Inclusion and Political Action are Top Themes at Women’s Caucus

September 19, 2016


In St. Louis during pre-convention activities, some 400 delegates attended the Women’s Caucus on Sept. 16, with all genders represented.    


Delegates who attended the Women’s Caucus at the 39th International Convention in St. Louis traded strategies for recruiting women into the Brotherhood and supporting them on the job.

“We want to honor our history, but most of all, we’re here to make it. And that’s something the Women’s Caucus – and all our IBEW sisters – do every day,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “We’re going to be writing the next chapter of IBEW history starting next week. And you’re a vital part of it.”


Stephenson said that while the mission of the IBEW is clear – to organize every worker in the electrical trade – women were largely absent in the early days. It’s been women activists – then and now – who have reminded their brothers of that and held them accountable to ensure the doors are open to everyone, regardless of gender or race.


 “We’ve made a lot of progress. But we still have a long way to go,” Stephenson said. “Today there are still many walls that need to come down.”  


Carolyn J. Williams, director of IBEW’s Civic and Community Engagement Department, led the program which included panel discussions, on inclusion and organizing, and personal stories of IBEW women, or “HerStories.”


As a single mother, Heather Brown had a job with no benefits and a son with health issues. When she joined Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21, she found that she got more than just health care benefits.


“No one has a story by themselves,” Brown said. “I persevered because of the strength of my sisters and brothers.”


The Georgia Assembly’s minority leader Stacey Abrams, the first woman to lead a political party in the Peach State, instructed the crowd to do three things for the November elections: speak up, show up and stand up.


“We have to own our power,” Abrams said. “Elections matter because we matter.”


Political action was a recurring theme, along with inclusion. Panelists shared strategies for getting women involved, from social events like cookouts and Labor Day parades to mentoring and encouraging women to seek leadership roles. Speakers shared personal stories of discrimination on the job – and how they tackled it.


Alice Phillips was a welder in the Navy but couldn’t find a job when her service ended. On the advice of a friend, she got into a tree trimming apprenticeship. Now she’s a journeyman lineman and business manager of Tacoma, Wash., Local 483.


“I decided that I can stand here and get mad, or I can get in there and change it,” Phillips said the days when she was accused of “stealing” jobs from men.


Panelists discussed how locals and leadership can bring greater inclusivity to workplaces. Detroit Local 58 Business Manager Mike Richards said the local ran commercials as part of its effort to recruit more women and show them that they have a place in the trades.  He said only about 4 percent of membership is female, so he encouraged women to join his leadership team. Now Local 58’s women’s committee is among the most active, Richards said.


Shannon Skinner, president of Las Vegas, Nev., Local 396, said they’ve had success with career days. “I climbed up and down a pole like 90 times, and little girls would come up to me after and say, ‘I didn’t know girls could do that,’” Skinner said.


Business Manager Adam W. Van Steinburg of Vancouver, British Columbia, spoke of the local’s “20 by 20” initiative to get 20 percent of applications from women by 2020.


Van Steinburg was one of many men who attended. As more than one speaker noted, achieving equality takes work from everyone in the union, not just the women. The panels and speaker lineup also included many women of color.


“Our main priority for the coming years is to expand the ranks, and the ranks need to look like the future generations,” Stephenson said. “That’s why the women’s caucus is so important.”


If Ashley Keith’s experience is any indication, IBEW is already leading the way. She works at DirectTV in Idaho and was approached by two unions interested in organizing her and her co-workers. But she said only one showed her respect as a transgender woman.


“IBEW never, ever treated me badly,” said Keith, a member of Boise, Idaho, Local 291. “When I met President Stephenson, he said he looked forward to the day when he could call me sister.”


Earning trust and taking time to build relationships was the focus of the organizing panel in which Keith participated.


“There were a lot of new ideas today,” said Downers Grove, Ill., Local 21 member Jacqueline Fielder. “Women need to be more involved and not wait for someone else to do it.”


The 39th IBEW International Convention opens on Sept. 19, and IBEW will cover pre-convention events through the closing gavel on Sept. 23.