Just north of Cincinnati, union activism, community service and politics go hand in hand. And Matt Von Stein hopes it stays that way.

Hamilton, Ohio, Local 648 members and retirees repair the lighting system and install LED fixtures at the Serve City Homeless Shelter.

Von Stein is president of Hamilton, Ohio, Local 648. He’s also been a member of the Hamilton City Council since 2016, giving voice to working families and labor in the city of about 63,000 people. But his dual duties offer opportunities in the other direction as well, providing an inside track for Von Stein’s brothers and sisters at Local 648 to help their neighbors where they’re needed.

“I want the community to see us,” he said. “I want them to know the union exists and how much we do compared to what happens in a nonunion community. I want them to see the value we bring.”

Von Stein said Local 648’s commitment to the community has been going on for decades. But members took it to another level when they pitched in to help the city’s Efficiency Smart program. Hamilton officials credited them with helping to save an estimated $120,000 in energy costs for the city’s poorest residents during the past year.

Local 648 members did it by upgrading the lighting system at several community organizations, such as food pantries and homeless shelters, and by donating energy-efficient LED lights to low-income families.

“When I got into office [as local president], things like this are what I wanted to focus on,” Von Stein said. “We started doing that. When I got on the city council, I wanted to put my money where my mouth was.”

The projects Local 648 were involved in as part of the Efficiency Smart program were:

  • Replaced aging light fixtures and installed 80 LED fixtures at Serve City Homeless Shelter. The facility provides more than 14,0000 nights of shelter to approximately 450 people in the community every year.

  • Installed 60 LED light kits provided by the city at Open Door Pantry, which has been serving area families in need since 1981. Officials at both the food pantry and homeless shelter plan to put the savings on electrical bills into needed programs.

Separate projects completed by Local 648 members with either funds provided by the IBEW or signatory contractors include:

  • Wired and installed new lights at the Booker T. Washington Community Center’s baseball fields in Hamilton, allowing children from a low-income area to play games at night. Local 648 members installed LED wall packs inside the fields’ concession stands, making them more efficient for the community center to run.

  • Installed LED wall packs at the Crawford Woods baseball fields, a longtime youth baseball facility in Hamilton.

  • Installed wall packs at Hamilton’s Living Water Ministries, which is run by the United Methodist Church and serves at-risk families. Members also installed LED lay-in fixtures.

Von Stein said Local 648 retirees were instrumental in helping with the projects. They provided a great educational opportunity for apprentices working alongside them, said Bobby Angst, Local 648’s financial secretary and training director.

“Some members are retiring earlier and earlier and our younger apprentices do not have a lot of opportunities to work with them anymore,” Angst said. “When you lose a 30- or 35-year journeyman wireman, a lot of experience walks out that door. It was a great experience for our apprentices.”

The homeless shelter job also gave apprentices an opportunity to replace and install an electrical system in an old building. It ended up taking many months and was the type of project they likely will see in the field when working on older structures, Angst said.

“From my perspective, it’s a great way to use the talents that we have to offer assistance in the community,” he said. “A lot of people are unaware of who we are. They know what an electrician is, but they’re not aware of 648. This allows us to introduce ourselves in a positive manner.”

That’s just what Von Stein is hoping for, adding that being active is especially important for Local 648 because it is in a politically conservative city. Most Cincinnati suburbs have been Republican strongholds for years. For many residents and city officials, the image of unions might be a negative one.

But seeing Local 648 members and retirees out in the community helps to change their perception. More projects are ongoing, Von Stein said. And the active community engagement also helps in contract negotiations. Local 648 represents about 60 employees of the city.

“Since being elected to the city council, we now have more interactions with city officials,” Von Stein said. “The city manager, the mayor, other elected officials are seeing what makes the union family special and they see what the great brothers and sisters of Local 648 can do to change a city.”