President Joe Biden took his pitch for a massive investment in infrastructure and American labor directly to the workers July 21, touring the IBEW-NECA Electrical Training Center in Cincinnati to learn about what IBEW electricians do every day on the job.
It was the first visit by a sitting president to an IBEW training center since President Barack Obama toured Washington, D.C., Local 26’s facility in 2010.
|President Joe Biden listens as fifth-year Local 212 apprentice Stephen Randolph explains fire alarm training with instructor Jerry Mahoney.
“The Build Back Better plan that President Biden is proposing will be a game-changer for union tradesmen and tradeswomen,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.
“But we can’t overstate how important it is that a sitting president showed up at our training center, asked genuine questions about the work that we do and used the word ‘union’ again and again.
“No president since Franklin Roosevelt has understood the importance of unions and the labor movement the way Joe Biden does. When he says unions built the middle class, he means it, and he has our backs and respects the work we do. That’s a breath of fresh air after a lot of lip service to working people in the past.”
Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for more than a trillion dollars of spending on roads, bridges, rail, and a revamp of the electrical grid, among many other urgent areas of investment.
The U.S. Senate passed a $1 trillion bipartisan bill on Aug. 10, voting 69-30 after months hammering out a compromise, but still historic, package.
The House, where Democrats have pushed for a bigger bill, is scheduled to return a full month early from recess to take up the legislation starting Aug. 23.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of 19 Republicans who voted for the bill, had threatened to filibuster Biden’s initial proposal, which was nearly double the size of the revised plan. It also included strict requirements that the projects be done by union workers.
“We’re still talking about a once-in-a-generation investment in America and Americans that is desperately needed,” said Assistant to the International President for Government Affairs Austin Keyser. “But Republicans in the Senate have fought labor requirements and the size of this bill every step of the way.”
Backed by the aggressively anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors organization, Republicans have worked to strip prevailing wage and union-standard training language from the bill on key projects, including a nationwide network of half a million electric vehicle charging stations.
“That’s the nature of compromise,” Keyser said. “A 50-50 Senate means that we don’t get everything we hoped for, but this bill is still going to mean millions of IBEW jobs for decades.”
“What is certain,” Stephenson said, “is that President Biden and our friends in the Congress are fighting like hell to make sure the final bill delivers on its promise to invest in the infrastructure and the working people that will boost the American economy for decades to come. And just as important, they’re listening to us at every step and putting American workers first.”
From the very start of his infrastructure campaign, Biden has lifted up unions and union members, and Cincinnati was no different.
It was also an opportunity for him to sing the praises of the IBEW specifically, as he has done publicly many times.
“IBEW is the best,” Biden said, chatting quietly with an apprentice and instructor. “I once said at one of your international conventions that if every IBEW guy quit and every single guy on Wall Street who’s a trader quit, the traders wouldn’t affect much. But you guys, the country would come to a screeching halt. “
|Instructor Robert Guthrie shows off part of the center’s motor control training apparatus
On a trip to Pittsburgh to announce the American Jobs Plan in March, it was Local 29 lineman Mike Fiore who introduced the president — and charmed him by admitting to being on pins and needles.
“Mike asked me back there, “Do you ever get nervous?” Biden said. “What I say to you, Mike: You did a heck of a job. But I’d get nervous if I had to get up in the middle of the night, climb up a pole, replace — in the middle of a storm — a connection that knocked out everybody’s electricity, and put a transformer in.
“That’s what would make me nervous. So, what you did was really good. I couldn’t do what you do, pal. I couldn’t do what you do.”
In April, addressing a joint session of Congress, Biden made sure the nation knew that “Electrical workers — IBEW members” would be installing the charging network for electric vehicles, revolutionizing U.S. transportation.
He doubled down on that in May when he toured a Ford factory in Dearborn, Mich. “We’re going to put Americans to work modernizing our roads, our highways, our ports, our airports, rails, and transit systems,” he said. “That includes putting IBEW members to work installing 500,000 charging stations along our roads and highways, our homes and our apartments. The IBEW is ready to do it, and they can.”
Biden has hosted Stephenson and other union leaders at the White House multiple times, including the day after his Cincinnati visit and a full afternoon in the Oval Office in February that his guests said was the most productive meeting they’d had there in years on behalf of working people.
He also convened the first-ever White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, a panel of Cabinet members and top staff chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris. It has 180 days to report back on ways that departments and agencies throughout the federal government can encourage the growth of unions and collective bargaining.
One research mission sent Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh — panel co-chair and a card-carrying member of the Laborers — to Pittsburgh Local 5 in June, where they met with organizers from eight unions, including the IBEW.
Walsh has visited numerous IBEW locals on his own since being confirmed in March. In June, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm toured an IBEW worksite in Nevada and talked with members of Las Vegas Local 357. And in August, she visited the Richmond JATC to learn from members of Richmond, Va., Locals 666 and 50 more about the extensive training IBEW apprentices complete.
“This administration isn’t just showing up, it’s taking the time to listen,” Keyser said. “After every one of these visits, we hear about how it’s not just a photo op; it’s a genuine opportunity for our nation’s top leaders to listen to what it’s like for the people tasked with building the projects they’re talking about. This level of engagement with the labor movement and with union workers is totally unprecedented.”
That was the impression that Biden left with members of Cincinnati Local 212 after his JATC tour.
“He was genuinely interested in what we were learning,” said Stephen Randolph, a fifth-year apprentice who explained fire alarm training to the president. “We overheard him talking about the length of our apprenticeships in an off-mic conversation saying ‘Five years? That’s why you guys are the f***ing best.’ I felt like he really respects what we do.”
Courtney Groeschen, also a fifth-year apprentice, said everything went blank in her head as Biden arrived at her motor control station. “I was amazed,” she said. “I mean, here’s the president of the United States talking to me about what I do for a living and he’s actually interested.
“It was surprising. He didn’t ask me what it was like to be a woman in the construction industry. He just treated me like everyone else, which was refreshing.”
Groeschen said the timing of the Build Back Better plan fills her with hope, coming as she’s about to top out of her apprenticeship. “This is a ton of work he’s talking about, and the IBEW is in a perfect position to benefit from it. It could keep us in full employment for decades.”
C-SPAN has full footage of the tour, highlighted by Biden’s conversations with apprentices.
Business Manager Rick Fischer said hosting the president was a five-day whirlwind of activity, after the White House called to make the request on a Friday. Soon the local and JATC were crawling with Secret Service, and Fischer spent the whole day the Saturday before the event coordinating with security.
But it was all worth it when he was able to say, “Mr. President, it’s an honor to welcome you to our JATC.”
The men chatted as they walked through about 200 feet of rooms and hallways to get to the first stop on the early-evening tour.
“He was very, very easy to talk to, really a regular guy,” Fischer said. “One thing I told him along the way was how important NECA is as our partner in the training center and being able to afford the apprenticeship program. I explained that contractors pay 1.8% of their gross wages to keep it running.”
Biden was curious at every station, full of questions and praise for students and instructors. And he was in no hurry to leave.
“I was walking him out and he kept stopping and turning to talk about something. All these Secret Service guys were tapping their wrists, like ‘hey, we’ve got to go,’” Fischer said with a laugh. “The whole experience, start to finish, was great.”