It wasn’t pretty at first glance. Some people would have seen an open field with trash strewn all over and thought Rae Johnson was crazy.
An abandoned trailer and other trash had to be clear from the 11-acre site to prepare it for future construction.
But eight years after she helped found the National Sisterhood United for Journeymen Linemen – which provides financial and emotional support to families of linemen killed or seriously injured on the job – she was convinced it would be the site of a national monument to permanently honor those fallen workers.
“I took a look at the field and every piece of hair on my arms and neck stood up,” said Johnson, a former apprentice herself at Philadelphia Local 126 and whose husband, Tom, is a journeyman lineman and member of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Local 1319. “It was the way it lined up, with the trees off to the right. I know it sounds crazy, but this was kind of what I was dreaming about it.”
With the help of donations from IBEW members and local unions, the NSUJL purchased the 11-acre property in Freeland, Pa., about a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia. Members in the area volunteered to clean out debris – both seen and unseen. There were old trailers filled with garbage and abandoned cars. Trash was hidden beneath weeds that had grown nearly six feet high in some spots.
It was cleaned in time for the annual ceremony to honor linemen killed on the job in mid-August. A capital campaign is ongoing with a goal of $750,000. Funds will be put toward a permanent home on the property for the NSUJL and the national monument to fallen linemen.
“We really need a more permanent place for these brothers and sisters to be honored,” Johnson said. “Where their families can come all year and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. It will be remembered forever.”
Johnson worked as a ground man and was an apprentice lineman until an arm injury forced her to leave the profession in 2007.
“When I got hurt, it devastated me,” she said. “At the time, I did not understand why this happened to me.
Allentown, Pa., Local 1600 member Jeremy Medash uses a tractor to clear a field that organizers hope is the future home of a national memorial to fallen linemen.
“Now years later, I understand. When I talk to brothers and families who are suffering, I understand what it means to go through that and lose your livelihood and deal with all the legalities that come with an accident.”
It’s been quite a journey since 2012, when Johnson – who now serves as the organization’s president – joined with spouses of other linemen to form the NSUJL. It grew out of a Facebook group started earlier that year to raise money for the family of John Plante, a member of Boston Local 104 who was killed on the job.
Out of that grew a desire to form a non-profit organization to assist all families who were hurting because of a death or a serious injury. Later that year, Johnson and others met with International Representative Ed Mings and then-President Edwin D. Hill later voiced his support for the sisterhood.
Mings, who retired earlier this year as Director of Outside Construction Organizing, remains an advisor to the group. He worked as a lineman earlier in his career and is a member of Rockford, Ill., Local 196.
“One of the reasons it has been a success is that our members, their spouses, our vice presidents and many of the locals throughout the country understand there is nothing that takes care of the families like these people do,” Mings said. “The IBEW provides insurance and death benefits, but in the time before that pays out, these young women make sure a family is taken care of, no matter what.”
But even while it assisted grieving children and widows, Johnson and others looked for a way to leave a more lasting impact. They think they have found it with the permanent memorial. When finished, it will include a series of poles for each year, with a list of IBEW linemen killed on the job.
A formal capital campaign was to kickoff earlier this year at the IBEW’s Construction and Maintenance Conference but the annual event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, about $192,000 had been raised by late August, Johnson said. She said PPL and other signatory IBEW contractors have also made significant donations, whether it’s through money, equipment or making workers available to assist.
Some members, especially those living near the site, have spent many evenings and weekends volunteering to restore it. Johnson calls them “the guys pulling up on white horses.” They’ve been so valuable she seldom has to ask for volunteers. They just show up.
“When you talk to one of the wives or a family member, you realize it’s about something bigger than you,” said Kyle Everitt, a journeyman lineman for PPL and member of Allentown, Pa., Local 1600. “It’s about the brotherhood and those who made the ultimate sacrifice to do what we do.”
Fellow Local 1600 member Jeremy Medash, who also is a journeyman lineman and employed by PPL, met Johnson at a linemen’s rodeo three years earlier. He’s been a volunteer ever since and took special pride in getting the land in good enough shape for this year’s ceremony.
“I just wanted to see it through and finish it,” Medash said. “We gave her our word that we would get it cleaned up and help her. I wanted to follow through on that and it all goes to a good cause. It could be helping our family members someday.”
Added Mings: “There are members out there giving their time on weekends setting poles, sometimes with their own money. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.”
All donations to the NSUJL are tax-deductible and can be made at nsujl.org. Sponsorship opportunities are available for local unions and corporate partners. Donations made by check can be sent to 555 Foster Ave., Freeland, Pa., 18824.
“The brotherhood has done this for years,” Johnson said. “Every union meeting, after a brother has been injured and his wife needed help, we always passed the hat. We’ve just turned it into a national campaign and shined a light on the fact the IBEW is the best union in the world.”
In addition to being a comfort to the families, she hopes the memorial serves as a reminder to the public just how dangerous electrical work is – and why no one should take for granted a reliable electrical grid. This year’s ceremony honored nine workers killed on the job during the previous 12 months– fewer than in most years, but still enough to serve as a reminder of the hazards on the job.
“The ceremony is always very emotional,” she said. “But it’s really nice to see everyone come back.”