Speakers championing unions and workers' rights at IBEW's Political-Legislative Affairs Conference included, from left, West Virginia state Rep. Richard Ojeda, who is running for Congress;
Maryland state Rep. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Local 24 member now running for the state Senate; and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, running for his 9th term in the U.S. House. 

More than 300 local leaders converged on Capitol Hill last week to talk with lawmakers about issues vital to IBEW members' jobs and economic security, as well as the broader fight for workers' rights.

More than 300 local leaders from across the United States attended the conference, where they met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, took workshops and enthusiastically cheered speeches by pro-union politicians.

The lobbying visits capped two busy days of rousing speeches and workshops at IBEW’s annual Political-Legislative Affairs Conference, where the power of union members to elect pro-worker candidates in November’s midterm elections was the predominant message.

One speaker already had union members to thank. “It would never have happened without you,” Rep. Conor Lamb, the newest member of Congress, said of labor’s crucial role in his special-election win in deep-red southwestern Pennsylvania in March.

“Week after week, when it was cold outside, snowing, raining, I saw what happened when labor decided that no matter what, it was going to make its voice heard at the ballot box,” Lamb said.

Lamb’s seat is among more than 40, mostly in statehouses, that have flipped from red to blue in special and scheduled elections in the year and a half since November 2016.

“I want you to think back one year,” International President Lonnie Stephenson said, opening the conference April 10. “Things looked about as low as you can go. Congress and the courts were in the hands of politicians committed to chipping away every victory won by the labor movement in the 20th century. Things like workers’ rights, retirement security, health care, and safety regulations. States like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana remained firmly in the hands of politicians who trampled on our rights. Politicians dedicated to eradicating unions all together.”

Now, Stephenson said, vigorous work by IBEW members and the larger labor movement to persuade and turn out voters is resetting the nation’s political course.

“Pennsylvania is a wake-up call for every politician,” he said. “We made it loud and clear brothers and sisters: If you try stripping away our rights at work. If you try coming after our health care, our pensions. If you try slashing our pay and taking away our voice…then it’s your job that’s on the line.”

The conference proved just how quickly union members can affect politics, with its lobby day results paying off in a matter of days. On Monday, April 16, the U.S. Senate rejected the Tribal Sovereignty Act, passed by the House earlier this year, that would have exempted businesses owned and run by Native American tribes from federal labor law.

The bill was the key topic that IBEW members raised with senators and their staffs, describing it as a thinly veiled attack on unions and collective bargaining rights. They presented an IBEW letter that stated, “By excluding casinos, power plants, saw mills, construction companies, ski resorts, high-tech firms, hotels and mines on tribal land from the definition of an ‘employer’ under the National Labor Relations Act, such workers will be deprived of those protections.”

New U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania thanks IBEW members for helping swing his deep-red congressional district blue in a March special election.

“We won the Tribal Labor Sovereignty vote in large part due to the flood of members we sent to the Senate side of the Hill,” said Austin Keyser, director of IBEW’s Political and Legislative Affairs Department, which put on the conference. “It demonstrates how our concentrated efforts can change the lives of working people for the better, and why we need to keep building on them.”

Keyser, Stephenson and International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper stressed that IBEW’s support goes to candidates who stand with workers and unions, whether they are Democrats or Republicans.

“We say to every candidate for higher office – I don’t care if it’s the local water board or school board or the United States Senate – that if they want our vote, if they want our support, then they must be loud and clear in their support of the fundamental and inalienable right of working people to come together in unions,” Cooper said.

Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, a freshman U.S. House member representing suburban Philadelphia, told the conference that he wants to be the “voice that gets us to where being pro-labor and supporting the working class is never a partisan issue.”

An FBI agent for 15 years before being elected to Congress, Fitzpatrick is part of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a 48-member group split evenly between Democrats and Republicans that advocates bipartisan solutions.

He already has bucked GOP leadership several times, including voting against the repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act. “A movement can’t depend on one-party support. … It has to be based on organic support based on the justness of the cause and include as many diverse groups as possible,” he said.

A growing number of IBEW members are running for office, often successfully, bringing a union voice to city councils, school boards, statehouses and even Congress. They include Baltimore Local 24 member Cory McCray, who was elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates in 2014 and now is running for the state Senate.

McCray has been a strong advocate for apprenticeship programs, using IBEW’s superior training as a model. He has fought to expand prevailing wage and for legislation to make general contractors liable for subcontractors who fail to pay workers.

“If not us, then who?” McCray asked his audience. “Who is better to tell our story than the IBEW?”

The enthusiastic audience was especially gripped the first morning by a proudly loud, blunt-spoken West Virginia state legislator now running for Congress.

Richard Ojeda, a decorated, retired U.S. Army major who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, grew up seeing the coal industry mistreating miners while the Mine Workers fought for them. “It’s always been the unions that stood with the people,” he said.

Ojeda, who taught school for four years after his military service, saluted the West Virginia teachers who bravely walked off the job in late February. “They have inspired this nation,” he said. “One of the most amazing things you can see in the media today is a teacher holding up a sign in Kentucky that says, ‘Don’t make me go West Virginia on you.’”

First-term Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican representing suburban Philadelphia, tells his audience that he wants to be the "voice that gets us to where being pro-labor and supporting the working class is never a partisan issue."

Condemning politicians who aren’t looking out for working people and their families, he said he’s “ready to pick fights on Day One,” if elected to Congress.

“I’m not a polished guy. I’m not a polished politician. I got into this because I got tired of it, and that’s how you have to be,” he said, urging those gathered to be active in state and local campaigns, register voters and make sure family and friends vote, even if it means driving them to the polls.

“The most important person in the United States isn’t the Koch brothers and it’s not Donald J. Trump,” Ojeda said. “The most important person in the United States today is you.”

U.S. House Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio delivered a similar, fiery message the next morning. Cooper, his friend and fellow Ohioan, introduced him, saying, “There is no stronger champion for American jobs and union rights than Tim Ryan.”

Ryan has a 98 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO. He has represented the 17th district in northeast Ohio since 2003 and gained a national profile in 2016 when he attempted to win Nancy Pelosi’s job as House minority leader.

He pleaded with the audience to ensure that working families don’t fall for partisan tactics that divide the middle class and divert focus from issues that directly affect their lives, such as retirement security.

“We’ve got to put an agenda forward that says if you work hard for 35 years, you’re never going to lose your damn pension,” he said.

Without naming names, he criticized “slippery politicians” for promising to open shuttered coal mines and steel mills, then passing a tax reform bill that heavily favors high-income earners.

“We’ve got work to do and it starts in this election,” said Ryan, whose district includes Youngstown, a city devastated by the decline of the American steel industry. “It starts with you and every single town you come from. We have an opportunity to win with candidates that will vote with you and in districts we haven’t won in a generation.

“I will tell you right now: If we’re going to move this country forward, it will be led by the union movement of the United States of America.”