Hundreds of IBEW members took a virtual trip to Capitol Hill this month, making the case for infrastructure, pro-union legislation and other issues in nearly 300 online meetings with lawmakers and their staffs.
“We had folks from all four corners of the state, inside and outside locals.” said John Zapfel, political director at Milwaukee Local 494, describing their meeting with Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and echoing the enthusiasm of participants around the country.
The volume of the bipartisan outreach set a pandemic record for labor’s virtual lobbying efforts, with IBEW more than tripling the number of meetings that other individual unions have reported over the past year.
“All of our union brothers and sisters are doing their best in trying times to engage with members of Congress, but we really hit the gas pedal and the result was a hugely successful virtual fly-in for our Construction sector,” said Political and Legislative Affairs Director Austin Keyser. “We’re planning to do the same kind of events with our other branches, so lawmakers can expect to hear much more from IBEW members.”
Local leaders in West Virginia had reason for a particular sense of accomplishment after talking with Sen. Joe Manchin’s staff about the PRO Act — the Protecting the Right to Organize bill that passed in the House but faces bigger challenges in the Senate.
Manchin was one of a handful of Democrats on the fence about the bill, at least publicly. A few days after the IBEW meeting, he gave it his full-throated endorsement.
“That was pretty exciting when I saw that,” said Parkersburg Local 968 Business Manager Jeff Burge, who made the pitch.
He doesn’t know if his words tipped the balance for Manchin. But he’d felt like he heard something more than mere courtesy when a staffer thanked him for sharing the IBEW’s point of view —even though the union’s support is well established nationally.
“I think it helped for them to hear directly from a business manager in the state of West Virginia representing the citizens they serve, instead of only hearing about it from the international,” Burge said.
The two days of meetings, with some spillover to subsequent days, were held the same week as the virtual Construction Conference. Normally, hundreds of members around the country fly to Washington for the annual conference and in-person visits with lawmakers.
This time, the Political Department supplied locals with a virtual backdrop displaying the IBEW logo, along with a wealth of online resources to prepare for conversations with lawmakers and their staffs.
“The backgrounds were so popular,” said Danielle Eckert, an international representative in the department who handled the nuts and bolts of the massive event. “It was the virtual equivalent of giving out IBEW T-shirts and having them stomp all over the Hill.”
The PRO Act was high on members’ list of priority topics, as was the IBEW’s push to attach labor standards to clean energy tax credits. That means contractors would benefit only if they meet benchmarks for wages, job safety, working conditions and hiring practices.
Broadly, the IBEW teams championed President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure package, the $3 trillion American Jobs Plan that could create millions of good-paying union jobs, with the potential to keep IBEW members working from apprenticeship to retirement.
Members honed in on the urgency of modernizing the power grid, broadband buildout to deliver high-speed internet to every U.S. home, and investing in a vast network of charging stations and training essential to the rapidly growing demand for electric vehicles.
Rather than a high-pressure sales pitch — which many Democratic lawmakers didn’t need anyway — IBEW members took an educational approach, explaining how strengthening and protecting the grid is critical to everything else the infrastructure plan seeks to achieve.
In Washington state, political coordinator Matthew Hepner emphasized the role of nuclear power, and explained why expanding solar power isn’t enough.
“Everybody just wants to slap up solar panels,” he said. “We tried to explain baseload power and how baseload power works with renewables, how behind we are on storage, and how nuclear power is more reliable, just as safe and there’s more we can do with it.”
The West Virginia team, which in addition to Manchin met with GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley, also steered conversation toward the grid.
“We asked about Sen. Capito’s concerns and questions and it started to develop into a conversation about highways and bridges,” Wheeling Local 141 Business Manager Tom Conner said. “We tried to focus on updating the electrical grid, and they seemed quite interested. We explained our apprenticeships and training, and how we felt we were more than qualified and more than ready to tackle that.”
In Washington state. IBEW members met with staff for Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Reps. Suzan DelBene, Derek Kilmer, Kim Schrier and Rick Larsen, all Democrats.
“We had great turnout,” Hepner said. “On some calls we had a dozen or more people.”
Because lawmakers were “all on board already” with the infrastructure plan at large as well as the PRO Act, Hepner said there was more time to drill down on specifics such as nuclear power.
While there was still a fair amount of preaching to the choir in the one-hour meetings, he said members laid a foundation for more in-depth discussions going forward. “We want to continue to move the envelope and get them to ‘yes,’” he said.
Nationwide, the meetings also were an opportunity to thank lawmakers for supporting issues vital to the IBEW and pro-worker initiatives past and present.
In Wisconsin, Zapfel said that meant heartfelt appreciation for the efforts of Sen. Baldwin and Rep. Gwen Moore on behalf of Milwaukee-based Colectivo Coffee workers who want to join Local 494. An election earlier this month ended with a tie vote, 99-99, and challenged ballots are being reviewed.
“We also brought up the important EV training and how it will put our members to work,” Zapfel said, referring to the Electrical Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Training program, a unique partnership bringing the auto industry, utilities and other stakeholders together with the IBEW.
No matter where their conversations with lawmakers led, members say this year’s online session and the traditional in-person meetings make a difference.
“I think it’s valuable just to give them the realization that people in West Virginia are paying attention,” Burge said. “For them to know that we are watching what they’re doing, we know how they voted, we know if they didn’t co-sponsor a bill, and that we’re paying attention to the comments they make.”