In front of a solar array on the grounds of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Denver Local 68 member Julian Aguilar introduces President Joe Biden for a speech about the Build Back Better plan’s clean energy projects and the good jobs they will create for IBEW members and other union tradesworkers. Photo courtesy of the White House.

President Joe Biden and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis had their eyes trained on Julian Aguilar as the Denver Local 68 journeyman wireman explained how he came to be standing at a podium on a dusty road fronting a solar array at the foot of the Flatirons.

With Colorado Gov. Jared Polis at left, Local 68 member Julian Aguilar shakes President Biden’s hand just before introducing him at the NREL event Sept. 14 north of Denver.

“Yesterday, I got a phone call from my business manager, Jeremy Ross, and he said, ‘Hey, do you want to introduce the president tomorrow?’”

“I was like, yeah, I’ll introduce Morgan,” Aguilar said, referring to the local’s president, Morgan Buchanan. “And he said, ‘No, Joe Biden, president of the United States.’”

Aguilar was stunned. “Whoa, for real, me?”

Barely 24 hours later the afternoon of Sept. 14, he was alongside Biden at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory north of Denver, where the president spoke about clean energy and good, union jobs.

“I know I just now met Joe Biden for the first time in my life, but I feel like he’s had my back for years,” said Aguilar, a second-generation member of Local 68 and grandson of a past Iron Workers leader. “President Joe Biden is not just pro-union. He’s pro-people, He’s pro-America.”

As he’s done many times, Biden saluted IBEW electricians as “the best in the world,” as he thanked Aguilar and began his remarks about the urgency of renewable energy.

“Whether you’re an engineer at a lab bench, an IBEW worker working on a turbine, (whether) you work for a power company or a small construction business, everyone has a role to play in building a clean energy future and a stronger economy,” Biden said.

He championed his bold, job-creating infrastructure plan, as Congress was doing battle over it despite an earlier bipartisan agreement. 

“The bill will put 800,000 people to work,” Biden said, “800,000, including plumbers, pipefitters, electrical workers, steel workers — modernizing roads, bridges, water systems, broadband systems.

“(It) contains the largest federal investment in power transmission in our history, so that our grid is more reliable, and we can carry more renewable energy (and) we can create good union jobs building that new grid.”

How Biden came to be speaking at NREL had everything to do with Local 68 and warp-speed planning that began when Ross’s phone rang at 7 a.m. Sunday, two days and change before the event.

It was Mike Ham, an Eighth District international representative, asking Ross where Local 68 members were working on solar. It wasn’t clear why until Ham called back.

“The White House was specifically looking for a solar array that was under construction that was preferably in partnership with Xcel Energy, and was union-built,” Ross said.

He couldn’t think of a project that checked all the boxes but started calling contractors. Soon, he heard from a White House Homeland Security liaison — right after she’d made a cold call to the local’s apprenticeship director, Dan Hendricks, who suspected it was a prank.

A half hour later, the two men were walking an advance team through the union hall and training center, wondering if the building’s rooftop solar panels would fit the bill.

The visitors were impressed, but the array was too high for their purposes. So Ross suggested the NREL, a Department of Energy site where fluctuating numbers of Local 68 members work. Currently, a crew of nine is working on a small solar installation.

To the woman in charge, it felt too far from the Denver airport 40 miles southeast.

“I said, ‘I get that, but this location has a great backdrop, it’s a DOE facility, so it’s probably fairly easy to secure, it’s fairly rural,’” Ross said. “She finally agreed.”

By early Sunday afternoon, dozens of White House staff and Secret Service agents were scouring the site. Around 6 p.m., they sent Ross home with a to-do list that included selecting a rank-and-file member to introduce the president, a handful of others to be guests, and even a member to drive a spare motorcade vehicle.

An image from TV news Sept. 14 shows Local 68 Business Manager Jeremy Ross, left, with President Biden, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke in front of a wind turbine blade displayed on the NREL grounds.

Monday was a whirlwind of background checks and COVID tests for everyone, including Aguilar’s wife and 17-month-old son. 

The first thing Aguilar had asked when Ross called that morning, after his initial shock, was, “Can my family come?” The White House agreed.

Aguilar, a general foreman at Dynalectric, squeezed a trip to the barber into his busy day and after dinner wrote an introduction, exchanging emails with a White House speechwriter to polish it.

With little sleep but ample adrenalin, he brought the words to life Tuesday afternoon.

“Being here at NREL shows the future of our industry, renewable and sustainable energy,” he said to an audience of dignitaries, energy executives and IBEW leaders and members.

“Smart grids, wind farms, and solar farms are just a few examples here in our great state of Colorado.  When you see all these new technologies, you might think that the future doesn’t look much like the past.

“But one thing the past and future will have in common is they will be built by unions,” he said. “I know that’s the future that President Biden, and my IBEW brothers and sisters, are working hard to build every day.”

Ross couldn’t have been more thrilled with Aguilar’s performance.

“We absolutely picked the right guy,” he said. “Julian nailed it. He freaking hit a home run.”

Earlier, as Biden was touring the lab facilities, White House staff positioned Ross, two apprentices, and Jason Wardrip, head of the state’s building trades, in front a giant wind turbine blade propped up on NREL’s grounds.

Biden spent about 10 minutes with the group, first shaking Ross’s hand and not letting go until he’d shared a point of pride.

“I went to let go off his hand, and he pulls me in a little bit. He says, ‘I just saw the other day that I’ve said union more times than any other president.’”

“Mr. President, it doesn’t go unnoticed,” Ross said. “We appreciate it.”

Biden went on to reminisce about the IBEW’s early support when he first ran for the Senate in 1972, and in all the years since. “He was thanking us and letting us know he wasn’t going to forget it,” Ross said.

But the mic drop moment for Ross came when Biden turned to shake hands with the approaching NREL director, Martin Keller.

“I want this work to be union,” Ross heard Biden say. “OK, OK,” Keller responded. Then, just as he had with Ross, Biden pulled Keller closer. 

“I’m serious,” the president said. “I mean it. I want this work to be union.”

It was a powerful moment to witness, underscoring all of Biden’s public statements about strong unions being essential to a strong American middle class.

Ross said it wasn’t until later, when the IBEW delegation was having drinks and telling tales about the day at a favorite watering hole, that it fully registered.

“It’s like, ‘Holy cow, he said that. And he pulled him in and said it again,” Ross said. 

“For me to have the opportunity to meet a sitting president is incredible,” he said. “But the fact that it was this president, who talks about unions every opportunity he gets, is something special.”

Click to see Biden’s speech, including Julian Aguilar’s introduction.