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April 2016

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The IBEW's Innovative Solution to Flint's Water Crisis

Beyoncé is helping out. So are the Detroit Lions, the Plumbers and the Auto Workers. If there is a silver lining to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., it's the outpouring of assistance from the public and in no small part labor unions, including IBEW locals.

"It's a disgrace what has happened to the people of Flint," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "If ever there was time for solidarity and coming together to help our brothers and sisters, it's now and it's in Flint."

In 2014, in an effort to save money, a state-appointed "emergency manager" decided to switch Flint's water source from the Detroit River to the Flint River. Without proper treatment, the heavily contaminated water leached into the lead pipes that run throughout the city and into people's homes.

What happened afterward included a series of ignored signs of the mounting disaster. The number of children with high levels of lead in their blood doubled. Bacteria including E. coli and cancer-causing chemicals were found in the visibly filthy water.

The city has since switched back to the cleaner water source, but the lead pipes remain. In addition to rashes and other health issues, some 8,000 children have been exposed to an element known to cause irreversible brain damage.

Many questions remain unanswered, but what cannot be disputed is that the residents of Flint have been and continue to receive polluted water. That is where IBEW locals have stepped in to help.

In Michigan's capital city of Lansing, Local 352 members collected bottled water and raised over $1,500. But that's not why they're getting national attention.

Local 352 is also the home of a new technology in lead pipe removal, a less disruptive and quicker method of switching old pipe to copper. These Lansing Board of Water and Light employees have replaced over 13,000 pipes this way since 2004.

The technique even caught the attention of The Rachel Maddow Show. As Maddow discovered, whereas the previous method required digging a giant trench and tearing up the street, the new version is less invasive, requiring only two relatively small holes.

Local 352 members helped pioneer the new procedure and tools that cut and remove old lead cable while also pushing through and replacing it with safer copper pipes. And two lead services, or homes, can be done in one day — twice as fast as the traditional method.

Now these members are heading east to Flint to share their technology. According to an estimate from the Lansing utility, it will cost about $55 million and take 130 people to replace all the lead pipes within a year.

"We've been doing this for more than 10 years and we know it works," said Local 352 Business Manager Ron Byrnes. "It can work in Flint too."

For its part, Flint's hometown Local 948 has been coordinating water drives and directing people interested in helping to the Genesee County United Way, which is working with the area Red Cross and the Michigan Community Service Commission to run a volunteer center. The local is also working with area building trades to donate money to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.

South of Flint, Detroit Locals 17 and 58 have also stepped up. Local 58 Business Manager Michael Richard said that the locals sent about 3,000 cases of water north.

Chicago Local 134 and its Electrical Workers Minority Caucus have also been providing assistance.

"This type of community service falls in line with what we do all the time," said EWMC Chicago Chapter President Joseph K. Wells. "It was just a matter of how we were going to go about it."

After learning about a water relief program run by Michigan grocery chain Meijer, Wells met with Local 134 Business Manager Don Finn and President Thomas Manning and the decision was made to purchase $2,300 worth of bottled water, which was delivered by the Teamsters.

Wells and other EWMC members distributed the water in Flint with the help of the Southeast Michigan EWMC chapter.

"It was good to be able to help," said Southeast Michigan EWMC President Felicia Wiseman, who participated. "I can't even fathom what it's like, to have to go every day without any water."

Wells and Wiseman both said they are considering other ways to help, which may include collecting items like hand sanitizer and wipes.

Read the full story at


Photo credit: Flickr user Ben Gordon


The Chicago chapter of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus joined up with the southeast Michigan chapter to donate and distribute $2,300 in bottled water. Pictured here are Nannette Culp (left), Felicia Wiseman, Kevin Mack, Peter Thurston and Leticia Zepeda.