By Rebecca Band
“Inspiring…” “Amazing…” “Moving…” “Important…” “Exciting…”
IBEW 1245’s new organizing stewards reveal strong emotions when you ask them about their experiences in the field. These 28 member-organizers – some of whom have been organizing for years, and some of whom just started – are ready to build a brighter future for the middle class and keep their union strong and growing.
IBEW 1245 has been working for years to foster a culture of volunteer union organizing and develop future activists and leaders, and the new Organizing Steward program is the next phase of IBEW 1245’s organizing renaissance. The position was created last year by the Executive Board to recognize and amplify the outstanding work already being done by the union’s member-organizers.
The Executive Board’s choice of the title “organizing steward“ was a deliberate one, a recognition of the critical role organizing plays alongside the critical work of shop stewards and safety stewards as the union defends our members and the wider union movement.
The new organizing stewards met at Weakley Hall on Jan. 31, just one day before their official induction by President Mike Davis at the Local 1245 Advisory Council. Business Manager Tom Dalzell welcomed them with warm words of gratitude and encouragement.
“We’re becoming a different union, and it’s because of you. You’re really making a difference,” Dalzell told the organizing stewards. “It doesn’t take a lot of people to change history, and you’re doing it. I salute you, and I thank you.”
The union has been experimenting with new forms of member engagement since Dalzell first proposed the idea in 2009. By focusing on leadership development that emphasizes intergenerational training in the field, IBEW 1245 Organizers Fred Ross Jr. and Eileen Purcell have transformed this “experiment” into a cutting-edge new engagement program, with a special emphasis on recruiting young members and integrating them into the life of the union.
The hands-on program seeks to identify and train a new generation of labor leaders to promote labor solidarity in the face of right-wing corporate attacks on workers. The program combines training, seminars, and conferences with participation in current organizing drives, contract fights, political campaigns and solidarity actions. (See “Learning by Doing,” below)
It’s most recent success: a campaign that organized nearly 80 workers at Sacramento-based Sunoptics, the first union to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board in 2014. The Sunoptics campaign was led by IBEW Organizer Jennifer Gray, who began her organizing career as a Local 1245 member-organizer while working as a PG&E Service Rep. Gray formed a 15-person strong Volunteer Organizing Committee (VOC) at Sunoptics and mobilized seven organizing stewards to help bring home the victory.
The position of organizing steward is new to IBEW 1245 and may in fact be new to the American labor movement. But the program’s early success suggests that organizing stewards can inspire others to take action and in the process redefine what it means to be a union member.
While the new stewards come from a wide range of employers, backgrounds and experiences, they all have one thing in common – they’re thrilled to be part of the organizing stewards program.
“It’s going to give me the tools and teach me about what I really like to do, and that’s organize people,” said Organizing Steward Jaime Tinoco, a 26-year veteran of the IBEW who recently led the union’s remarkable victory at the City of Lompoc. “And I know that [IBEW 1245 organizer] Fred Ross is just the best. His credentials are outstanding. He gives a lot of credibility, and I’m very excited to work more with him.”
PG&E Shop Steward Jammi Juarez, who chaired the Jan. 31 Organizing Stewards conference, has worked on nearly a dozen campaigns in various states over the last three years. Her interest in organizing was first sparked by a Youth Engaged in Solidarity (YES) conference at Weakley Hall in Vacaville.
“I remember that they asked us, ‘What do your family and your children think about unions?’ I had never really thought to ask my kids that before, so I went home and I asked my oldest daughter, ‘What do you think about unions?’ and she said ‘Oh, unions are bad!’ and my heart just sank.”
From that moment on, Juarez said, she was dedicated to the labor movement. “Anything the union needs me to do, I’m going to do it. Just to make a difference and make a change.” (More at ” What’s Your Most Memorable Organizing Experience?“)
The organizing stewards conference gave the union’s new organizers a chance to connect, share and learn from eachother’s experiences working on IBEW-led and supported campaigns. They also took advantage of the opportunity to hash out and plan responses to the big challenges that the local union and the labor movement will be facing in 2014. Regional break-out groups brainstormed prospective recruits for the upcoming Feb. 22 training at Weakley Hall with the California Federation of Labor on “Changing the Narrative – and a March 5 training in preparation for 2014 Midterm Elections.
The conference featured an informative address from historian and activist Peter Dreier (who left each steward with a copy of his new book, 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame), and a screening of Robert Reich’s new documentary film, “Inequality for All.”
Even though it’s still in its infancy, IBEW 1245’s Organizing Steward program has already caught the attention of other unions, the IBEW’s International Office, and the AFL-CIO. In 2012 the California Labor Federation gave the union an award for leadership development.
“IBEW 1245 is doing what needs to be done, and hopefully the rest of Labor will take note and follow our lead,” said Eric Sunderlund, who works at SMUD and has been active in some of the union’s most heated political campaigns in recent years. He noted recent progress on several fronts, including a recent hike in the state minimum wage, a local $15-per-hour minimum wage proposal in Davis, and a number of progressive candidates running in Sacramento.
“We’re finally starting to gain traction with [elected officials] we’ve been pushing for a long time. It’s really exciting,” said Sunderland. “I think 2014 is going to be an awesome year for working people, for IBEW 1245, and for our vision.”
Interested in becoming an Organizing Steward? Contact your Business Representative or the Organizing Team: Fred Ross Jr FGR1@IBEW1245.com; Eileen Purcell EMP3@IBEW1245.com ; Jennifer Gray J2G8@IBEW1245.com; Jammi Juarez JJAI@IBEW1245.com.
Learning by doing
IBEW 1245’s focus on leadership development, which gave rise to the organizing steward position, puts a strong focus on learning by doing.
Like the many apprenticeship programs the union has helped create over the decades, the leadership development program combines “classroom instruction” with “on the job training.” More than 200 member-organizers have met in small groups to discuss social change with luminaries like former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Stanford Professor Claybourne Carson, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and former Clinton Chief-of-Staff Maria Echaveste.
But the heart of the training is the time they spend working in actual campaigns to defend workers’ rights.
“Over the last three years, IBEW 1245 member-organizers have supported union brothers and sisters in Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Alaska,” said IBEW 1245 Organizer Eileen Purcell. “And they’ve won rave reviews, most recently from IBEW 364, where Jammi Juarez and Casey Salkauskas helped deliver a decisive union election victory at the Greenlee tool plant in Illinois.”
In California, IBEW 1245 organizers provided leadership and legwork in the “No on Prop 32” victory in 2012, played key roles in recent local elections and ballot initiatives, and organized actions in support of Walmart workers seeking justice at work.
The program has been a proving ground for young leaders. Seven young members have been hired as staff, and dozens more have become shop stewards, safety stewards, or organizing stewards. Still others have participated in an accelerating wave of union-sponsored sporting events and community service projects.
The leadership development program has already won wide recognition, and IBEW 1245 hopes it can become a model for breathing new life into the labor movement at a moment in history when unions are needed more than ever.