The Electrical Worker online
June 2023

For Leaders and Members Alike,
White House Doors Wide Open to IBEW
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From his bully pulpit at home and on the road, President Joe Biden often salutes "the men and women of the IBEW" and the unparalleled skills they bring to America's building and infrastructure boom.

But away from the media spotlight, his respect for the IBEW is just as fervent.

Rank-and-file members, local leaders, international officers and staff regularly are invited to White House summits and roundtables, bringing their voice and expertise to the Biden administration's pro-labor, job-creating agenda.

Recent events have focused on infrastructure spending in the states, workplace diversity and equality, policies to support organizing and collective bargaining, and much more.

They are learning opportunities for guests and hosts alike, led by high-level White House staff with Cabinet members and even Vice President Kamala Harris as speakers.

It was eye-opening for Milwaukee Local 494 apprentice Jessica Berndt, who joined Business Manager Dean Warsh and a cross-section of Wisconsinites discussing state priorities and federal resources with officials including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

"In my mind, I'm like: 'Oh my God, these people are so important. I'm just a Wisconsin girl, an apprentice,'" said Berndt, who talked about her work rebuilding an affordable housing community. "But the beauty of it is that you see that everybody's just a normal human being, just trying to do their best. It opened up the world a little bit for me."

Similarly, Lanh Khampeth of Fort Worth, Texas, Local 220, could hardly believe she was at a table with Harris and then-Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in the vice president's ceremonial office in March.

She and other union and business guests brought their perspectives to the work being done by the White House Task Force on Organizing and Worker Empowerment.

"Just being in that environment, knowing that Vice President Harris and Secretary Walsh were listening to us and acknowledging us, I loved it," said Khampeth, a foreman at a Siemens plant producing electrical switchgear.

Conquering her nerves, she spoke proudly about working hard at a good, union job, a journey toward the American dream that began when her family fled Laos when she was 6 years old.

"It wasn't until I came to Siemens that I finally found the job security and opportunity for growth that I was looking for," she said. "With the support of my IBEW brothers and sisters, I have taken on new responsibilities. This job is constantly changing and challenging me."

Harris chairs the Cabinet-level panel created by Biden two years ago to ensure that the federal government is fulfilling the promise of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act by supporting the growth of unions and collective bargaining.

The meeting singled out companies like Siemens that understand what the data proves: Union workplaces enjoy higher productivity, lower turnover and far fewer safety violations.

"We were very intentional about wanting to uplift the examples of employers who have embraced union labor … and who also can speak to the business model that benefits from union labor," Harris said.

Khampeth sat a couple of chairs away from Harris and next to International President Kenneth W. Cooper.

"Lanh did a tremendous job representing the IBEW," Cooper said. "Vice President Harris listened intently, as did Secretary Walsh — the only labor secretary who was a card-carrying union member. That tells you everything about President Biden's commitment to American workers."

"Having this administration's ear as a union leader is invaluable," he continued. "But to know that our own members are welcome at the table and are actually being heard is an even greater source of pride."

The following week, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo led an Equal Pay Day conversation that included three IBEW members: Donna Hammond and Tia Vonil from Portland, Ore., Local 48, and a notable sister from Portland Local 125 — AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, the first woman to lead the federation.

The "Women Rebuilding America" roundtable convened private employers and unions to discuss strategies to recruit, train and hire women in the trades, especially women of color.

Hammond has been a trailblazer in that arena for decades. A Black journeywoman who began her apprenticeship in 1978, she now serves as interim executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.

Vonil, also a Black journeywoman, was the table's only tradesperson still in the field. She relayed how much it meant to her as an apprentice a decade ago to see other women working on the renovation of Portland's Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt building — a federal megaproject, defined in part as a public project costing at least $500 million.

"I told them there were a lot more women and people of color than you would normally see on a construction site, and that made a big difference for me as an apprentice," Vonil said. "If I was having a hard day, it made things a little bit lighter just to be able to cross paths with another woman and say hello."

She left the White House confident that women in the trades, and those who want to be, have genuine allies in Washington.

"I really felt like they recognize that having women in the construction industry and having pay equity is just common sense, that it is good strategy for our economy and for American commerce," she said.

Hammond was struck by the administration's depth of commitment to promoting diverse and union-friendly jobsites, including using billions of federal dollars as leverage.

"They stressed that right now with all of the megaprojects, we have momentum and we have money to focus on truly bringing women and minorities into the trades, and how important that is to building the middle class," she said.

Those goals were reinforced when Hammond visited the Women's Bureau at the Department of Labor. Marveling at what she saw and heard from its busy staff, she said, "There is so much passion and energy and drive to get this done."

The Wisconsin event was the first in 2023 to bring IBEW members to the White House. Dubbed "Communities in Action: Building a Better Wisconsin," the half-day session was followed by a Minnesota gathering two weeks later.

The events are part of a series of state forums that began with Ohio last fall, focusing on infrastructure spending and other job-creating investments. Mayors, community activists, business owners, union members and other invitees provide ground-level perspectives on local projects and needs, while learning how their states are benefiting from Biden-era programs and legislation.

They return home as experts on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the American Recovery Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the projects these new laws are funding.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about how legislation has changed IBEW members' lives for the better here in Minnesota," said Andy Snope, legislative director for Minneapolis Local 292, referring to projects such as an Xcel Energy 460-megawatt solar farm that will create 900 union construction jobs.

On top of the opportunity to speak directly with Biden administration officials, Snope said, the forum brought together a wide variety of stakeholders who don't regularly cross paths back home.

"I enjoyed connecting with local elected officials, other union members and leaders of fraternal, social and environmental organizations," he said. "The connections we made with our fellow Minnesotans will help to bring forth even more positive change."

Warsh, of Local 494, agreed, saying he and the IBEW made new friends in Wisconsin.

"I was sitting next to the guy from the Veterans Chamber of Commerce. I'd never met him before, and we got to chit-chatting. And the mayor of Madison, who I hadn't seen in a long time," he said. "It was good, the chance to talk with all these different mayors and community leaders — people from causes we support like the United Way and Habitat for Humanity. We do so many Habitat houses, so it was nice to meet the person in charge."

As the event sped by, information flowing and hands flying in the air, the clock ran out before Warsh had his turn to speak. But he was preparing to remedy that in late May, taking the White House up on its offer to host the spring meeting of the IBEW's Wisconsin State Conference.

"They said this is something they want to start doing, to get as close to the ground as possible when it comes to labor issues and hear directly from union locals," Warsh said. "As far as I know, our business managers from Wisconsin will be the first ones at the plate."


"There is so much passion and energy and drive to get this done."

– Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. Director Donna Hammond, Portland Local 48, on the White House's push for women in the trades.


"It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about how legislation has changed IBEW members' lives for the better here in Minnesota."

– Andy Snope, legislative director for Minneapolis Local 292