable executive orders and pro-union agency officials.

Getting to this point was a long, winding journey of making inroads and suffering setbacks.

One of U.S. labor's earliest and most significant political victories was the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, or NIRA, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. This groundbreaking legislation established labor-code language for maximum work hours, minimum wage and the right to collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Board was established to ensure employers' compliance with the act, and advisory committees coordinated efforts between the Labor Department and workers in the field.

International President Howell Broach (1929-1933) and his successor, Daniel Tracy (1933-1940), served on these committees, and each testified to Congress on NIRA's effectiveness. The act expanded the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was then fully unionized by Tracy, and laid the groundwork for the Rural Electrification Act. In 1935, FDR appointed Tracy as the first U.S. labor delegate to the International Labor Conference, and then as labor adviser to the secretary of state in 1938, which gave the IBEW recognition and influence on the world stage. By the end of the decade, IBEW membership had increased 400%.

With the outbreak of war in Europe, FDR again turned to the IBEW to ensure that America was prepared. In 1940, Tracy stepped down as international president to serve as FDR's assistant secretary of labor. In this position, he worked closely with the National Defense Advisory Commission, which included fellow IBEW member Joseph Kennan, former business manager of Chicago Local 134. In 1943, Kennan became vice chairman for labor on the War Production Board, where he worked to stabilize industrial relations in the construction field. Thanks to these two men, the IBEW was involved in 95% of all war-related construction efforts during World War II.

After the war, Tracy was again elected international president while also serving as America's labor delegate during the creation of the United Nations. Looking back on his decision to join FDR's administration, Tracy said "the interests of the IBEW and organized labor as a whole could best be served by having persons cognizant of the aims and interests of labor in key government positions."

The same was true for Kennan. From 1945 to 1948, he served in postwar Germany as an advisor to U.S. Commander General Lucius D. Clay and as President Harry Truman's special coordinator between labor and industry for the purpose of reorganizing European trade unions. For his effort, he received the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1946. In 1954, Kennan was elected international secretary-treasurer of the IBEW, a position he held until 1976. During this time, he acted as labor liaison for the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy (1960) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1964), bringing the IBEW perspective to each administration.

In 1961, Kennedy turned to the IBEW to help guide our country's burgeoning nuclear power utilities. He appointed International President Gordan Freeman (1955-1968) to the U.S. Atomic Commission and tasked him with developing the industry's first training seminars, which were all held at the IBEW International Office. This initiative ensured that it would be IBEW members performing the groundbreaking work. The next year, with IBEW support, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, allowing millions of federal employees to join unions. This resulted in public sector unionization growing tenfold between 1955 and 1975.

In the next few decades, it was often difficult to find a labor ally in the White House. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter appointed International President Charles Pillard (1968-1986) to his Advisory Committee for U.S. Trade Negotiations. And while Carter was a strong supporter of Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws and a constant critic of "right to work" bills, most of his efforts were undone by the Reagan administration.

It wasn't until the election of President Bill Clinton in 1993 that IBEW influence in the White House was rekindled. Clinton rescinded much of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations' anti-labor executive orders. He added more front-line enforcers to the Labor Department, appointed allies to the NLRB and placed labor leaders throughout the federal agencies.

One of those leaders was International President John Barry (1986-2001), who was appointed to the President's Competitiveness Policy Council and the Export Council, where he advised Clinton on policies that affect workers' rights and legislation that opened foreign markets to goods produced by IBEW members. The Competitiveness Policy Council made several important recommendations regarding pensions and workforce training, highlighting the success of the IBEW's apprenticeship program. And during Barry's tenure on the Export Council, the yearly value of U.S. exports topped $1 trillion for the first time, while the number of jobs supported by those exports grew by 1.4 million.

In 2008, International President Edwin D. Hill (2001-2016) joined Barack Obama's presidential campaign as labor liaison. Once in office, Obama oversaw the largest investment in clean energy with the passage of the Recovery Act in 2009, which provided funding for advanced battery manufacturing plants and for upgrading the capacity of the nation's electrical grid. Like JFK before him, Obama recognized the IBEW's expertise in nuclear power and the role it could play in achieving energy independence.

That is why, in 2013, Obama chose the training center of Washington, D.C., Local 26 in Lanham, Md., to announce an $8 billion federal loan program to help build the next generation of nuclear power plants. It was just one part of his administration's landmark Clean Power Plan, legislation that was drafted with extensive input from the IBEW. To ensure the plan maximized job creation for union members, a working group was organized among the Department of Energy, the IBEW and the Steelworkers — an alliance that has continued to this day.

The impact of IBEW influence grew to unprecedented levels with the election of President Joe Biden in 2020. Joining the campaign as labor liaison and then as a trusted adviser on the transition committee was International President Lonnie R. Stephenson (2016-2022).

Gone are the anti-union appointees at the Labor Department and the NLRB and the executive orders that stripped federal workers of their collective bargaining rights. IBEW influence has been seen at every major achievement from saving multi-employer pensions to passing the American Recovery Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the CHIPS and Science Act. This amount of pro-labor legislation that benefits members and their families can only be reached when our elected leaders are not just receptive to labor's causes but champion them. We have seen throughout our history that when labor has an ally in the halls of power, the IBEW gets a seat at the table, and we get things done.

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International President Charles Pillard and President Jimmy Carter in 1978. Carter named Pillard to the Advisory Committee for U.S. Trade Negotiations.