Members from Modesto, Calif., Local 684 are in the middle of a four-year expansion of UC Merced's campus that will nearly double its size by 2020.  

In late 2012, Modesto, Calif., Local 684 needed to get bigger. Work was picking up, and in the years following the 2008 recession, the downturn in construction had seen membership slip from a historical average of around 300 to just 228. Then-business manager Billy Powell decided it was time to take action.

Powell had just returned from that year’s annual Membership Development Conference, where then-International President Edwin D. Hill made a pitch to attendees. If you want to grow, he said, the International Office is here to help. Just ask.

So Powell did. “If they’re offering help, I’m going to take it,” he said. Hill’s was the right message at the right time.

In February 2013, Powell contacted his state organizing coordinator, and in months that followed, Powell and Ninth District officers and staff outlined a three-year plan to reclaim market share, grow the local and bring the benefits of union membership to hundreds of new Northern California electricians.

The Membership Development Department committed to putting a state organizing coordinator on the ground with Local 684 every day for a year. “But we told them we could only do that if the local could promise 100 percent buy-in from everyone – officers, staff and membership,” said District Organizing Coordinator Greg Boyd. “Thankfully, every group we talked to – including the general membership – understood the importance of what we were doing. It wouldn’t have worked without that commitment.”

In 2013, Billy Powell, above, made the call for help increasing the membership of Modesto, Calif., Local 684. Business Manager Bobby Stutzman, top, says the local now has the most work it’s ever had.

Over the next year, state organizing coordinators Hank Lewis and Greg Galusha split time, working with the local’s organizer to blitz nonunion job sites, knock on doors, meet with nonunion contractors – even canvassing the local’s own members to stress the importance of organizing and welcoming new brothers and sisters into the IBEW.

Local 684 Business Manager Bobby Stuzman, who took over when Powell took a job as the state organizing coordinator for Northern California earlier this year, says the hard work has paid off. “We’ve got the most work we’ve ever had in the local. We’re projecting man-hours that we’ve never seen,” he said. “From where we started, we’re at nearly double those numbers – from 228 to around 400. We’re doing everything we can to bring more members in, to help fill the job calls so our contractors can keep bidding for more work.”

And the new members are loving their new lives in the IBEW. Journeyman wireman Matt Oliveira joined Local 684 near the beginning of the organizing push in 2014. He and his union brothers and sisters are in the middle of a four-year, eight-building expansion on the University of California Merced’s campus that will nearly double its size by 2020.

“I worked nonunion for 13 years,” Oliveira said, “and there were a lot of ups and downs. But here at the IBEW, I’ve been welcomed with open arms. The pay was an improvement, the health care and benefits are much better. My former employer gave me a raise, but he took away the health benefits for my family – that’s not a raise at all. My only regret about joining the IBEW is that I didn’t do it sooner. I wish somebody had told me years ago.”

Jesus Mendoza, a project foreman for signatory contractor S&S Electric on a nearby powdered milk plant, joined the union during the push as well. “Working union, it’s a lot safer,” he said. “Nonunion wants to go as fast as possible. Safety’s not a concern for them. I tell everyone working nonunion to join the IBEW. There are a lot of good people here.”

Stutzman, who just hired two new organizers to keep the momentum going, said the organizing assistance was critical in maintaining focus on growth. “It’s easy to get caught up in the work and the work that’s coming up,” he said. “Our success came because of that focus and because of the tremendous experience of the organizers who came in to help. The I.O. really does want to help you grow – you just have to ask.”

It wasn’t long before the runaway success of Local 684’s program attracted the attention of their IBEW neighbors just up Highway 99. In July 2016, Sacramento Local 340 Business Manager Bob Ward contacted Ninth District Vice President John O’Rourke and asked for organizing help as well.

“There’s this perception out there that the I.O. is going to swoop in and force a local to do something they don’t want to do and call it ‘helping,’” said Boyd, who worked to put together a similar plan at Local 340. “And that’s exactly the wrong formula for success.”

In northern California, IBEW locals are expanding, offering opportunities to more electricians as the work keeps coming.

On April 1, Membership Development assigned a full-time organizer to Local 340’s staff for the year, and it’s already paying off.

“It’s been fantastic so far,” said Local 340 Assistant Business Manager Rusty Johnston. “We’re starting to sign a lot of contractors, and we have more manpower than we’ve ever had before.”

The local is adding about 50 members a month so far and hoping for even more as the program takes shape. “You don’t know what you don’t know, so having someone here day in and day out with a wealth of organizing experience, it’s just huge for us,” Johnston said. “We’re already working out how to provide more programs here at the local to serve more members.”

Boyd expects the growth to be even faster in Sacramento than it was in Modesto, thanks largely to the fact that there’s simply more work in 2017 than there was in 2013. The program is spreading as well. Director of Construction Organizing Virgil Hamilton says similar programs are underway at local unions in Florida, North Carolina and Missouri, and more could be on the way.

“Different locals need different things,” Hamilton said. “So every approach is different, but the one thing we can promise is that if you come to us, we’ll help you put together a focused effort to grow your local and increase your market share. We’re here as a resource.”

For Powell, his initial call to the Ninth District has paid off in a big way. “Don’t be afraid,” he says to other business managers. “The old saying, ‘I’m from the I.O. and I’m here to help’ – that’s legit. Ask for help. My experience has been phenomenal.”

The IBEW Media Department produced the video above on this story for September's Membership Development conference.