Attendees didn’t just listen, they shared ideas and best practices for getting young workers more involved back at their home locals.

Hundreds of young, and not so young, members of the IBEW came together at Thursday’s RENEW/NextGen caucus to talk, think, share and learn how power works in the IBEW.

International President Lonnie Stephenson addresses young members at the 40th International Convention's RENEW/NextGen caucus.

They heard from one of the IBEW’s newest members, a volunteer organizer from a local coffee chain, and one of the most powerful, International President Lonnie Stephenson.

They shared a common message: this generation of union workers has the opportunity and responsibility to reach out to people their age who are more union positive than any generation in recent memory.

RENEW and NextGen are the U.S and Canadian programs for members 35 and younger. As Civic and Community Engagement department Director Tarn Goelling, who oversees the program put it, “Henry Miller would have been a RENEW member. We have always been led by young workers.”

Panels included a political issues roundup, financial rules for running local committees, and a conversation with an organizer from a successful organizing drive at a Midwest coffee chain.  

The members also heard from Stephenson, International Executive Council Chairman and New York Local 3 Business Manager Christopher Erikson and senior members of the International staff who talked about their path through the IBEW ranks, including Senior Executive Assistant to the International President Sherilyn Wright, international representative Carlos Villareal and Manufacturing Department Director Brian Lamm.

“I never thought I would be up here, and there is no reason someone in this room can’t be standing here one day too,” Stephenson told more than 300 attendees. “We don’t know where we are going to end up, but if you stay involved, get a reputation for being the positive one and never sell yourself short, there is.”

All speakers addressed the challenge and the opportunity of organizing a generation that is more diverse, more union positive and, perhaps not coincidentally, facing a more uncertain economic future than its predecessors.

“More than 70% of Americans believe that their kids will have it harder than their parents,” Goelling said. “A lot of people got into union jobs because of family. That is not true for the new cohort. They have never experienced a union job. There is a tremendous opening for organizing.”

Wright talked about the necessity of change to seize the moment.

“We have more opportunity to grow the IBEW since I don’t know when and the doors of the IBEW have to be open to all people; that wasn’t always the case,” she said. “The most diverse workforce in history needs to feel they have a place in the IBEW.”

The RENEW/NextGen caucus brought together hundreds of young leaders to bring the concerns of young workers to the heart of the IBEW convention.
Sixth District RENEW Advisory Committee member Dillon Gorman interviewed Barista and volunteer organizer on the Colectivo Coffee campaign Hillary Laskonis.

The session on best practices produced dozens of ideas that were collected on flip charts around the room and will be shared on a RENEW/NextGen online discussion group.

They showed the creativity necessary to organize during the pandemic, including a virtual blood drive where members sent in pictures donating blood in IBEW shirts which were shared on social media. Success stories also included virtual book clubs and game nights. St. John’s, Newfoundland and LabradorLocal 1615 NextGen leaders Amelia Hickey and Megan St. George led a sponsorship effort for an Afghan refugee family that raised $20,000.

During the politics roundtable, Sixth District RENEW representative Jeff Cooling discussed his decision to run in the 77th district for the Iowa state House and international representatives Jenn Duck and Matt Wayland talked about the political issues and political successes to organize.

The afternoon closed with a conversation with Hillary Laskonis, one of the organizers that successfully won an election at Midwest coffee roaster and café chain Colectivo.

Laskonis described the change in mindset she needed to see that her job – all jobs really – can be careers with dignity, decent wages and benefits like the one her father, Illinois State Organizing Coordinator Charlie Laskonis, had when she was growing up.

“I thought being a barista was a skilled trade, but I work behind a counter. I have customers talking down to me all day. It didn’t feel like the IBEW,” she said. “It felt farfetched.”

COVID changed things and seeing how desperate things got for her and her co-workers made up her mind.

Twenty Colectivo workers voted to organize in 2020. Nearly two years later, after facing off with “union avoidance” consultants, filing unfair labor practices and fighting the company’s vote challenges, Laskonis and her brothers and sisters won by the narrowest of margins-seven votes out of a possible 490.  

“To win even by seven votes after such a brutal union-busting campaign was one of the best moments of my life,” she said before leaving the stage to a standing ovation.