Local 77 Business Manager Lou Walter, right, watches Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sign a bill to protect utility crews in work zones by requiring motorists to move over a lane.
At left are local business representative Rex Habner and former political director Shaunie Wheeler, who fought for the bill through three legislative sessions.  

It took three tries and a special election, but the resolve of Seattle Local 77 paid off this spring when Washington state lawmakers passed a move-over law to protect roadside utility crews.

Testifying at the Washington statehouse in support of the move-over bill, Local 77 business representative Teri Kannor tells senators that not only was she hurt by an inattentive driver, separate work zone tragedies ended her father’s IBEW career and killed a coworker’s husband.

Like motorists in about 30 other U.S. states so far, drivers in Washington now have to move over a lane, or slow down on single-lane roads, when they see parked utility vehicles.

“It’s a dangerous area, working beside the highway, and our people don’t always have the ability to set up traffic diversions,” Local 77 Business Manager Lou Walter said. “This provides that extra amount of safety.”

Between 1996 and 2012, all states passed move-over laws that apply to stopped police cars and other emergency vehicles. Only later did states, under pressure from IBEW and other stakeholders, begin to add utility workers.

IBEW struggled to move the Washington bill forward for two legislative sessions until a special election for a single seat last November flipped control of the Senate to Democrats.

Finally, IBEW members had a chance to testify about the dangers they face in work zones. Teri Kannor, a Local 77 business representative who has worked with power line crews since 1985 and was hurt once herself by an inattentive driver, told legislators that a different careless motorist left her father with life-altering injuries.

“He spent two weeks in a coma and never fully recovered from his head injury,” Kannor said.“His short-term memory was affected and his career as an IBEW Local 440 member ended.”

Another tragic accident killed a coworker’s husband. “He was working in a ditch laying cable when a driver drove erratically through the work zone, which was clearly marked,” Kannor said. “He stood up to check out the commotion and was run over by the vehicle and killed instantly. He left behind a 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.”

“It is so important for this bill to pass,” she said, urging legislators to protect the lives of work zone crews and spare their families the “sadness and devastation” that too many have suffered.

Some Republican senators had supported the bill as a safety issue since IBEW first brought it to their attention. But GOP leadership, then in control, was determined to deny labor a victory. “It wasn’t an issue of a good bill or not – we had bipartisan sponsors – it was a union thing,” Walter said.

Local 77 and a huge labor contingent turned the tables last fall, campaigning with vigor for political newcomer Manka Dhingra in the race for a vacant Senate seat. Her win put Democrats back in charge, allowing a more worker-friendly agenda to advance.

“We supported her a lot – door knocking, post-card parties, a lot of innovative ways to get out the vote,” said Shaunie Wheeler, who was until recently the local’s political director. For the move-over bill, she said it made all the difference – “110 percent.”

Wheeler also assembled a broader coalition of supporters the third time around, including flaggers and non-union contractors, and she recruited IBEW-represented utility workers to testify before the Transportation Committee. Lawmakers passed the bill as the clock was running down on the 2018 session. It went into effect June 7.

With Dhingra’s win, Washington became one of only five states with Democrats in control of the House, Senate and governor’s office. Walter said the IBEW is laying groundwork for other legislation critical to members, including a bill to elevate charges and penalties for assaulting a utility worker.

In the next legislative session, Walter also hopes to have the move-over bill renamed in memory of Local 77 brother Andrew York, who was killed when a drunk driver crossed into a work zone in 2000.

While the focus this spring was getting the law on the books, he said, “we’re going to try to do that retroactively in his honor – the Andrew York bill.”