October/November 2011


Youth Delegation Amps up Convention Spirit, Creates Dialogue
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Spend a few minutes talking with any member of the youth contingent at the 38th International Convention, and one thing becomes abundantly clear: the future is in good hands.

With members hailing from both major metropolitan areas and rural communities, the group of 48 young IBEW members selected from states and provinces across North America arrived in Vancouver as part of the union's RENEW effort (Reach out and Energize Next-gen Electrical Workers). The young activists spent more than a week in the coastal city networking with delegates, participating in caucus meetings and attending sessions sponsored by the IBEW's Education Department on the union's history, laws and structure.

Attendees like Columbus, Ohio, Local 1466 member James Jette came to the convention with savvy and enthusiasm. Jette said he traveled to Vancouver to garner ideas on how to get his co-workers to take some ownership in their union—especially at a time when so many working families are on the ropes. The 10-year member and American Electric Power employee has been active in the fight to overturn the anti-union Senate Bill 5 in his home state. Speaking to the urgency faced by many of his generation, he said, "A lot of people who didn't think that politics matters are really seeing that it affects us. There's a mix of Democrats and Republican union members, but everyone is uniting against SB5. If we lose, this [attack on collective bargaining] it will snowball."

Young workers nationwide are staring down daunting problems. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this summer that 4.1 million youth—or more than 18 percent of the demographic—are unemployed. That's why it's so important for young trade unionists to get active, said Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 member Jennifer Gray.

Gray has worked as a customer service representative at Pacific Gas and Electric for five years. She was tapped as a shop steward by her business representative after questioning a supervisor's interpretation of the parties' labor agreement.

Gray participated in last year's AFL-CIO's Next Up young workers summit. She returned to her local and helped to set up a Facebook page to engage more young workers in the union. "I came to the convention willing to observe, learn and take on any role that is needed," Gray said. "I've done so much growing being involved in the labor movement and politics. I live and breathe this stuff."

Many veteran IBEW leaders cut their teeth on political organizing when they were in their 20s—like Liz Shuler, who was elected secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO in 2009. Shuler served in many positions in the IBEW, most recently as International President Hill's executive assistant for five years.

By spearheading the AFL-CIO's Next Up effort, Shuler has become the public face of youth empowerment in the labor movement. The federation hosted the second annual Next Up summit in Minneapolis a week following the IBEW convention. Of the 700 workers aged 35 and under who attended the conference, more than 100 participants were IBEW members, Shuler said. "This is yet another area where the IBEW is leading the way. This is historic. And we should all feel very proud to be a part of it."

Addressing more than 3,000 delegates and guests on the convention floor Tuesday, Sept. 20, Shuler highlighted the need to rebrand the labor movement in Canada and the U.S. to ensure greater appeal among young workers and the general public.

"Unfortunately, the only public attention we get is when we strike," she said. "Of course, we're always going to be out there fighting for our members, and the recent strike at Verizon is a positive example of that. But does that have to be the only thing we're known for? Because the public rarely hears union members talking about our amazing training programs and apprenticeships that put young people on the road to middle-class jobs. … We need to show the good that we do every day."

Members of RENEW met early on the last day of the convention before official business commenced on the floor. Sitting in a large circle in a conference room at the Vancouver Convention Center, the members reflected on their convention experience and brainstormed how to maintain their new-found momentum after they say their good-byes and venture back home.

International President Edwin D. Hill met with the group that morning. He said he was pleased with their contributions and looked forward to seeing how their futures take shape.

"Young workers across North America are facing an uncertain and sometimes frightening future," Hill said. "One of our goals at this convention was to tap the initiative of young leaders, give them a better knowledge of the IBEW and offer tools to succeed in changing the lives of their peers. This builds a stronger union—and we're honored that so many of our best and brightest young people took up the challenge to be a part of this."

Read more: Focus Growth: Delegates endorse growth

Read more: Focus Politics: Cross-border political activism

Read more: Focus Partnership: Employer cooperation highlighted

Read more: Focus Community: Convention seeks community engagement

Read more: Focus Diversity/Inclusion: Discussion, diversity flow at conferences

Members of the IBEW's young workers delegation

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler

Columbus, Ohio, Local 1466 member James Jette

St. John, New Brunswick, Local 1524 member Mark Elderkin speaks at a young workers meeting.