After seven years as International President of the IBEW, Lonnie R. Stephenson is retiring.
|Stephenson and Cooper on stage together at the union hall of Chicago Local 134 in May 2022.
|Stephenson gavels the IBEW's 40th International Convention to a close in May 2022.
|Stephenson at a workers' rally during the 2019 government shutdown in Washington.
|International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth Cooper will succeed Stephenson at the helm of the IBEW on Jan. 4, 2023.
When he took office in 2015, the IBEW was still digging out from the wreckage of the Great Recession.
Stephenson was president during a period of nearly unprecedented chaos. After just one year in office, committed antiunion politicians controlled all three branches of the federal government. The Supreme Court imposed right-to-work on the entire public sector workforce in 2018 and in 2020, the COVID-19 global health emergency silenced offices, factories, call centers, construction sites and schools.
Despite it all, the IBEW continued to grow steadily, year after year, until a small dip during the worst of the pandemic.
“It’s been the honor of my life to serve the members of the greatest union in the world and advance the cause of trade unionism in the electrical industry,” Stephenson said. “As hard as it is to step aside, I am confident the IBEW remains in good hands.”
As he steps down, effective Jan. 4, the IBEW has more “A” members than at any time in its history. And each year, thanks to the IBEW Strong program he shepherded, that membership looks more and more like the communities its members serve.
Stephenson built the closest and most productive relationship between a union and the White House in more than half a century.
The names of the IBEW and its members, including Stephenson personally, were spoken by the President weekly, sometimes daily.
The real value of the relationship, however, was measured in the laws that were passed and in the allies of working people appointed to positions that matter for worker safety, wages and quality of life.
Stephenson didn’t write the Butch Lewis, Bipartisan Infrastructure, Inflation Reduction or CHIPS Acts but he was as responsible for their passage into law as anyone not on Capitol Hill or in the White House.
Together, those four bills represent a changing of the tides in the American economy. Since Ronald Reagan, working people have repeatedly been forced to their knees. What jobs weren’t sent overseas were sent down to right-to-work states. Everything was down: wages, respect, benefits. The sun was setting on the American Dream.
Stephenson, the son of two factory workers in Moline, Ill., had a front row seat to that decline. He joined the apprenticeship of Rock Island Local 145 in 1975, just in time to watch the abandonment of the industrial Midwest.
He was about to go to college to get an electrical engineering degree when an IBEW electrician came on a service call to the grocery store where Stephenson was working.
Stephenson’s leadership potential was recognized quickly and he rose through the local’s leadership, winning election as vice president in 1984 and, in quick succession, serving as president and assistant business manager before taking over as business manager in 1991.
Stephenson was finishing his second term as business manager in 2002 when he was appointed international representative assigned to the Sixth District.
Soon after his appointment in 2010 as Sixth District International Vice President, Stephenson fought hard, but ultimately unsuccessful, battles for working families as Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana passed right-to-work laws.
It astonished him and hammered home the need to build political coalitions that valued working families and stiffened his resolve that if labor had a future it would need to organize.
After nearly 50 years in the IBEW, Stephenson leaves a stronger, more diverse, more powerful and more optimistic IBEW. Today, the IBEW is a union ready to ensure that the electrification and energy transition of the North American economy will create a better, cleaner and more reliable future built, run and maintained by the kind of jobs working people used to be able to take for granted.
The International Executive Council appointed International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper to fill the remainder of Stephenson’s term and Sixth District International Vice President Paul Noble to fill the remainder of Cooper’s term.
Cooper, also a first-generation journeyman inside wireman, grew up poor in rural Ohio in a family filled with love, but without many of the comforts most children are accustomed to, including indoor plumbing and adequate insulation.
His mother worked a nonunion factory job with low wages and no benefits, and Cooper learned at an early age the perils of workplace power concentrated in the hands of the employer. As he grew older, he discovered the power of a union and a voice at work, lessons he learned as a young apprentice at Local 688 in Mansfield, Ohio.
Cooper has been steward of the IBEW’s financial resources, including the IBEW’s pension and health and welfare funds, for the last six years. He has often said his decisions have been motivated by his deep gratitude for the stability and opportunity he found through the IBEW.
“Lonnie did something extraordinary. We faced historically bad headwinds during his term, and he leaves us stronger than he found us: more members, more friends and better prospects for the future,” Cooper said. “He might not like me saying this out loud, but he was the perfect combination of leadership and vision that this union needed.”
In accepting his appointment by the International Executive Committee, Cooper said he was humbled by the responsibility and driven to make what he and his family gained through the Brotherhood available to every electrical worker in North America.
“When I started in the IBEW, my highest ambition was to just provide for my family. That hasn’t changed, just the size of my family,” Cooper said. “No one is more surprised and humbled than me to be here. What gives me confidence is the example Lonnie set and my mission that every working man and woman in the electrical industry deserves what I have.”
Cooper said that his most important decision – one that he made with Stephenson and the members of the IEC– was simple: the appointment of his partner and replacement as International Secretary-Treasurer, Paul Noble.
“The power of unions is our collective strength, and that is especially true for the President: you are only as strong as your team. Paul has the energy, ideas and relationships the Brotherhood needs now,” Cooper said.
Noble and his wife, Gina, will come to the International Office from his home outside West Frankfort, Ill. Noble says his goal is to bring the voice of the membership to Washington and make sure the lines of communication stay open.
“The most important work in America right now is our work. The industries that are crucial for the 21st century will be built, maintained, and staffed by our members. We will electrify everything: cars, ports, buildings and so much more. And all that load will need transmission and distribution to connect the clean, reliable generation and storage. We will build all of that,” Noble said. “If we are to seize this moment, we need all of us, every member and future member, pulling together in the same direction.”
Sixth District International Representative Mike Clemmons will complete the remainder of Noble’s term.
Stephenson plans to retire in Florida close to his wife Dawn’s parents and spend as much time as possible not living out of a suitcase.
“Part of what we fight for is a retirement you have time to enjoy. Work brings us together, but you have to walk away from the tools before you need a cane to do it,” Cooper said. “Lonnie and Dawn have earned this time together and I join every IBEW member across North America in wishing that theirs is long, happy and healthy.”