A century ago in Detroit, IBEW Local 58 members were locked in a bitter dispute with employers who wanted to slash workers’ pay from $1.25 an hour to $1 an hour.
The modern CIR gathers quarterly in Washington, D.C. (top), but up until mid-1900s, the council heard cases on the locals’ home turf — for example, in Cincinnati in 1947.
That’s a 20% pay cut, and few would have blamed these IBEW members for authorizing a strike to protest the move. But they didn’t strike.
That’s because in 1920, the union’s relationship with electrical contractors had undergone a dramatic transformation. That was the year the IBEW partnered with electrical contractors to create the Council on Industrial Relations for the Electrical Contracting Industry.
“It makes sense if you’ve never heard of the CIR,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “Strikes make headlines; good labor-management relationships usually don’t. But make no mistake: The Council on Industrial Relations really is one of the most important construction industry organizations out there.”
And for the last 100 years, this unique labor-management organization has helped the IBEW’s construction and maintenance members in the United States to peacefully avoid strikes by having their cases considered — and arbitrated — by a group of their electrical industry peers.
“The CIR is a good indication of where we’ve been, and it gives us a good look at where we need to go and what needs to be looked at over time,” said David Long, chief executive officer of the National Electrical Contractors Association. “It gives us a very clear indicator of industry issues, especially things that aren’t being resolved on a consistent basis.”
A Vision for Labor Peace
Labor unions in the U.S. had gained significant power by World War I’s end in 1918, often resorting to strikes to fight things like low pay and unsafe working conditions. But not everyone was thrilled with the amount of influence working people wielded, and builders increasingly began to turn to nonunion — and non-striking — electrical workers. This slow shift started driving down wages and prices just as demand for quality electrical work was reaching record heights.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and similar associations, meanwhile, were concocting the “open shop” concept, lobbying lawmakers to allow union members to work side-by-side with workers who weren’t paying dues. Their goal was to gut unions’ power through gradual financial starvation, a strategy later rebranded as the so-called right-to-work.
To help defend the electrical contracting industry against such attacks, then-IBEW International Secretary Charles Ford and a group of the union’s international officers had joined forces around this time with members of the New York City-based Conference Club, a largely social subset of the National Association of Electrical Contractors and Dealers. The two groups amicably discussed a number of forward-thinking ideas, such as crafting a national labor agreement and creating an arbitration board for settling local labor disputes.
In 1919, the talks expanded to include the entire NAECD (which later became NECA). Both parties’ national conventions that year approved the CIR concept, a formal formation resolution was jointly adopted the following January, and the first official CIR meeting was held on April 30, 1920.
“It is the part of good judgement to cooperate with employers who are fair to organized labor and further strengthen the reasons why such employers favor organization among their employees,” wrote then-International President James P. Noonan in the January 1921 Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators. “It is useless to make the sacrifices which strikes occasion if it is possible to reach an honorable adjustment by conciliatory methods.”
IBEW International Secretary Charles Ford (left) and L.K. Comstock, leader of the NECA-affiliated New York City Conference Club, co-founded the CIR, which first met in 1920.
Darrin Golden, a former director of CIR/Bylaws and Appeals who currently serves as executive assistant to the international secretary-treasurer, said that although Noonan’s words reflect his time, they still hold true 100 years later. “The founding fathers of the CIR had great vision for what this would do for our industry,” Golden said. “Of course, the industry has changed over the years, but the CIR remains one of the best attributes of the IBEW-NECA partnership. Construction industry strikes cost money, for both workers and contractors, and it’s best for everyone if we’re able to avoid them.”
L.K. Comstock, a transit rail systems contractor who served as the Conference Club’s leader, recalled later that setting up the CIR was anything but smooth sailing. Nevertheless, “the Council taught us how to create and maintain friendly relations, labor and management, and to eliminate the strike,” he said. “This elimination has been productive of savings of many millions of dollars, which have accrued to employer, employee and the public.”
A March 15, 1921 CIR bulletin cited figures from the New York State Industrial Commission showing that during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1920, nearly 10.6 million work hours had been lost to strikes and lockouts in the Empire State, costing an estimated $50 million. “It is such losses which the Council hopes ultimately to erase from the debit side of the industry’s ledger,” the bulletin said.
Getting to ‘Yes’
“If you really think about it, who better to resolve an industry dispute than the parties who work in the electrical industry every day?” asked current Director of CIR/ Bylaws and Appeals Mike Kwashnik. “As the impartial secretary of the CIR, I strive to ensure that both labor and management work in cooperation at council to render the very best possible decisions for the litigants and our electrical industry.”
The CIR sets the IBEW apart from other labor organizations, which often deal with dispute deadlocks by sending the parties to a mediator for help with resolving the dispute. If those talks break down, binding arbitration or a strike authorization vote usually follows.
Most of the IBEW’s construction and maintenance branch locals have collective bargaining agreements that require disputes at impasse to be brought to the CIR for consideration as long as all good-faith efforts to resolve them at home have failed.
“When the members of the council are in session, they do not represent either the IBEW or NECA,” Golden said. “They represent the interests of the entire electrical contracting industry.”
A CIR panel is made up of 12 members, with six representing labor and six representing management. The IBEW’s international president selects two construction and maintenance branch business managers from each of the U.S.’s 10 districts to serve on the union’s side. NECA’s regional directors choose from among the association’s chapter managers to recommend CIR service, with recommendations passed up the chain through the appropriate volunteer vice presidents to NECA’s president.
