As he takes the helm of one of North America’s leading unions, Lonnie R. Stephenson, IBEW’s new international president, credits President Emeritus Edwin D. Hill for setting a “clear path” to follow in growing the union’s numbers and influence.
But Stephenson, Sixth District international vice president since 2010 – the unanimous choice of delegates to the 38th International Convention – says he also carries into his new job the sobering reminders of how many obstacles lay in that path.
On June 1, Stephenson replaced Hill, who retired.
Challenging the Right-to-Work Onslaught
He cited wounding anti-union attacks in statehouses close to home, including the passage of right-to-work legislation.
|Rock Island, Ill., Local 145 member Lonnie R. Stephenson is the new international president of the IBEW.
Before the 2010 elections, there were no right-to-work states in his district, says Stephenson. Only a few years later, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana joined the list of states that obstruct the rights of workers to organize union shops.
“It has become more important than ever to educate the general public about why it’s right for people to pay their fair share for the protections provided by collective bargaining agreements that help support them and sustain their communities,” said Stephenson, who helped lead the huge protests in Wisconsin to halt Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on public workers.
A native of Moline, Ill., Stephenson, whose father worked at the U.S. Army’s Rock Island Arsenal and whose mother was a factory worker, began his inside wireman apprenticeship with Rock Island Local 145 in 1975.
He had taken college preparatory courses and was planning to be an electrical engineer when, he says, an electrician made a service call to the grocery store where he worked as a produce clerk. Stephenson asked how he got his job. The electrician advised him to apply at the IBEW hall, but “not to expect an easy time if I had no friends or family in the union.”
One of 12 apprentices accepted, Stephenson ended up working alongside some of the local’s executive board members who encouraged his involvement in the union. “They were already performing the function of our mentors who, today, are working with the RENEW [young workers] program,” says Stephenson.
He volunteered for the picnic committee. “I had no thought of running for union office,” he says. But in 1984, while attending a local union meeting, he was nominated to run for vice president by a friend who was unhappy with the other member running. Stephenson won the election and served as the local’s president and assistant business manager before being asked to run by then-Business Manager Jerry Kavanaugh, who was retiring.
“I told him there were two other guys who were appointed before me,” says Stephenson, “but he said, ‘We discussed this and you are the next generation.’” Stephenson accepted the job and soon was in the running to fill many of the positions his predecessor held in the trade union movement and the surrounding community.
“Jerry Kavanaugh was the first person I called to tell about my appointment as international president,” Stephenson said. “I thanked him for giving me the opportunity in 1991. If it wasn’t for him and his other representatives, Karl Lempke and Gary McMahill, I would not be doing what I am doing today, says Stephenson, who threw himself into business development.
Business Development, Community Activist
Located on the Mississippi River, Rock Island Local 145 draws its membership from Illinois and Iowa. Stephenson knew that a 2003 plan to develop Davenport, Iowa’s and Rock Island’s riverfronts could bring jobs and economic stability to the region. So, Stephenson, who served as an executive board member of the Quad City Federation of Labor, partnered with business leaders to support a successful bond referendum to launch the project.
As co-chairman of the labor/management cooperative committee, ILLOWA, Stephenson helped establish the basis for 300 public and private sector all-union project labor agreements. He helped to spearhead a one-cent sales tax referendum in Davenport that brought millions of dollars of work opportunities to the area.
After establishing a community service committee in the local, Stephenson, who served on the board of the United Way, marshalled an annual blood drive and won designation for the union hall as a Red Cross disaster center. During 1993 flooding in the Quad cities area, the hall served as the hub for relief efforts.
He was finishing his second term as business manager in 2002 when Stephenson was appointed international representative assigned to the Sixth District. He served as the district’s organizing coordinator for two years before moving to the district office as desk representative to work for Vice President Jeff Lohman.
“Coming from an inside construction local, the desk rep job and a close working relationship with Jeff Lohman enabled me to get familiar with the other branches of the Brotherhood,” says Stephenson.
Since that apprenticeship in the multiple branches of the IBEW, Stephenson has won high praise for mastering the issues of the IBEW in all of its diversity.
Stephenson’s voice and commitment on the IBEW’s utility coordinating council was pivotal in bringing together several local utility unions to present a united front in bargaining with billionaire Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, said Tom Dalzell, business manager of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245, which represents workers at NV Energy, a Berkshire subsidiary.
