When Dick Cheney boasted during the vice presidential debate that he had “carried a ticket with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for six years,” he didn’t impress many IBEW members.
It was like a skunk bragging that he used to wear Chanel No. 5, I thought. He still stinks.
IBEW President Ed Hill fired back the next day in a sharply worded statement, saying he wished the union had done a better job instilling its values in the young Cheney when it had a chance. “Perhaps then he would not so relentlessly pursue policies that have caused catastrophic job losses and inflicted tremendous pain on countless working families,” Hill said.
Cheney might have learned that when the IBEW was founded over 100 years ago, one out of two workers in the industry died in falls or electrocutions. Safety standards, as much as wages, drove workers to band together in a brotherhood. On the job, each worker’s life was literally in the hands of his co-worker. In this election season, that vision of solidarity, of workers holding each other’s lives in their hands, has extended to the political arena.
So on a sunny August day, I was proud to be one of many IBEW members who poured into the battleground state of Ohio, crossing state lines to answer our brothers’ and sisters’ call for reinforcements in the battle for jobs and to defeat George Bush.
A Chicago bus, initiated by our city’s Electrical Workers Minority Caucus chapter, left in a pounding rainstorm at 3 in the morning. In Toledo, we paired up with local electricians and went on a 6-hour labor walk visiting union households. Kentuckians came to Cincinnati, Hoosiers to Columbus.
All told, nearly 200 IBEW members were out in force in Ohio that day, including in Cleveland, Akron and Marietta. In our neon-yellow shirts, the electrical workers scattered throughout working class neighborhoods sharing our own stories and election information with the union families we visited.
“Participating in activities like this makes for a different kind of union member,” said my canvassing partner, international rep Thomas Curley, as we went door to door in the east Toledo neighborhood where he grew up.
Local 3 in New York launched the union’s labor walk campaign June 23 with a three-bus convoy, accompanied by two dozen motorcyclists, to Philadelphia. The solidarity buses have continued every Saturday in September and October. This month, Local 3 also mobilized dozens of its unemployed members to staff voter registration tables in 15 hospitals and 15 community colleges over a five-day period, signing up thousands of new voters.
The union’s 2004 National Political Coordinator, Edwin Lopez, sees the activities transforming union members. Political activities are “identifying new activists, creating ways for them to participate, and renewing members’ belief in their union and pride in themselves as union members.”
Lopez worked in the tools as an inside wireman, and then as a Local 3 business rep. He is also a national leader of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus. He’s a real working class intellectual, combining deep thinking on the problems facing the labor movement with non-stop activism.
“The members are learning first-hand how politics is tied to collective bargaining and to the right to organize. A core of activists is the heart and soul of the union,” he said. “All we have is our members – if our members are not charged up, we have nothing.”
It’s not just the IBEW rank and file that’s charged up. Hill told a recent women’s conference, he found himself saying things he earlier would have called radical, “talking the same talk as the labor leaders of the 1930s. There’s a class war being waged,” Hill said, “even though we didn’t start it.”
It’s working class pride and determination that characterizes the three-pronged approach that Hill has been relentlessly promoting — organizing, political action and emphasis on skills and quality workmanship.”
“The card that the vice president carried was his ticket to decent wages and benefits for the fruits of his labor,” Hill’s response to Cheney stated. “It’s too bad that now he wants to pull up the ladder and deny that same opportunity to others.”
IBEW members are on the road this fall, crossing state lines, to make sure it doesn’t happen. It’s a brotherhood thing, Dick. You wouldn’t understand.
The author, labor editor of the Peoples Weekly World and a 15-year member of IBEW Local 9, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.