International President Lonnie R. Stephenson has known Barack Obama since he was a little-known member of the Illinois State Senate and worked with him on issues to improve the lives of working families.
Tonight, he’ll be in the audience in the House chamber when Obama delivers his State of the Union speech, thanks to an invitation from Rep. Dan Lipinski from Illinois. The significance of the moment is hard to miss.
“To be there for his last State of the Union address is very meaningful,” said Stephenson, who also worked on Obama’s two presidential election campaigns and attended his victory night celebrations in Chicago. “For Congressman Lipinski to reach out and offer this opportunity is great for me.”
|Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, who invited IBEW President Lonnie Stephenson to attend this year’s State of the Union address.
It’s also a show of respect for the IBEW, Stephenson said. Each member of Congress is permitted one invited guest.
“There are many other great labor organizations he could have considered,” he said. “For the congressman to specifically request someone from the IBEW tells me what we’re doing not only in Illinois, but across the country, is well noted by our friends.”
Stephenson is a native of Rock Island, Ill., which is along the Mississippi River in the northwestern part of the state, and was initiated into Rock Island Local 145 in 1976. He’s had several IBEW leadership positions since, including business manager and international vice president. He succeeded Edwin D. Hill as president last June.
He got to know many Illinois politicians, including Lipinski, whose district includes the southwest side of Chicago and the nearby suburbs. Lipinski has been a member of the House since 2005 and is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“The congressman believes that more focus needs to be paid to the middle class, hard-working Americans and the construction and manufacturing industries,” said Eric Lausten, Lipinski’s chief of staff. “He felt it was important to bring to the State of the Union someone who reflects that perspective. Having worked with Mr. Stephenson at times in the past, and knowing of his Illinois roots and his recent elevation to president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he felt that Lonnie was an ideal person to invite.”
Stephenson said he was honored to receive the invitation.
“Rep. Lipinski has been a friend and tireless supporter of the IBEW and other unions throughout his time in Congress,” Stephenson said. “He shares our values. Strengthening the lives of working men and women are not idle words to him. He backs it up every day with his votes and actions on the House floor.”
Early in his tenure, Lipinski voted against authorization of both the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the U.S. Australia Free Trade Agreement. He also has supported legislation that would assist workers who have lost their jobs due to globalization.
Lipinski has been critical of aspects of the recently-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, but added he plans to review it more before taking an official position. The TPP is a trade deal negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific rim countries designed to reduce barriers to trade.
The White House has claimed it has “the strongest protections for workers of any trade agreement in history,” but critics argue that it’s simply more of the same.
“For TPP to get my vote, it must benefit America’s middle class, raise wages and safeguard the consumer and environmental protections that we rely upon,” he said in November of last year. “If after close review, it turns out that TPP is just a new NAFTA or Korea Free Trade Agreement, I will work all-out to defeat it.”
Obama is expected to broach the TPP in his address.
In November, when the text of the deal was released, the IBEW and many unions voiced opposition. The TPP, Stephenson said, “looks awfully similar to past trade deals that have paved the way for outsourcing, lifting up multinational corporations at the expense of working families and consumers.”
On Monday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) warned the deal spelled danger for the middle class. “When the jobs and wages of working families are jeopardized by a bad trade agreement,” she said, “we risk engaging in a global ‘race to the bottom’ that our country cannot afford, and that our middle class does not deserve.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) brought to mind the catastrophic effects of previous trade deals like NAFTA and warned that TPP could “permanently cripple American manufacturing.”
“We need a trade policy that works in favor of American families, not against them,” he said.
The TPP is expected to come to a vote in Congress sometime after the November elections.