When fourth-year apprentice B. Travis Brown got the call from Washington, D.C., Local 26 to introduce the president of the United States for a major speech at the hall, he almost didn't pick up. He's glad he did.
"It was surreal," Brown said of the experience. "I've met many state officials and congresspeople before, but the office of president has a certain gravitas to it. From the time I spent with the White House communications department right up to the team that does the stage production, it was wild to see the steps that go into place to make an event such as the one at the hall happen."
Brown introduced President Biden at Local 26's training center in the Washington suburb of Lanham, Md., on Feb. 15. The president spoke to the crowd of Local 26 members, elected officials and national media about economic issues ranging from infrastructure to the debt ceiling and working with a divided Congress. And as he's done before, he made sure to thank the IBEW in his remarks.
"One of the reasons I'm standing here as your president is because of the IBEW, and that's no malarkey either," Biden said. "I want to thank Kenny Cooper, president of the IBEW, who is doing a great job for this union, and for all American workers."
Local 26 Business Manager Joe Dabbs said hosting the president is a lot of work, but it's nothing new. The local hosted Barack Obama when he was president, as well as other elected officials over the years. This time around, Dabbs said he got a text message from Biden's advance staff the Saturday before the event asking if they could stop by, but also mentioning that they were looking at other halls.
"I told them don't bother. We've got the best place," Dabbs said. "We've done all this before."
After a few more visits and having to undergo background checks and shut down the fire systems and elevators, the local was ready for the visit.
"You've got to put in a lot of work, but it was fun for everybody," said Dabbs, who estimated there were several hundred people in attendance, from members of Local 26 and other unions to numerous press outlets. "Our members love Biden. He's such a down-to-earth president."
Dabbs noted that having legislators visit isn't just good for publicity, but it's also a way to show in person what the IBEW does and to build relationships. On one occasion, Dabbs said, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland even tried his hand at bending conduit.
"It's a good teaching process and exchange of knowledge," Dabbs said. "They understand us better by having the experience of getting together. It lets you get to know people."
Dabbs and Brown both said that having a president who doesn't just talk about things like infrastructure and job creation, but actually does the work to get the legislation passed — and does so with union protections included — makes a real difference.
"That means the world to us," Dabbs said of Biden's support for the IBEW and other unions. "We haven't had anybody like this in decades."
Brown said he got a chance to talk to Biden before introducing him, and they talked about the importance of trade apprenticeship programs.
"He said the general public really doesn't understand the amount of training we as union electricians, steamfitters or elevator mechanics go through in order to become journeymen," Brown said. "He said a well-trained union workforce means a stronger United States, that in order to be pro-business, we have to be pro-worker first."
Biden even mentioned IBEW apprenticeships in his speech, saying it's harder to get into an IBEW apprenticeship than it is Harvard University in terms of the number of people applying and the number of people accepted.
"The average person out there thinks you just show up and say, 'I want to be an IBEW worker,' and you go to work. You essentially … go back to school. You go to college. Four years or more of apprenticeships," Biden said.
Dabbs said Local 26 usually receives about 4,000 applications a year and, due in part to space issues, it accepts about 350 to 400 people for its five-year program. He also noted that the retention rate is about 80%.
"The industry is really demanding. You don't just walk right in, but we do everything we can to help them," Dabbs said. "We want them to be successful."
In Brown's case, Local 26 even helped him when he ran for town council in Culpeper, Va., something that he learned about in his apprenticeship when the local had someone come out and speak to his class about how politics can support working families.
"They spoke about how important it was to have folks at all levels of government who were union-friendly, and who better than an actual brother or sister of the local?" Brown said.
Brown won his race in November 2021 with the help of his IBEW brothers and sisters.
"We can put boots on the ground quickly," Dabbs said of the local's election efforts.
Dabbs also noted how Brown is the go-to person for others on the council about construction issues since he has the experience.
"He can tie it all together," Dabbs said. "He explains how it's a career, not a job. And he gives them a better understanding that union contractors build better communities. He's a good voice to have out there."
Indeed, the benefits of unions was something Biden spoke about, as well.
"I spoke … to the Business Roundtable, and … they asked why I was so pro-union. I said, 'Because they save you a lot of money.' No, seriously. You pay more to get the work done, but the work gets done right. The work gets done by the best people in the country. And I really mean it."