Five from each side are then selected to come to Washington, D.C., each quarter — in February, May, August and November — to hear cases. Completing the panel are two appointed co-chairs: an IBEW international vice president and a NECA district vice president. (Depending on case load, two panels can sometimes be necessary.)
“The CIR is staffed by electrical industry experts, not outsiders,” Stephenson said. “We know our industry inside and out, so when a case comes before the council, no one has to waste time explaining to a mediator or arbitrator how our industry works.”
“With arbitration, it’s about presentation,” Long added. “With the CIR, it’s about resolution.”
Pending cases get distributed to the CIR members before they arrive in Washington to review, but it’s not uncommon for some disputes to end up getting settled at the local level up to the last minute before they reach the CIR.
The council’s first case, the Detroit Local 58 pay cut dispute, ended with the CIR ruling unanimously in the local’s favor. One of the most recent cases, presented in February, involved a disagreement between Fort Wayne, Ind., Local 305 and a contractor over the assignment of craft work among the shop’s unions.
Local 305 Business Manager Kip Howard had observed the CIR at work before, but February’s meeting was his first time to present a case before the council as his local’s business manager.
“It was nerve-wracking,” said Howard, who became business manager last July. “You know that you have a membership back home hoping for a favorable decision. You don’t know how it will turn out.”
Ultimately, Kwashnik said, the council must be in complete agreement. “If we’re not, we keep arguing and negotiating until we reach a unanimous decision.” It sometimes means the council remains in session for as long as it takes to get on the same page, he said — even late into the evening and into early the next morning, if necessary.
In preparing for his presentation, Howard and his local’s leaders first worked back in Fort Wayne with Sixth District International Representative Mike Daugherty. Resources posted on TheCIR.org and contained in a booklet prepared by the CIR also helped the Local 305 team outline the presentation process.
“We ran through scenarios about what they could say, how we would respond,” Howard said. “It was a good learning experience, but I hope there won’t have to be a next time, because there’s no guarantee things will go your way.”
It also can be expensive for the locals, which are responsible for covering travel, lodging and other expenses for those who travel to, and stay in, Washington for several days.
“The CIR is supposed to be the last resort, so try to work your issues out at the local level,” Howard advises fellow business managers considering taking a case to the CIR. And if you end up appearing before the council in Washington, “You definitely need to be prepared for it,” Howard said. “Make sure you do your homework and take someone with you for backup and support.” (Howard brought along Chris Batchelder, Local 305’s assistant business manager.)
All of the council’s members have a chance to ask questions of the employer and labor sides, taking turns as recognized by the co-chairmen. After each case is heard, the council goes into executive session to try to reach a unanimous and legally binding decision on each one.
“It’s quite the process,” said Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland, who previously served as director of CIR/Bylaws and Appeals. “Labor and management surrender themselves to their peers to resolve their differences and agree to be bound by their decisions.” This system typically allows decisions to be implemented quickly, sometimes within a week.
“You’re better off sitting at home and hammering things out,” Golden added, because once a case reaches the CIR, “you might not get what you want, but you’ll get what you need.”
Deadlocks rarely happen, and in those situations, the CIR’s four-member executive committee can be called on to render a unanimous decision. Serving as committee chairs are the IBEW’s international president and NECA’s chief executive officer (or their designees), with the IBEW’s director of CIR/Bylaws and Appeals acting as the council’s secretary and NECA’s vice president of labor relations as treasurer.
“We take it very seriously,” Long said. “We sometimes talk about things for hours and hours. No arbitration board is putting in more time than our staffs to get not an answer, but a proper resolution.”
“As a member of the executive committee, I have always enjoyed the process of resolving complex issues that affect the electrical industry,” Kwashnik said. “That may seem unusual to some, but it’s what made my appointment to the CIR a rewarding experience and a perfect fit.”
Another Hundred Years
In its early years, the members of the CIR would travel to hear cases where disputes were occurring. There typically weren’t many, though; it took a few decades for labor and management to overcome their historical and mutual distrust.
In 1947, the CIR moved to hold quarterly meetings in Washington, D.C., as a way of helping to speed up the consideration process. The same year, the council launched an educational campaign to urge more locals to take advantage of its services.
“If the profession of a desire for cooperation made by both the parties to this dispute at the hearing is genuine, then the results will be immediate and surprising,” wrote then-International President Dan W. Tracy in the July 1947 IBEW Journal.
By the time the CIR reached its 100th anniversary milestone in April, it had heard and settled more than 8,500 cases — and counting. “The IBEW remains committed to the CIR, to the process and to the results,” Golden said.
“We have been known for being the strikeless construction industry,” Oakland added. “If it weren’t for the CIR, there’d be a lot more strikes. The CIR has provided harmony and has saved millions — if not billions — of dollars.”
And if a local situation is desperate enough to have a case brought before the council, “the CIR does a tremendous job of taking that situation and making it work,” Long said. “It’s not about being happy. It’s about having a good working relationship going forward.”
Stephenson encouraged locals to continue to work toward good faith labor-management relations on their own, but he’s proud the CIR is there for those times when impasses are inevitable.
“Together, the IBEW and NECA do a pretty good job of regulating ourselves,” Stephenson said. “We’ve been proving it through our successful apprenticeship programs for decades. Our goals are similar — a thriving electrical construction industry — and the CIR has played a key role in helping us sort out our different strategies toward achieving those goals. I have no doubt that the council will continue to serve the electrical industry well for the next 100 years and beyond.”