Rick Luiten didn’t have to rely on abstract statistics or second-hand anecdotes when he testified in favor of Washington state’s new law imposing tougher penalties on people who assault utility workers.
The journeyman lineman and Seattle Local 77 executive board member described escaping in his truck after a man ordered his dog to attack, and more recently being confronted by a man with a gun when he and his crew had to cross private property to replace two power poles.
“He was very agitated and threatening with me as I explained what we were doing,” Luiten told the House Committee on Public Safety earlier this year. “Eventually I was able to calm him down, but I was very concerned for the safety of my crew.”
Other IBEW members also spoke, urging lawmakers to add utility workers to the state’s “aggravating circumstance” law, which increases penalties for assaulting police officers and other public servants.
Save for a single “no” vote in the Senate, the Legislature passed the bill unanimously. Local 77 political director Sean Bagsby credits the relationships that IBEW and its utility partners built, winning support from 100 percent of the Republicans in the Statehouse and all but one Democrat.
A similar law now extends first-responder protections to utility workers in Tennessee, raising maximum fines for assault to $15,000, six times the previous maximum of $2,500.
“The way it’s worded, it covers any employee,” in a situation that escalates to assault, said Quentin Tanner, assistant business manager at Nashville Local 429. “It could be the customer service person at the front desk and someone is mad about a bill.”
Local 429 Business Manager Randy Clark noted past incidents in Tennessee eerily akin to what Luiten experienced: a customer siccing pit bulls on a utility crew, a man putting a shotgun to a meter reader’s head.
States with comparable laws on the books include New York, Ohio, Alabama and Missouri. In Tennessee and Washington state, IBEW activists were determined to succeed in 2019 after earlier attempts fell short.
“The very nature of our industry is dangerous, even before you introduce additional hazards such as weather, terrain, uncontrolled pets, and potentially angry and violent persons,” Bagsby testified in Washington.
“This legislation is important not only to protect the brave people who bring and maintain the power to the people,” he said. “It is also important to help maintain the grid reliability and services provided for the various utilities to their customers, communities and service territory.”
More quietly, but no less effectively, Local 429 and Tenth District staff were making the same kind of arguments across the country.
In partnership with the Tennessee Electrical Cooperative Association and utility plant managers, they’d pushed for a bill in 2018. While one Republican senator sponsored the legislation, another shut it down. Tanner said it had more to do with the bill’s wording than its principles.
This year, supporters kept it simple, seeking to insert “any identifiable employee of a utility or contractor of a utility” into existing law governing aggravated assault.
When it came to the sales pitch, however, IBEW leaders made a strategic decision to stay on the sidelines. They wanted to ensure that anti-union politicians in deep-red Tennessee wouldn’t let their views interfere with badly needed protections.
Instead, they rallied union allies in police and fire departments to lobby and testify on their behalf, helping lawmakers understand that utility workers face many of the same dangers as first responders.
The bill passed 98-0 in the House and 27-5 in the Senate.
“I was tickled to death, especially after the previous year,” Clark said. “I give a lot of credit to Quentin and our other lobbyists, and the firefighters and police officers who had our backs.
In Washington, IBEW representatives were on hand April 30 as Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law.
"Utility workers do their jobs under extraordinarily dangerous conditions and hellacious hours,” Inslee said. “This measure will help keep our utility workers safe, especially when they must access private property to make repairs.”
Assault laws enacted in other states in recent years are having an effect. In May, a woman in upstate New York was sentenced to three years in prison for attacking a National Grid worker in 2018.
The victim, a 25-year-old woman sent to turn off the customer’s power, was knocked to the ground and suffered facial injuries. According to news coverage, the assault was elevated to a felony from a misdemeanor because of the 2016 law.
Local 77’s success with the assault bill follows its hard-fought victory last year to add utility workers to Washington’s “move-over” law, which requires motorists to change lanes or slow down on single-lane roads when first responders and other emergency workers are on scene.
A move-over law in Tennessee has protected utility crews since 2011. At least 30 states have similar laws, most passing with bipartisan support.
In Washington, however, Senate GOP leaders blocked Local 77’s efforts for two legislative sessions. The move-over bill didn’t pass until a special election in 2017 flipped control of the chamber to Democrats.
“Our IBEW brothers and sisters from Washington to Tennessee and all over the country have been working extremely hard in recent elections to elect candidates who put a priority not only on our rights at work, but also our safety at work,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said.
“Ultimately, the right to go home safe and healthy at the end of day is the most valuable right of all,” he said. “We have to continue to fight for candidates who care about that as much as we do.”