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October 2023

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People who have embraced the IBEW Code of Excellence light up when they talk about it.

How it builds trust and respect between employers and locals. The confidence it gives workers to speak up about jobsite hazards and other concerns. A heightened sense of belonging and the morale it inspires. The core values that make believers out of skeptical bosses.

Time and again, the Code has led to bigger paychecks, better benefits and more work for IBEW members.

Every gain begins with a spark. Or, as the IBEW dictionary spells it, SPARQ: Safety, Professionalism, Accountability, Relationships, Quality.

Those are the cornerstones of the Code of Excellence, a declaration first made nearly 20 years ago codifying the work ethic and civility that have been the essence of the IBEW for generations.

In partnership with willing employers across the IBEW's industries, it is a promise — a promise of integrity and cooperation that applies to everyone from the most junior employees to the C-suite.

Unique to the IBEW, it has cemented the Brotherhood's reputation as a union in a class by itself.

"When we give 100% on the job, what we get back is immeasurable," International President Kenneth W. Cooper said. "Employers that have seen the Code in action are more open with us, more flexible with the workforce, more willing to give at the bargaining table and more likely to hire the IBEW in the future. And that means more jobs and more financial security for our members and their families.

"With the Code of Excellence, everybody wins."

'Our Best Selling Point'

At Ingeteam's wind turbine plant in Milwaukee, Local 2150 members ratified a dream five-year contract last summer with big raises up front and annual cost-of-living adjustments.

"We got COLA, we got a $3 raise for every person on that floor and about 10 other great items, and we didn't take one concession," Assistant Business Manager Mike Bruening said. "And the reason is the Code of Excellence."

More specifically, the fact that workers bought into the Code. AK Abdalla, a former steward at Ingeteam who recently joined Local 2150's staff, helped build support among his co-workers.

"It's not a complex code," Abdalla said. "Its message is simple: We're here to do a job, and we should take pride in it. It's an understanding that when we're productive and efficient for an employer, we're helping them make money. And in return they give us paychecks — good paychecks."

The Code has become a way of life for Local 2150. Every relationship with employers, and with each other, is steeped in it. More formally, it is an integral part of some 30 collective bargaining agreements that cover units in utility, manufacturing, outside construction, tree-trimming and broadcasting.

"We have some of the best contracts in the state, and our part of that is providing the best workers in the state," Business Manager Jim Meyer said, calling the Code "our biggest selling point."

"We use it in organizing drives, in top-down construction drives, showing them that we're bringing something to the table," he said. "Our philosophy of working with employers and not against them has caused us to be able to grow, even in a right-to-work state like Wisconsin."

The same approach is working for Fredericton-based Local 37 in New Brunswick, which has members in nearly every IBEW industry and recently hired a full-time organizer.

In one shop that was relying on an alarming number of nonunion contractors, Assistant Manger David Brown said, "We ran a cost-benefit analysis that successfully convinced the employer that allowing us to organize those workers — and train them in the Code of Excellence — would save them a tremendous amount of money."

A Foot in the Door

On top of the contract victory at Ingeteam, the company is also one of Local 2150's newest opportunities for growth: As soon as this fall, the first phase of the factory's new assembly lines for electrical vehicle chargers is expected to be up and running.

Swayed by its regional managers' rapport with the IBEW, the multinational company agreed in August not to interfere in Local 2150's drive to organize the new workforce.

Bruening had the chance to announce the neutrality agreement on the factory floor during a visit from President Joe Biden and Gov. Tony Evers. Dignitaries and workers alike erupted in cheers.

Such cooperation was unimaginable when Local 2150 launched its first campaign at Ingeteam in 2018.

The company hired union-busting consultants, fighting the drive at every step. When the 100-worker unit voted overwhelmingly for representation, Ingeteam pushed the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the results. Their charges were so without merit that even the anti-union Trump-era NLRB sided with the IBEW.

The negotiations that followed were a "grudge match," Bruening said, with Ingeteam dragging its feet for the first six months. "Finally, we got an OK contract. It wasn't perfect, but we made some movement."

Without the Code, there might have been no contract at all.

For weeks, managers balked at setting a bargaining date. So Bruening wrote them a letter. "I said: 'This is what I'd like to do. Instead of meeting to talk to you about negotiations, I want to meet to talk to you about the Code of Excellence.'"

The pitch got Bruening in the door. But his audience was skeptical, with some managers even shaking their heads. Ultimately, they came around just enough to agree to bargain.

"I figured the Code was the best introduction to people who hated us, who didn't want the company to go union and saw us as middlemen getting in the way of their ability to manage their employees," Bruening said.

"I turned that upside down and showed the company what the Code could do for them."

'Creating a Culture'

The origins of the Code of Excellence date to 2006 in the Eighth District, where the union was in danger of losing a contractor.

Fearing the consequences for his members, International Vice President Jon Walters drafted language that became the foundation of today's Code, using it to persuade the employer to stick with the IBEW.

One of the earliest locals to follow suit was Local 37 in New Brunswick. "We were one of the pioneers," Brown said with pride, stressing how vital a tool the Code has been for negotiating higher wages and benefits.

