Nonunion construction workers just before being initiated into Tulsa Local 584. Oklahoma construction locals have had some of the highest rates of growth within the IBEW.

Don’t count Trentice Hamm as a right-to-work supporter. The IBEW’s Oklahoma state organizer would much prefer his home state got rid of the law that hinders working people’s opportunities at a better life.

Same with Don Mullens, marketing coordinator at Oklahoma City Local 1141. Same with Tulsa Local 584 membership development coordinator K.J. Payton

But all of them know the state’s right-to-work law isn’t going away anytime soon in the deeply conservative state. So, they have tried to use it to their advantage.  

That out-of-the-box thinking and two massive construction projects helped grow inside construction membership there more than 30% in the last two years, making Oklahoma one of the bright spots for organizing in the entire IBEW.

“Instead of right-to-work,” Hamm said, “we call it union by choice.”

Added Payton: “Our new members have really bought into the culture of the IBEW. They were nonunion electricians and might not have gotten a raise for a long time. Now, they see themselves being treated well and they’ve been accepted by our other members.

“When word of that gets out, it’s a heck of an organizing tool.”

“We believe we have an excellent union culture that we’ve tried to build on,” Mullens said. “Any success we’ve had is a credit to our membership. They’re the ones that have made us successful.”

Local 584 and Local 1141 were aided in their efforts when union contractors landed construction and maintenance contracts at an Amazon distribution facility in Oklahoma City and a data center in Tulsa.

But that also presented a challenge, especially for Local 584. It didn’t have enough wiremen to meet the demand. Securing travelers was difficult because construction across the U.S. was doing so well at the time.

That put even more emphasis on organizing nonunion wiremen locally. It wasn’t an easy task in a state that isn’t particularly kind to organized labor. But to meet the demands of the new projects, there was no choice.

Fortunately, both 584 and 1141 were ready to meet the challenge.

 “I encourage all my organizers to realize we are friendly competitors with the nonunion workers and to always have that mentality when you deal with them,” Hamm said. “Mutual respect is critical in communication.”

Organizers make sure not to disrupt nonunion construction projects. Instead, they often approach workers as they leave their jobsite. Phone numbers and email addresses are exchanged and conversations set up.

Another part of Hamm’s strategy was removing what he calls “barriers to membership.”

In a state like Oklahoma, which does not have a strong union tradition, that meant working with business managers to reinforce the value of union membership. Dues adjustments and detailed breakdowns of value for money were a big part of making the case to working people unfamiliar with the advantages of a union paycheck and benefits.

Such a strategy might not be necessary in some states. But in a right-to-work state, it’s essential, Hamm said. “Without it, you’re encouraging them to stay nonunion.”

At Local 1141, assistant business manager Jim Griffy said those large construction projects have helped but added the local’s membership has been growing for years.

He attributes that primarily to members understanding their role in organizing. They’re reminded they are the IBEW’s most visible representatives in their communities. Neighbors and nonunion electricians are more receptive to their message than any officer or lead organizer, he said. It’s been a key part in educating members on the value of IBEW membership.

Nearly all the members have bought into it, he said.

“Most of the people that we organize come through our membership, being out in the community all the time organizing,” Griffy said. “We have embraced the ideal that we represent everyone in the electrical industry, whether they are union or not. So we have a good relationship with the nonunion workers and we got rid of the animosity.”

Griffy said it also pays off in subtler ways. Local 1141 will have an additional two representatives at the next International Convention, scheduled for Chicago in September 2021.

Growing membership also has helped Local 1141 get through the pandemic. Work has continued uninterrupted on a six-story addition to the OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, keeping more than 100 members at work – with most of them also getting overtime pay.

“It seems as if we have a good workforce and a good mix of agreements in classifications,” Griffy said. “We have good relationships with our contractors. Success builds success.”  

Once new members are initiated, organizers work with training directors and instructors to quickly upgrade their skills so they can adapt to working on a union job site. Many came on as construction wiremen. Payton said about 10 have already completed Local 584’s apprenticeship program and more are on the path to do so.

Payton said potential new members also respond favorably when he presents data showing that strong unions help close the wage gap and are an effective tool in battling income inequality.

Organizers don’t talk politics unless asked. Instead, they focus on bread-and-butter issues that are more likely to resonate with new members, no matter who they vote for. Some prospective members were excited to have a chance to work on two huge projects.

“You’re never disingenuous with them,” Payton said. “You always sell them the total wage and benefit package. You build relationships with them. Any success I’ve had is because of the personal connection I’ve had with each and every member.”

Mullens agreed that honesty is essential.

“I can talk to them all day long until they’re blue in the face and I’m blue in the face and not get through to them,” he said. “But everyone knows somebody. We have an army of organizers. If they hear from somebody they know, they’ll take it to heart.”

Mullens, Hamm and Payton noted this type of effort wouldn’t be possible without the support of the business managers – including D. Dewayne Wilcox at Local 1141 and Dustin Phelan at 584 – along with Seventh District International Vice President Steven Speer. Local 1141 organizer Jennifer Duncan has also played a key role.

“Unfortunately, most of the states in our district have right-to-work laws, but our staff and organizers in Oklahoma are so creative,” Speer said. “Their work helped us meet our commitments on two important projects and will allow our signatory contractors to be more competitive when bidding on future work.

“I want to thank our business managers and all our brothers and sisters for supporting this effort and welcoming our new members. This was a team effort by everyone involved in the IBEW in Oklahoma and will make us a stronger union for years to come.”