For more than 34 years, Billy Roach had worked as an electrician on heavy industrial and commercial construction projects for nonunion contractors around his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.

Baton Rouge Local 995 organizers Jason Dedon, left, and Cliff Zylks stand with one of 200 signs that were posted throughout the jurisdiction.

Roach had never thought about joining the union. But in February, he got a phone call from an organizer with Local 995, the city’s inside construction local, inviting him to an industry night, a union job fair. He showed up.

“I’d been to job fairs before sponsored by [nonunion] contractors,” Roach says. “They would lead me out to the jobsite and I’d find out the pay, working conditions and hours weren’t what they promised.” 

In contrast, says Roach, “IBEW organizers have shown honesty and integrity. They answer my questions without beating around the bush.” After meeting with a few signatory contractors, Roach was put to work right away on a project for Accurate Electric. I wish I had done this [joined the union] sooner,” says Roach.

He is not alone. In IBEW’s Fifth District, covering much of the South, new members are responding to the union’s call to help signatory contractors staff a growing list of projects emerging from a recovering economy and an expanding energy industry. Since January alone, 268 new members have joined one of seven construction locals in Louisiana.

Labor Shortage Drives Organizing Urgency

Across the district, $300 billion of work has been pulled off the signatory contractors' books for lack of manpower, says Fifth District Organizing Coordinator Ronnie Hickingbottom.

“The labor shortage is growing, but we’re also starting to see some folks who ignored the trades and went to college deciding to work with their hands,” he says. The need to recruit more locally-based electricians is amplified by the low number of travelers who head south for work due to traditionally lower labor rates in the region.

The secret to the wave of new successes, say local union and international organizers, is applying what has been learned in the 11 years of experience since the launch of the Florida Initiative in 2004 – a path-breaking push that was the precursor to the IBEW’s modern organizing program – and creatively experimenting with new technology and tactics. 

Sharp Communication Tools Lift Turnout

Planning for an industry night are from left, Chad Lux, Shreveport, La., Local 194; District Organizing Coordinator Ronnie Hickingbottom; Jesse Fontenot, Lake Charles, La., Local 861; Lance Corner, Local 861; State Organizing Coordinator Dwayne Reeves; and Jason Dedon, Baton Rouge, La., Local 995, and Special Assistant to the President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland.

Today’s industry nights are promoted with compelling TV spots airing on local channels. Local unions are posting ads on Facebook and YouTube and leaving reminder cards at electrical supply warehouses. And, guided by GPS, organizers are traveling to remote jobsites for face-to-face contact with nonunion electricians, all to boost and expand turnout. If a site is off-limits, lawn signs are staged for curious electricians at nearby intersections.

“The TV ads produced by the IBEW Media Department were awesome,” Hickingbottom says.  “And Facebook and YouTube ads are helping turn out 50 percent more electricians than before we started using these tools.”

Despite inclement weather, a March 26 industry night sponsored by Local 995 and New Orleans Local 130 brought out 110 electricians. Forty-five were sworn in the same night. Jason Dedon, Local 995 assistant business manager, says the spike in work on petroleum and chemical plant work made reaching out to nonunion electricians even more difficult, as many work overtime on outages and new construction at the thirty-plus industrial facilities and other big projects. Working all channels of communication is drawing notice.

Dedon says a few contractors who had low expectations for the industry night were surprised by the quality of prospective members showing up.

Nearly 250 electricians turned out at another March 26 industry night sponsored by Birmingham, Ala., Local 136. The majority of attendees said they had seen TV ads. Signatory contractors picked up 15 new hands, including 10 construction electricians and journeymen wiremen and five construction wiremen or apprentices. While the turnout was dampened because of traffic backups, the result of a nearby visit by President Obama, TV ads and lawn signs were still sending prospective members to the local hall weeks later.

Better Together

If there’s a maxim for the new wave of success, it could be, “We’re better together.” Today’s industry nights are more likely to be sponsored by multiple local unions than in the past. Sharing media markets and pooling manpower and resources, Fifth District locals are pushing growth to the top of their agenda ahead of turf and jurisdiction. And after the nights are over, organizers tenaciously probe how things can be done even better the next time.

No electrician leaves the industry night without filling out a questionnaire about what motivated him/her to show up. And the data isn’t stashed away in a drawer or file. It’s immediately put to work to plan the next gathering.

“Industry nights depend upon the close cooperation of NECA contractors and our local unions,” Davis says. “We’re getting a lot of nonunion electricians seeing what we have to offer as we plan one of our biggest industry nights yet in Orlando, Fla.”

Top-Down Blitzes Develop Respect

Baton Rouge Local 995 President Tim Overmier swears in one of many groups of new members.

Fifth District locals are also intensifying “top-down” organizing, knocking on the doors of nonunion contractors to open up an opportunity to discuss how they and their crews can both prosper in the Brotherhood. “We always try to find out who the gatekeeper is in the shop and establish a respectful relationship,” says Hickingbottom, who says, “Fifth District Vice President Joe Davis has been behind our efforts 100 percent, assigning International Representative Clay Leon to work alongside membership development department organizers.

Birmingham, Ala., Local 136 selected 205 top-down targets from OARS, the union’s organizing accountability reporting system. After addresses of the non-signatory shops were loaded into a streets and trips database, a group of 10, including field, state and district organizers, visited 156 shops, leaving packages with information about the IBEW with most.