"It helps us show employers that the IBEW gives them the best value for the dollar," he said.

Today, Code of Excellence agreements are in place throughout the U.S. and Canada, covering members everywhere from construction sites to utilities of every size, factories, broadcasting units and public sector jobs.

"The Code of Excellence is not one-size-fits-all," Education Director Amanda Pacheco said. "Every local that adopts it makes it their own."

Committees typically made up of union reps, workers, supervisors and managers meet to hammer out the details: The nuts and bolts of applying the Code to their workplace. Ways to foster cooperation and participation. Methods for using the Code to resolve disputes before they become grievances. And so on.

For Seattle Local 77 and the Grant County Public Utility District in central Washington, the planning stage took several years, stretched out by the pandemic.

But the COE team's commitment never waned. When the Code was rolled out in 2022, virtually everyone on the utility's payroll was there in person or online.

"When we started this endeavor, I think we saw each other as union and management," foreman and COE team member Scott Elliott said at the time. "As the team has met and planned, there's been an increased feeling of cohesion. I think I can speak for all and say that we now feel more like Team Grant than union and management."

Their vision for the Code was shaped in part by a visit to Nevada's NV Energy. They found a company drowning in grievances being transformed by its COE pact with Las Vegas Local 396: better communication, less micromanagement and more trust.

Pacheco said that's exactly how it's supposed to work.

"The Code is about creating a culture," she said. "Where it's successful is where local unions and employers come together to create it."

A Circle of Respect

Daniel Gumble sees the Code of Excellence as the IBEW's golden rule.

"It's 'Do unto others,'" the Jersey City, N.J., Local 164 business manager said. "It teaches us to respect others, and when you give respect, you get respect. I think it goes a long way, not only in the workplace but in life itself."

The Code gave Local 164 the advantage it needed when the family-owned ShopRite grocery chain was gearing up to build a new store with nonunion labor.

Gumble invited the company's chairman and other executives to tour the local's busy training center, where Code of Excellence messaging is everywhere: posters on classroom walls, materials on breakroom bulletin boards, even fliers in members' toolboxes.

Not to mention the T-shirts and hardhat stickers emblazoned with "Excellence: The Code We Live By."

ShopRite was no stranger to unions. Its grocery workers were represented, and its other stores were union-built. Gumble wanted to know why it was wavering now.

"Look what you get with us. We're the real deal," he told his guests, showcasing the IBEW's state-of-the-art training and the Code of Excellence principles that are instilled in members from Day One of their apprenticeships.

He skillfully made a case that the premium ShopRite would pay for IBEW labor was worth every penny. "They loved it," Gumble said. "They said, 'You guys really do walk the talk.'"

Local 164 apprentices are introduced to the Code during orientation, which has evolved into a three-day boot camp that leaves no doubt about what's expected of them.

"You came here representing yourself and your family name," Training Director Warren Becker tells each new class. "As of today, you represent Local 164, you represent the IBEW and you represent union labor as a whole, as well as the contractor you're working for."

Students are asked to think about the kind of person they'd want to hire and whether they'd be willing to pay IBEW wages to someone who wasn't giving their all.

"It's important that they understand that their jobs are dependent on their conduct," Becker said. "Our relationships with our contractors are symbiotic. When we do the job the way we're trained to do and do it right the first time and on time every time, it allows the contractor to procure more work and hire our members again. It's a self-repeating cycle."

Nurturing the Code

The Code of Excellence is a living document. Over time, a healthy pact evolves and grows.

For example, the COE team at the sprawling Tennessee Valley Authority regularly adapts and expands its ambassador program, in which union members and managers volunteer to serve as faces of the Code.

"The ambassadors resolve issues at the line level," said International Representative Curtis Sharpe. "It's been a very effective way to minimize conflicts and improve communication. It makes people feel empowered when they know they're being heard."

Recently, ambassadors at TVA worksites across the South were mobilized to roll out diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Instead of a directive from management, Sharpe said, "this is coming from the workers, and that makes a huge difference."

Training is essential to the COE's success, ensuring that everyone, top to bottom, understands the Code and the role they play in it.

It starts with kickoff events led by international representatives, joined by senior managers to demonstrate the employer's commitment. Going forward, "train the trainer" sessions prepare lead workers to answer questions, encourage involvement and coach new hires.

Entergy's entry into the Code at its Arkansas Nuclear One plant coincided with an outage, a bustling few weeks every 18 months when workers replace spent fuel and perform major repairs and maintenance.

The demands can quadruple the site's building-trades workforce, which is roughly 1,000-strong during normal operations, said Little Rock Local 647 Business Manager Brian Erwin.

"There were about 4,000 people, and we ran every one of them through COE training — union and nonunion side by side with the senior management on site," Erwin said. "Didn't matter if you were the IBEW, the Carpenters, the Laborers or anyone else. Entergy made it clear that 'This is a COE site, and we will conduct business as such.'"

Like Entergy, the TVA applies the Code not only to its relationship with the IBEW but to the entirety of its workforce.

As a result, Sharpe said, all TVA unions have a greater voice. "Since the COE was rolled out in 2018, we've made a lot of friends in the other trades. They see our leadership and how effective we can be."

