It is with deep sadness that we
announce the death of former International Executive Council Chairman Robert
Brother Pierson, who died June 6 at the age of 75, retired at the end of 2015 after 10 years as chairman of the IEC and 50 years as a member of Chicago Local 9. He served as the local’s business manager for nearly 20 years.
“When Bob retired last year, I said then we’d miss his wise counsel,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, “but I never thought he’d leave us so soon. There was no one who loved this union any more than him. Bob lived and breathed the IBEW, and we’ll miss him dearly.”
“First and foremost, Bob was a gentleman,” Sixth District International Vice President David J. Ruhmkorff said. “He was a great labor leader in the truest sense of the word. He truly cared for working people.”
Ruhmkorff said Pierson wasn’t just a big deal in the IBEW, but a giant in the Chicago labor community. “When Bob talked, others listened. He didn’t say a lot, but when he did, he commanded respect.
“He’d always tell me you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to keep the faith and keep going at it,” Ruhmkorff said. “He constantly would tell me he was proud of me and I was doing a great job. He would constantly build you up. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Pierson was initiated into Local 9 in 1966 after brief stints with the Teamsters and Carpenters unions. In the IBEW, he found his home, working as an outside construction lineman with Hecker Electric out of Chicago. During that time, he was part of the original build of the Red Line, the busiest line of Chicago’s “L” mass transit system.
By 1980, Pierson had made a name for himself, and he was hired onto staff at Local 9 as a business representative. A year later, he became assistant business manager and held that job for 16 years. It was during those years that he scored victories that he’d later remember as his proudest accomplishments, among them the organization of 1,100 Chicago-area cable television workers into Local 9.
In 1997, Brother Pierson was elected business manager, and his stewardship of the local earned him a reputation as one of Chicago’s most influential labor leaders. He was regarded as a no-nonsense negotiator on behalf of hundreds of City of Chicago employees, including electrical workers in the city’s transit, park and water reclamation departments, contractors and line clearance tree trimmers.
Diamond Bar, Calif., Local 47 Business Manager Pat Lavin met Pierson in 1966 when they were both starting their careers in the IBEW as groundmen. More than 30 years later, they were reunited on the IEC, where Lavin is the Seventh District representative.
“The thought never crossed our minds that we would end up where we were,” Lavin said. “We just laughed about how far we’d come.”
But from his earliest days, it was clear to everyone that Pierson was a leader, Lavin said.
“Over the years, I worked for him and I worked with him and something that was true from the day I met him to the day he retired: he always had the members at heart,” Lavin said. “It’s simple, but it’s true and he took great pride that he never lost sight of that.”
Bill Niesman, who succeeded Pierson as business manager last year, said his mentor was a legend to the rank and file of the IBEW. “He was a big man, but his personality was larger. Bob was always smiling, but not afraid to bang his fist on a table and get people fired up and ready for whatever fight was coming. Even his handshake was big,” Niesman said. “If you didn’t get your hand in there right you’d be feeling the bones moving before it was over.”
Niesman said the phone calls and texts pouring in from all over Illinois are a testament to all the lives Pierson touched. As news of his death spread, Niesman had already received more than 100 calls from other unions, trades and municipalities with whom Pierson had worked.
“He led with conviction but what made him different was he equally led with compassion,” Niesman said. “He took everything in, but he always made sure to bring it back to the members at the heart of every contract negotiation or decision…. He would speak from the heart about what the members did, the sacrifices they made, and what they deserved in return.”
In a 2013 video produced by the Chicago Federation of Labor, Pierson summed up his relationship with the IBEW over the last 50 years. “This is your union,” he said. “You have to respect it, love it, earn it and keep it every day of your life. If you don’t, it’ll go away.”
“If we take just one thing from Bob’s half a century with the IBEW, it’s that,” Stephenson said. “This was a man who owed everything to this Brotherhood and did everything he could to give back to it and to keep it strong for those of us who came after him. He was a role model and a brother, and we owe him so very much.”
The officers, staff and membership of the IBEW extend their deepest sympathies and gratitude to Brother Pierson’s wife, Shirley, their children Wendy, Gary, Chad and Todd, and their nine grandchildren.