Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm left no doubt how impressed she was as she wrapped up a visit to Richmond, Va., Local 666’s training center last week as part of the White House agenda for infrastructure and good, union jobs.
“This work will be done by IBEW members,” an emphatic Granholm said to a round of applause outside the classrooms dedicated to the Electrical Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program — vital to the Biden administration’s call for a nationwide network of charging stations.
It wasn’t a throwaway line. The IBEW hosts were sure of it after an hour of rapt attention from the secretary and Richmond-area U.S. Rep Abigail Spanberger.
“There was lots of eye contact, they were present in the moment, and they were genuinely there to learn more,” said fourth-year apprentice Desi Crawley, who by all accounts wowed the VIPs with her circuitry skills on a motor control simulator.
The visit marked the latest road trip to an IBEW local for Cabinet members, Vice President Kamala Harris and recently the president himself to advance their ambitious Build Back Better plan.
|Local 666 Business Manager Charles Skelly shows Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, left, and U.S. Rep Abigail Spanberger a hot suit and explains how it protects electrical workers in high-risk situations.
Two days earlier, after a months-long battle, a $1 trillion spending package for roads, transit, the electrical grid, EVI, and more passed its first major legislative hurdle with a 69-30 vote in the U.S. Senate.
Granholm’s zeal for more progress was evident in a quick video she and Spanberger recorded after the tour. “The Build Back Better agenda!” the secretary exclaimed. “Two million jobs per year for the next decade! We want them to be good-paying union jobs. This is a great example of people getting trained (to put) people to work.”
Local 666 Business Manager Charles Skelly said Granholm was every bit as warm and personable as he’d been told — so much so that pre-arranged questions went out the window during a roundtable with the Local 666 contingent, two officers from utility Local 50 in Richmond, and the management chair of the joint IBEW-NECA training center.
“The secretary made it a very loose, open conversation and asked very good questions," Skelly said.
The answers gave her a sense of a union committed not only to new jobs and state-of-the-art training, but also to diversity and equality.
EVI instructor Lee Boehm and organizer William Merriman, a JATC executive board member, came away with the same good vibes as Skelly
“Their body language, their personalities, their inquisitiveness, it all felt sincere,” Boehm said, “Their message was very much, ‘What can we do for you?’”
“They were very impressed with our whole program,” Merriman said, stressing how important that is coming from people who decide where to invest federal dollars. “It was very motivating for everyone in there to see that we’re appreciated for what we do.”
Skelly and his staff pulled off the event Aug. 12 with less than 48 hours’ notice. Mindful of Granholm’s tight schedule, and with parts of the JATC closed for floor cleaning, instructors moved some of the equipment they wanted her to see into a single classroom.
It was an efficiency that nearly turned into a disaster on a steamy August day, as Skelly discovered when he arrived mid-morning to walk the advance team through the site.
The room’s air conditioner had crashed. In sweltering heat, instructors pumped out water and mopped up puddles.
“We got it working in the nick of time,” Boehm said with a laugh of relief. “For us, the electrical workers union to have no AC, it would have been a nightmare.”
Later, Boehm had a big role in the tour, showing off the EVI center where he is training students to install and maintain electrical vehicle charging stations as the IBEW leads the way toward a national network.
“We teach the know-how, the skills of installation, but also why we do it,” he said. “The technology is here to stay. The jobs of tomorrow are here today.”
Granholm, who drives a Chevy Volt and gushes about it, was enthralled.
“She was very enthusiastic about the whole thing, even more than a normal politician talking about energy issues,” Skelly said. “She was clearly in her element.”
Spanberger was intrigued, too, he said, asking about electric school bus fleets and charging stations for rural drivers who take buses home at night.
Local 666 helped elect Spanberger to Congress in 2018 and again last year, motivated by her support for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The U.S. House passed the landmark bill, but it is stalled in the Senate.
“She endorsed the PRO Act so early that I said, ‘I know you stand with labor and that’s all I need to hear,’” Skelly said.
Granholm has her own pro-union bona fides, from her years as Michigan governor to carrying out President Joe Biden’s directive that workers’ rights are a priority for the entire federal government, not just the Labor Department.
Skelly said she made that clear. “Toward the end of our discussion in the conference room, she asked if anyone had anything else and I hit her with prevailing wage and tax credits for labor standards,” he said. “She jumped in with both feet, totally on board, 100% an ally of the IBEW and the building trades.”
|Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, right, and U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, watch and ask questions as fourth-year apprentice Desi Crawley demonstrates her circuity skills on a motor control simulator.
The conversation was also a platform to talk about diversity and unions, a subject of pride for Local 666.
“Our local has been really, really focused on diversity in every area,” Merriman said. “We talked about that, and the opportunities that we offer. Secretary Granholm said, ‘These are the results we’re looking for.’”
Crawley, a rock-star apprentice as described by Skelly and instructors, personifies that success.
A Black single mother of three, Crawley told the VIPs that she spent 10 years trying to break into the electrical field through nonunion contractors.
“I had no idea what the union was,” she said. “I had a pretty rough life growing up. I had a few friends who were nonunion electricians and now and then they’d let me tag along and pull some wire under a house.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it. It really sparked something in me,” she said. “I tried several different companies, and it was always, ‘You don’t belong here’ or, ‘This might not be the best thing for you.’”
When she finally learned about the IBEW, “I was embraced with open arms,” she said.
She wanted Granholm and Spanberger to know how profoundly that changed her life.
“The IBEW made me self-sufficient so that I could walk away from all of the abuse in my past,” Crawley said. “I can now decide what I want to do with my life and no one has control over that but me.
“The IBEW gave me that power.”