Among the many challenging tasks that IBEW members perform every day, one of the most dangerous is the work that line clearance tree trimmers do to keep power lines obstruction-free.
Still, most of the people who perform this work in North America do it without the safety net of IBEW membership. Recent gains in training and successful contract negotiations, however, are going a long way toward closing that gap.
“Highly trained and highly skilled workers are absolutely needed for a job like this,” said Rusty McCuen, chairman of the Line Clearance Tree Trimming Coordinating Council. “Training helps you steer clear of dangerous situations,” he noted, like getting too close to energized lines.
Apprenticeships can attract workers to the IBEW by raising the job’s profile, he said, offering quality training as well as a measure of professionalism, respect and recognition — not to mention higher pay.
Anchorage, Alaska, Local 1547 and the Alaska Joint Electrical Apprenticeship and Training Trust, for example, have been working with the Northwest Line Joint Apprenticeship Committee in Vancouver, Wash. — which offers one of only two Labor Department-certified LCTT apprenticeships — to revamp that JATC’s curriculum, introducing web-based training and climbing labs into its 4,000-hour program.
Thanks to some generous state grants, McCuen said, Topeka, Kansas, Local 304 has been able to implement its own LCTT apprenticeship program that follows the NWJATC’s curriculum, which not only helps train members more effectively but also has boosted internal organizing efforts. “It’s still not in their collective bargaining agreement where a company has to recognize their apprenticeship program,” he said, but the local is “doing really good things to change the culture.”
Meanwhile, California continues to expand its journeyman trimmer certification to train thousands of LCTT workers in the state. “Local apprenticeship programs still aren’t being bought into by most utilities and companies,” McCuen said. “But if we can pull off more local and regional apprenticeships over the next five to 10 years, it could help us bring in new members — and better wages for them.”
McCuen said several LCTT locals also have reported some positive pay news. Portland, Ore., Local 125 recently concluded a tough negotiation that ultimately brought a 22.5% wage increase over four years, plus health and pension improvements and a guarantee that signatory LCTT contractors will cover any health insurance increases.
And the LCTT members of Detroit Local 17 — which offers the second federally certified LCTT apprenticeship — recently reached a four-year agreement that included 6% annual wage increases and benefits improvements, as well as double-time pay when a workday goes beyond 10 hours.
Some 78 locals now include LCTT among their classifications, McCuen said, with one or two locals per year adding it to their list. While that’s a good figure, there’s still vast organizing potential for the IBEW.
“Based on a study by the International Office from a few years ago, the IBEW has around 8,900 LCTT members in the U.S. and Canada,” McCuen said. In comparison, “there are about 31,000 workers in the industry.”
Successfully tapping into this larger pool of potential members also comes with challenges, McCuen said. “We’re always trying to get younger people in, but one problem is that so many are still so programmed to go to college instead,” he said, and they’re not thinking about the good benefits that come with a union job in the trade. “To them, it doesn’t seem to them like there’s a career path there,” he said.
Nevertheless, McCuen’s council has been making progress in changing people’s minds about LCTT work. “Our locals are out there organizing, and our council group continues to grow,” he said.
There have been some other advancements, as well. The IBEW recently added a link to the LCTT council under the Construction and Maintenance section of the Local Connections website. And McCuen said that, for the first time, he will be staffing an IBEW information booth at the Trees and Utilities National Conference in Pittsburgh in September.
“It takes a special kind of person to allow yourself to be hoisted dozens of feet in the air, in all sorts of weather, to cut away tree branches and other obstacles that threaten power lines, and also to ensure that the debris falls safely to the ground,” said Matt Paules, director of the Construction and Maintenance Department, which has jurisdiction over the LCTT classification. “We all understand how IBEW membership can bring workers better training, wages, and that special spirit of brotherhood, and I applaud the progress that Brother McCuen is reporting.”