Organizing has always been at the top of Stephenson’s agenda. In a speech to the 2013 Sixth District progress meeting, he said: “We need to continue to feed our family tree through organizing … Each branch of the IBEW is vital to the health of our family tree. We all have the responsibility to work together, to support one another, and to organize together to bring our family tree to new heights. Like a song I once heard about a willow tree, the branches may bend in the wind but it will never break.”
Moving the Ball down the Field
“President Hill has laid the groundwork for our brotherhood to grow with initiatives like the Code of Excellence and a new focus on business development,” says Stephenson. “I’m humbled by the IEC’s appointment and President Hill’s support. My challenge is to move the ball further down the field, to intensify our participation.”
Local 1245 organizer Jammi Juarez, who assisted the Sixth District’s efforts in Wisconsin and organizing at Greenlee Tools says, “Lonnie is an amazing person, one who believes in trade unionism, who comes out of the tools and is true to the cause.”
Family Inspires Commitment
“My biggest supporter who encourages me every day is my wife, Dawn Stephenson. Next to her, my biggest supporter is my 89-year-old mother, Ila Stephenson,” says IBEW’s new president.
Stephenson enjoys spending time with his three children, two stepchildren, six grandchildren and one great grandchild, playing golf and camping.
‘Effective, Progressive, Approachable’
Colleagues on Lonnie R. Stephenson
Across his district and in other corners of the IBEW, the people who know Lonnie Stephenson the best are praising his appointment and say they are excited for the future of the Brotherhood.
Here are some of their voices:
“I’ve known Lonnie for years. He is a very effective leader, a good manager who values input and listens to what you have to say before making a decision. He knows our trade, from the apprenticeship to the top.”
Jim Bailey, business manager, Danville, Ill., Local 538
“I’ve always found Lonnie to be a reasonable person who listens well. He’s a progressive and was one of the vice presidents most supportive of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus.”
Russell Ponder, Local 134 retiree, former vice president of The Electrical Workers Minority Caucus
“I couldn’t be happier at Lonnie’s appointment. All of us who know him feel the IEC made a good decision. He’s approachable, he listens and then makes decisions. His door is always open. I couldn’t be more satisfied with the direction the IBEW is headed.”
Charles Yancey, business manager, Alton, Ill., Local 649
“Lonnie is a great leader, a down-to-earth, people-oriented person. He relates well to everyone, the members, to the business managers and representatives. I’ve been very comfortable dealing with Lonnie over the years.”
Bruce Getts, business manager, Fort Wayne, Ind., Local 723
“I worked with Lonnie as business manager for the Bricklayers. He did an excellent job. He’s a friend of all the building trades here. When we went to meet with owners and developers, Lonnie represented himself with a well-rounded approach to the whole construction industry.”
Bob Carlson, retired secretary-treasurer, Tri-City Building and Construction Trades Council, Rock Island, Ill.
“Lonnie is one of my favorite people. He’s an approachable guy with a warmth about him that makes him easy to talk to. I understand there’s protocol in the IBEW, but it’s never been hard to talk to Lonnie. He’s a hands-on leader. When I was looking for someone to reach out to for the ice bucket challenge, he was the first person I thought of because he has so many people who respect him. I’m excited to see where the IBEW goes under Lonnie’s leadership. He’s a big believer in the Code of Excellence and he will hold people accountable.”
Leo Sokolik, business manager, Janesville, Wis., Local 890
“Lonnie is a very generous and open leader. From the beginning of my first term as a brand new business manager, Lonnie was amazing. I didn’t realize that business managers don’t call VP’s four or five times a week. But he would answer every call. Lonnie was the best mentor I could have had. I was in shock and really happy for brotherhood when I heard about his appointment. I’m very excited about the prospects for the IBEW. Now the entire union will be enjoying the benefits of working under Lonnie’s leadership. It’s a proud and historic day for the Sixth District.”
Mike Richard, business manager, Detroit Local 58
“What I first saw in Lonnie was a decent person and a real good union man. He looked out for our people and really cared for the older members. He had his disagreements with contractors, but they liked and respected him. He was a hard worker and an honest guy. He called me upon his appointment as international president and said if it wasn’t for me he wouldn’t be where he is. I told him, ‘You were on your way. I just helped you along.’”
Jerry Kavanaugh, retired business manager, Rock Island, Ill., Local 145
“Lonnie is a very caring, compassionate leader who is everything the IBEW stands for, working to the very best of his ability to perpetuate the industry for us.”
Scott Verschoore, business manager, Rock Island, Ill., Local 145