IBEW members from six locals turned out in force Jan. 16 for the Idaho AFL-CIO’s lobby day at the Capitol in Boise, where they talked to lawmakers about pro-worker legislation and specific bills vital to safety and quality in the building trades.
     Photo courtesy of Robert Struckman, AFL-CIO.

Lobbying for union jobs and workers’ rights isn’t easy in a state as red as Idaho, but IBEW activists are playing a robust role in bridging the divide.

A contingent from Boise Local 291 waits to talk with members of the Idaho Democratic Minority Caucus.

With about 35 members from six locals, IBEW activists were a major contingent in the union army that descended on the Capitol in Boise for the AFL-CIO’s Lobby Day in mid-January.

“They always make us proud,” said Idaho AFL-CIO President Joe Maloney, a journeyman wireman and organizer with Pocatello Local 449, who was elected to lead the state federation two years ago. “The IBEW is really strong here in Idaho.”

In addition to Maloney’s local and Boise Locals 291 and 283, Seattle Local 77, Spokane, Wash., Local 73 and Salt Lake City Local 57, all sent members. The out-of-state locals represent workers in Idaho.

Like many states, a major issue for Idaho’s building trades is saving the journeyman-apprentice ratio on construction sites. While it’s an uphill battle, and some damaging legislation has already passed, Maloney said “we’ve got quite a few Republicans on our side.”

Alicia Davila, president and co-founder of the Women’s Committee at Local 291, had a unique perspective among IBEW members on the ratio, which ensures safe, quality construction while providing unparalleled training for apprentices.

“People were really curious, asking ‘Are you an electrician?’ Davila said. “I work in telecommunications. I told them, ‘I’m here because I don’t want somebody who isn’t trained in our registered apprenticeship to be working on my house.’”

Local 291 Business Manager Mark Zaleski said it’s too early in the legislative session to know what all the 2020 challenges will be, but there’s concern that state licensing requirements for tradesmen could be watered down, or worse.

“We haven’t seen a bill yet, but we think there’s a creeping attack, possibly doing away with licenses altogether,” Zaleski said. “Many in Idaho government think that licenses are a hurdle for people to go to work. The fact is, we have people lining up to be apprentices. There’s no hurdle there.”

Assaults on licensing and on the journeyman-apprentice ratio are threats to good jobs and public safety, he said, and the IBEW will continue to be vigilant. “Lobby Day is a great opportunity – we lobbied during the day and had the meet-and-greet at night, with tons of representatives coming out. But we fight it out here every day.”

It’s an especially steep battle in Idaho, with supermajorities hostile to labor in both legislative chambers and a Republican governor.

But Maloney said there has been progress, such as legislation last year giving workers more time to file claims for unpaid wages, and another bill that provides workers’ compensation for first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Gov. Brad Little signed both into law.

“We have a good relationship with the governor, where at least his door is open and he’ll sit down and listen to what we have to say,” he said. “He’s not a champion for labor, but he’s not out to hurt us.”

Maloney is encouraging unions to spend more time with lawmakers on the opposing side, even by sponsoring tables at GOP fundraisers in their districts “so they see you in the public eye.”

“We don’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat as long as you’re voting for labor,” he said. “We strive every day to break those barriers down.”

He noted that on the PTSD bill for police officers and firefighters, some legislators asked why unions weren’t fighting for all workers to be included. Because, he explained, they knew the financial impact of a bigger bill would kill it altogether, and no one would be covered.

“The way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re getting little wins and building on those.”

For Local 291’s Davila, Lobby Day was a first. As she raised building trade and broader workers’ issues, such as the fight for a higher minimum wage, she shared her own story – a mother of four who grew up in Idaho and strongly opposed the state’s right-to-work law long before she was a union member. She eagerly joined the IBEW when she started working at an AT&T call center in early 2018.

She was exhilarated by her day at the Capitol. “I felt like it went really great,” she said. “To be there as a union sister advocating for labor rights and for women’s rights in the workplace, it was empowering.”