Management at the nation's largest public power provider sees it, too. "They look to us as leaders," he said. "We've garnered so much respect by the way we've handled ourselves."

Saving a Town

Local 647's flag flies high in front of the Nuclear One reactor in Russellville, Ark., just beneath Entergy's corporate flag.

Waving in unison, they are a symbol of the Code of Excellence teamwork that not only saved the plant and a thousand jobs, but even the town itself.

The facility was in trouble. By 2016, it had fallen to the lowest safety levels allowed by regulators.

"Arkansas Nuclear One was probably the most troubled plant in the country at the time," Erwin said. "We were very worried that they could come in and shut it down."

Desperate plant managers reached out to Shannon Walters, then Local 647's business manager. As Erwin recounts: "They called Shannon and said, 'We have to change the culture,' and Shannon said, 'It's funny you ask. We've got the perfect thing for that.'"

Soon they were collaborating on a COE agreement that led to the mass training and a new way of doing business. The lines of communication were open. Ideas were flowing. Changes were afoot.

Most importantly, everyone was on board, Erwin said. Typically, COE trainers run into at least some early resistance from wary line workers and middle managers.

"I think that our members, and quite honestly everyone on the site, realized the gravity of the situation," Erwin said. "In a community like Russellville, the city is literally built around the plant. Most of the people who work at the plant live there. It has the highest-paying jobs in the area, and we help support the community through taxes and our patronage. If the plant shut down, Russellville, Arkansas, was going to be a ghost town."

About a year after the Code of Excellence was launched, the plant's safety ratings had gone from bottom to top. "An NRC 1," Erwin said, referring to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's highest score.

In addition to the plant, the Entergy COE covers the company's coal and natural gas division and its outside linemen.

"It's been a good deal, the trust we've built with management," said journeyman lineman Matthew Huntsman, a steward who is also chair of Local 647's executive board.

"I can walk into our regional manager's office, and we can shut the door and talk about things coming down the pike. They may be off the record for now, but it helps you prepare for how to address things with the guys."

Occasionally senior statewide managers ask Huntsman's opinion. "It's great to be involved in some of those decisions before they're made," he said. "Before, it was just a shotgun effect: 'This is what we're doing, and you're going to like it.'"

Erwin said it was the same way at Nuclear One. "It used to be that you couldn't tell a manager, 'This is not a good idea.'

"Now, our site is very open to critical thinking. It's encouraged," he said. "And any time you've got a lot of intelligent thinking and you're able to talk critically and openly, you tend to make the best decisions."

'You Guys Are Different'

As at Entergy, some of the Code's biggest fans are the managers and executives who long considered the IBEW their adversary.

Just five years ago at Ingeteam, workers who wanted to join Local 2150 were subjected to captive audience meetings, specious fliers and other arm-twisting straight from the anti-union playbook.

The pendulum has swung so far the other way that in 2022 the factory's human resources director was invited to speak at the 40th International Convention.

"It is one thing to read about a Code of Excellence in training, quite another to see and hear it shape the values and performance on the floor," Garan Chivinski said. "It is simple, profound and true: Focus on quality. Don't fear change. Keep each other honest and efficient."

He spoke glowingly of Bruening, former steward Abdalla and Local 2150. "If we share a common goal and trust each other, it is far better to augment Ingeteam with the IBEW leaders and their considerable talents than to waste the company's limited resources to compete with them," Chivinski said.

Even union-averse leaders at Ingeteam's global headquarters in Spain have taken notice, as Bruening discovered when corporate VIPs were on hand for Biden's tour in August.

It gave Bruening time for a friendly conversation with the vice president overseeing the EV-charger project.

"I didn't come into this trusting you and the union. My experience with unions in Spain has not been good," Bruening recalled the executive saying, citing what he saw as labor obstruction and other troubles.

"We have a different philosophy in the IBEW and that is to be your partner," Bruening responded. "If you succeed, my members succeed."

With a big smile, the man told him he'd heard the same thing from Chivinski and other executives. He was sold.

"He said to me, 'I've seen it, I believe it, and I'm excited for our partnership because you guys are different.'"

Above: The Code of Excellence at work. Clockwise from top left: Jersey City, N.J., Local 164 wiremen at Newark Airport Terminal 1; Little Rock, Ark., Local 647 linemen and clerks from Entergy's Searcy Distribution Line; the Lighting Quotient plant in Massachusetts recently signed a COE pact with Waltham Local 1040; the COE flag flies high at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which employs IBEW members across the South.



"Excellence: The Code We Live By" is the motto of Jersey City, N.J., Local 164; Entergy Arkansas trucks used by Local 647 linemen sport SPARQ stickers.


Little Rock Local 647's flag flies just below the corporate flag at the Entergy Arkansas Nuclear One plant in Russellville, signifying a culture of respect and cooperation that helped save the plant from being shut down in the last decade.


President Joe Biden takes a selfie with Milwaukee Local 2150 members during a tour of Ingeteam's wind turbine plant in August. A Code of Excellence agreement at the factory has been like night and day for the previously anti-union management team and its IBEW workforce.