AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer: “Dalzell’s bold vision sets the standard”
More than 80 Organizing Stewards and “apprentice” Organizing Stewards came together on April 22 at Weakley Hall for a one-of-a-kind workshop featuring some very influential labor leaders and worker advocates.
Two of California’s most powerful labor lobbyists, Angie Wei and Caitlin Vega of the California Labor Federation, kicked off the day-long training with a “deep dive” into the world of California politics and legislative maneuvering. They began their presentation by commending IBEW 1245, its leadership, and the Organizing Stewards for prioritizing the type of member-to-member grassroots organizing work that defines union power.
“I know my boss, [California Labor Federation leader] Art Pulaski was here last month and said he thinks IBEW 1245 is leading the way in California. But I’m going to take that one step further – I believe you all are leading the way for the nation,” Wei told the room full of Organizing Stewards. “We think it’s time to take this idea and spread it from coast to coast … and build Organizing Steward programs all across America.”
Wei and Vega recognized the hard work that the Organizing Stewards have done to elect labor-friendly lawmakers over the last six election cycles, and explained exactly how that work translates into improved quality of life for all working families. By electing union allies who will vote with the interests of working families in mind, they stand a better chance of enacting the sort of pro-worker legislation that helps to grow and raise up the middle class. Vega and Wei pointed to the recent minimum wage increase to $15/hour, which Gov. Brown signed into law in April, as a prime example of the type of labor-advocated policy that raises the standard of living and gives workers a better starting position during bargaining.
And when lawmakers vote the wrong way, union members and activists need to hold them accountable for those votes. After their eye-opening presentation, Wei and Vega fostered an engaging brainstorming session with the Organizing Stewards, encouraging them to suggest different tactics that union members and the Labor Movement as a whole can take to turn up the heat on legislators that turn their backs on the working families.
The Reality of Right to Work
California’s strong labor laws are a testament to its strong union movement. Unfortunately, corporate CEOs and their cronies have been chipping away at unions in other states through a rash of anti-union “Right to Work” laws. After watching a video of former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich explain how “Right to Work” is wrong for workers, several Organizing Stewards who have recently travelled to support union organizing drives in Idaho and Indiana (both now “Right to Work) detailed just how different the environment is in areas where these anti-union laws have been enacted.
New Organizing Stewards Candice Brace and Ashley Nelson, who had recently returned from Idaho, where they were dispatched to support a union organizing drive at an AT&T/DirectTV call center, explained how many of the workers were under the impression that they simply did not have the right to form and join unions at all. They found it challenging to explain the benefits of joining the IBEW to individuals who had zero experience with unions. Many had never even met a union member before.
Another group of Organizing Stewards — Miguel Pagan, Rene Cruz-Martinez and Nilda Garcia – recounted their experience supporting an IBEW membership drive at a manufacturing facility in Indiana earlier this year. They shared highlights from their aggressive endeavor to visit each and every non-union worker at home, and reported that they succeeded in boosting membership up over 50% at the plant in just one short week.
Liz Shuler: The “Original Organizing Steward”
The Organizing Stewards also had the unique opportunity to engage in a candid dialogue with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the entire country. Shuler, who comes out of the IBEW, shared several personal anecdotes, including stories about her parents who both worked at Portland General Electric, or as she refers to it, “the other PGE.”
Shuler herself worked on the clerical side at the Oregon-based utility, and when she saw the benefits that her father and the other linemen had secured when they joined the IBEW, she helped to organize the first union election on the clerical side. The company waged an aggressive anti-union campaign to shut down her efforts, but the IBEW local in Portland recognized her talent and invited her to join their staff. Shuler then embarked on a long and storied union organizing career that led her to become the first woman and youngest person ever to be elected Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
“I was the original Organizing Steward!” Shuler declared, as she recalled the time her Business Manager dispatched her to California to help fight a union-busting ballot measure in 1996. That was when she first met current Business Manager Tom Dalzell, who she still holds in very high regard.
“Tom’s bold vision sets the standard for the labor movement across the country,” said Shuler. “He embodies solidarity, creativity and innovation.”
“It is inspiring to me to be with IBEW 1245 Organizing Stewards today and hear about your recent solidarity organizing in Idaho and Indiana,” she continued. “I love that you all are engaging in grassroots organizing; that’s what Labor does best.”
Motivated by Shuler’s inspiring words, the Organizing Stewards closed out the day by planning out the next phase of the Local’s “Union Difference” campaign. The Local launched the campaign with public sector stewards earlier this year to combat the potential ill effects of the Friedrichs vs. CTA Supreme Court case. While the death of Justice Scalia has offered a temporary reprieve, the Local will not be resting on its laurels, and the Organizing Stewards will continue what the public sector stewards started, holding hundreds of face-to-face conversations with co-workers about the Union Difference. The goal is to build a strong network, solidify a base of union activism and project union pride throughout Local 1245’s jurisdiction.
Fred Ross contributed to this report.
Photos by Steven Marcotte and John Storey