Great union leaders aren’t born with the skills to rally working people, fight for fair contracts or navigate the challenges that come with leading large organizations. Those skills are learned over time, and an innovative approach to developing future leaders is helping to speed up the education process at Seattle Local 46.
Since 2004, the local has put time and resources into leadership education, but after a dormant few years, the local has relaunched its leadership classes and internship program to better prepare future generations of members for the challenges of union governance and activism.
“It’s greatly important that we accelerate our leadership development, because our youth are our future,” said Local 46 Business Manager Sean Bagsby. “It’s very important that we have the highest levels of representation available for all members, all classifications, now and into the future.”
IBEW members who pursue and take on leadership roles in their locals often seek the training they need, on their own outside of the union, usually from a nearby college or institution. The missing ingredient, of course, is an IBEW perspective, something Local 46’s program provides.
“I like that Sean highly believes in education,” said Laura Robinson, a Local 46 business representative who, as the local’s assistant educational coordinator, heads up the leadership training effort. “He really wants to get people moving through the program.”
The idea for some sort of leadership development curriculum at Local 46 first emerged in 2004 under then-Business Manager Gary Price, Robinson said. “Gary felt very strongly about training replacements and leaders,” Robinson said.
Shifts in leaders’ priorities over the years brought a few stops and starts to the program, she said. But after his election as business manager in 2020, one of the first things Bagsby brought back was the leadership program.
From the very start, Local 46 has developed and maintained relationships with labor educators, labor historians and other experts with similar backgrounds, such as the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Resource Center and the former National Labor College and its George Meany Center in suburban Washington, D.C.
With their assistance, Robinson and her team have developed a comprehensive and IBEW-focused training course that consists of 12 topics, beginning with a review of labor unions through history. Trainers and lecturers also cover a variety of subjects, from parliamentary procedures for local meetings to negotiation fundamentals, from representation and grievance handling to economic justice and legislation, and from effective communication and ethics to trustee duties and funds.
Supplemental lectures are provided by local leaders and subject matter experts, with Robinson and Bagsby keeping a close watch on how things are going throughout the process. “Our goal is to help more members get interested in activism in their union and learn how it’s all done,” Robinson said.
In class, participants regularly hear stories that illustrate real-life situations, and then, during small group and breakout sessions, they further discuss what they’ve learned and use their newly gained knowledge in role-playing exercises.
“It’s really an eye-opener,” Robinson said, especially when participants get to experience how a typical negotiation might go, for example. “We want their experience [in the breakouts] to be as realistic as possible.”
Open to all active members of Local 46, the leadership courses are conducted at the union’s hall in Kent, with class sizes kept to a manageable 30 participants. With a membership of more than 6,000, interest in the program far outpaced available spots, Robinson said, so Bagsby selected 30 to start and placed the remainder on a wait list for future opportunities.
It’s from this pool of class participants that Bagsby then chooses individuals to work as Local 46 staff interns. “This gives members who have completed our leadership classes an opportunity to really learn how our local operates,” he said.
In addition to their leadership class participation, Bagsby said, internship candidates also must be active on the local’s committees and have working relationships with business representatives and organizers. “We’re looking for a genuine desire to build our local for all our members,” he said.
For example, Bagsby described one of this fall’s interns, Local 46 inside wireman Wayne Horton, as “extremely” active and dedicated. Horton has served as a shop steward and organizer and has worked with several Local 46 committees. The other, residential wireman Dave Camden, has a similar breadth of committee and activist experience.
Each intern must commit to working in the local’s offices for three months, spending about a month in each of the primary functions of the local: dispatch, representation and organizing. They work closely and directly with the business agents and representatives in those offices, with regular updates provided to Bagsby and Robinson.
Among those who participate in the leadership classes, “My goal is to bring as many through as possible [as interns] over the next few years,” Bagsby said. “We have so many dynamic young people across our membership that we need to pull them through the business office so they can learn the intricacies of how everything works, so they can carry the baton forward for future generations.”
“It really has been beneficial to developing leaders,” Robinson said, adding that more than half of the local’s business representatives and organizers have also attended leadership classes over the years, as well as a handful of executive board members.
Other current and future educational opportunities for members, outside of the leadership and internship programs, include advanced training for business representatives and organizers. “Even if they have experience, it never hurts for them to have a refresher,” Robinson said. “It’s just amazing the different perspectives people bring with them.”
“This is a high priority for us,” Bagsby added. “We are extremely proud of our training programs, and we think it can benefit the entire IBEW.”
To learn out more about Local 46’s leadership training efforts, find Business Manager Bagsby’s contact information at ibew46.com.