The hard parts of organizing new members should all happen before they walk through the doors of the local hall. Once a nonunion worker makes up his or her mind to sign up, ideally the hard part should be over.
This should be especially true when the demand for skilled workers outstrips supply, as it does with outside linemen. But until recently, nonunion linemen eager for a new life in the IBEW found less than a full welcome.
At Topeka, Kan., Local 304, for example, the walk-ins were given a separate designation, put on a separate book and had to wait for up to a year for a determination if they would be journeymen or not.
“We called them white tickets and they would only work if a contractor was open to it,” said Local 304 Assistant Business Manager Mike McCubben. “After a year, if they were worthy, we’d welcome them on board. That turned a lot of qualified people off and the ones that needed training didn’t get it immediately.”
Local 304 was not unique, so last November, Local 304 joined the other Seventh District outside locals to hash out an easier way to organize nonunion linemen and get them a journeyman ticket if they had earned it or training for those who needed it. The tool they used was already waiting for them: the construction lineman classification.
With demand for linemen at an historic high, and potentially billions of dollars in transmission work expected over the next 20 years, the IBEW has made organizing the outside business one of its highest priorities. The construction lineman was created by the IBEW and NECA in 2013 to streamline the organizing process.
The idea was born in 2005, International President Emeritus Edwin D. Hill launched the Florida Initiative, introducing, among other innovations, the construction wireman and construction electrician classifications. The CE/CW program created a new category of IBEW construction member who was neither a journeyman nor an apprentice. The goal was to make signatory contractors more competitive, particularly in residential and smaller commercial work, and simultaneously create a pathway for nonunion workers to join the IBEW.
It worked so well it was expanded across the country, and from the inside branch to an option that would be available for outside locals seven years later. Any nonunion linemen with 5,000 hours of documented work experience can apply for membership in the IBEW, immediately be classified as a construction lineman, and made available to work.
Since November, Local 304 created a standard evaluation process for all newly organized linemen and targeted modules from the apprenticeship program covering the skills they need –but may not have learned-- to be productive and safe.
“We would have a lot of guys coming in thinking they were linemen but there are often gaps in their training,” said Seventh District International Representative Larry Chamberlain. “The only place we had for them was apprenticeship. Now we can do better, and I expect we will see an improvement in organizing.”
The construction linemen classification is designed to be temporary.
“People don’t hang out as a construction lineman. We want everyone to be a journeyman,” McCubben said. “Now when we strip someone, or they come walking through our door, we have a way to get the good ones working and the raw ones trained.”
In the six months since the Seventh District meeting, six nonunion linemen have come in with the CL designation. Four have qualified for their journey license, one left the program for personal reasons, and the last is completing training.
The Construction Lineman classification is approved by the International in every district. The Seventh District has gone the farthest to make it available but Tenth District International Vice President Brent Hall has made a priority to bring it there. Hall said he believes a meeting scheduled for early June between Tenth District locals and NECA will bring Construction Linemen there.
“We are working with our contractors to find a way to get it done, and I think we will,” Hall said. “It has taken awhile to catch on, but I think people are warming to it. And for good reason. This is the future.”
Hall was a lineman and crew leader for nearly two decades before he was elected president of Memphis, Tenn., Local 1288. Hall said part of the reason for creating the classification is that nonunion linemen usually lack the variety of experience an IBEW linemen has but they do take the same pride in their work.
“They may have only been trained on one part of the job: transmission, or underground, or never worked hot [with distribution wires still carrying electricity] but they are still linemen,” Hall said. “This is tough job and a tight community. If a person is out there every day, doing the work, we want to make sure we respect that when they come into our hall.”
Hall expects that once the construction linemen classification is in place, organizing will tick up dramatically.
“It is very common for linemen to come over as a crew, and nonunion contractors strip crews from each other all the time. The construction lineman just lets the union contractors get in on the business,” Hall said. “When our contractors get this tool in their hands though, I don’t think they can be stopped.”
That will mean more work for existing members and transformed lives for the newly organized ones.
“If all he has done is distribution work and a big transmission job drops, he won’t be able to move to do that work,” Hall said. “If you have a full skill set, you’ll be safer, but you won’t have to rely on one contractor, doing one job for the rest of your life. You will control your own fate.”