March 2011

IBEW Member Training:
A ‘Key to Workplace Success'
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Anyone looking for proof of the time-honored adage "knowledge is power" should meet Sandy Theriot. For the New Orleans Local 130 member, coursework offered by the IBEW's Education Department has boosted her effectiveness as a shop steward, helping her increase her advocacy by ensuring that fellow workers are as productive, professional and competitive as they can be—especially in this chilly economic climate.

The 30-year member said the department's Code of Excellence steward training has helped her become a solid champion for members at signatory contractor Frischhertz Electric.

"The knowledge I received through the training was a definite key to workplace success," Theriot said. "As a steward, you have the opportunity to clearly illustrate why it's important to strive for excellence on the job. This helps us learn to work with our contractors to make them more profitable and efficient. And we need that—otherwise we'd all be unemployed."

Since 1988, the Education Department has offered trainings for members across the spectrum, from business managers to rank-and-file members. Department Director Jan Schwingshakl said that with the economy in its current state and unions on the defensive, now is a crucial time for members to up their training.

"Education is even more important now than it has been in the past because of the heightened union-bashing that is going on," Schwingshakl said. "The better trained our members are—the more they understand about how their union benefits them, their employer and their communities—the better we are able to fend off baseless attacks and create more activists. That creates a stronger IBEW for workers and their families."

Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Local 320 Business Manager John Kaiser agrees. After beginning the two-part New Business Manager Training last year, Kaiser said he feels more confident going into negotiations with employer Central Hudson Gas and Electric in April, when he will bargain for a good contract for the 530 members on site.

Kaiser, who served as a shop steward for two decades at the utility, said he's equally impressed with the level of education his cadre of nearly 30 new stewards received though the Education Department, especially in the way they handle grievances.

"Before the trainings, some of the newer stewards felt tentative—but afterwards, they were encouraged and confident to do the best job possible for the membership," he said. "They walk into the door armed with information."

Kaiser said high-quality training leads to added professionalism, "and that encourages the company to have more dialogue with the local union," he said. "It helps promote the IBEW as the work force of choice when management has a good relationship with the local.

"At the same time, the training aims to ensure that members fully understand their rights on the job," he said. "If management calls you in, you are entitled to representation. Making sure workers have a voice is part of what makes the relationship work."

The Education Department offers 11 different trainings (see sidebar). More than 150,000 members have taken the Construction Organizing Membership Education Training (COMET) since its inception in 1991, and the IBEW Steward Training turned out 1,300 new activists last year alone. Leaders are looking to roll out new trainings this year, which will feature strategic campaign planning for organizers, a comprehensive course in understanding collective bargaining and more.

Schwingshakl said that such trainings are beneficial to members on every level of the union.

"Without the knowledge of what your rights are in the workplace, you're pretty much at the mercy of the employer—and you can be sure they know what their own rights are," she said. "So any training will help a member at any level become more powerful in his or her place of employment."

Theriot, who has attended IBEW women's conferences and various seminars, said that the topics taught at the steward training should resonate with any member of the union—regardless of whether they have aspirations to move into a leadership position.

"The training gives you some fundamental tools to reach out to people on the job," she said. "You learn about conflict resolution and brokering agreements between parties. It helps you dialogue with your colleagues better and achieve mutually beneficial goals. You learn how be more tactful, a better listener and a stronger asset to the company and the membership.

"If you love the IBEW, you will seek out tools to make yourself a better educated person and a better trade unionist," she said. "Education through the International Office can certainly help with that."

For Kaiser, constant refinement is the path to growth—personally and professionally.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't learn something in this job to help me work more effectively on behalf of the membership," he said. "It's like I tell my kids: there's no such thing as ‘school is out.' You never stop learning."

Members interested in boosting their skills are encouraged to speak with their business managers about setting up trainings. Business managers looking for course opportunities should contact their district vice presidents to request classes.

For more information about the Education Department—including its partnership with the National Labor College—visit