A top priority for the IBEW and the AFL-CIO became reality Nov. 15 when President Joe Biden signed the historic $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law.
|President Biden signed the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs in front of hundreds of supporters, many of them union members, during a White House ceremony on Nov. 15. Flickr/Creative Commons photos by The White House.
International President Lonnie R. Stephenson and 11 other IBEW members attended the White House ceremony, which fulfilled Biden's campaign promise to address America's pressing infrastructure needs while using skilled union workers to do it. It will be the nation's largest infrastructure investment since at least the construction of the federal interstate highway system, which began in the 1950s.
Roads will be improved. More Americans will have access to high-speed internet. Fewer will have to worry about unsafe drinking water. And those projects just touch the surface.
IBEW members will be there every step of the way, in construction, utility, telecommunication, railroad and wherever there is a need. The wave of work will open the brotherhood to more American workers and make it an even stronger union.
"I could not be prouder of the IBEW members who have long called for transformative investments in infrastructure and are now ready to get to work rebuilding this country," Stephenson said.
"Our IBEW brothers and sisters will lead the way in modernizing our nation's electric grid, building out the charging infrastructure needed for the wide-scale adoption of electric vehicles, buses, trains and trucks, ensuring that broadband reaches every corner of this country, and continuing our critical work as the power professionals who build and maintain the grid that makes life in America possible."
Stephenson thanked members and allies for contacting senators and representatives urging them to vote for the bill. It passed in both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, a rarity in today's national politics.
"We will be leaders in building a cleaner, stronger, safer country that includes more good-paying union jobs and allows more Americans to move into the middle class and strengthen our economy," he said.
Added AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125: "Victories like this are why we campaigned so hard for President Biden. … [The] final passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a monumental political and legislative accomplishment. After decades of delay and decline, America's workers stand ready to rebuild our country."
What’s in the Infrastructure Law?
Without a doubt, IBEW members across nearly every branch will be central to the wide-ranging upgrades paid for by the historic package.
|Amtrak and other commuter rail services will see additional investments of $66 billion, meaning more work for IBEW members in both construction and railroad.
Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user Ludmilla Hopkins
"Every aspect of infrastructure has an electrical component, if not the major component," Business Development Director Ray Kasmark said. "The whole thing involves us."
That includes a massive role in one of the bill's most publicly recognizable features: the construction of about 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles across the country by 2030 at a cost of $7.5 billion. There are currently about 43,000 charging stations nationwide, according to the Energy Department.
The additional stations will make it more convenient for consumers to purchase environmentally friendly electric vehicles and accelerate the widespread adoption of EV technology. Public transportation systems and school systems will have more incentive to purchase electric buses.
"This opportunity to build more of an electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which this bill supports and invests in, is an opportunity for our members to put our skills to work," said Micah Mitrosky, a Ninth District international representative who specializes in renewable energy and clean transportation.
Kasmark noted the IBEW has been an enthusiastic supporter for nearly a decade of the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program, which educates electricians on the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. It has been especially critical in the Ninth District — which includes California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii — as more public agencies and state governments adopt clean air mandates to address climate change, Mitrosky said.
|Ports will see significant upgrades thanks to the infrastructure bill, leading to more work for IBEW members. Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Candice Harris.
"In California, our members have already built thousands of charging stations and the supporting infrastructure," she said. "We are ready to build more. The IBEW is on the leading edge and best positioned to deliver this work."
The push toward electric vehicles will pay off in other ways as well. The Ford Motor Co. is building a $5.6 billion campus 50 miles northeast of Memphis, Tenn., to build electric trucks and batteries. The electrical piece of its construction belongs to members of Memphis Local 474, some of whom will stay behind when it is finished to carry on maintenance work.
Construction & Maintenance Director Mike Richard noted Ford likely would not have committed to the project earlier in 2021 if it did not feel strongly that an infrastructure bill was on the horizon.
"It's going to be a huge boost to our membership," Local 474 Business Manager Paul Shaffer said. "We're going to have to do some recruiting to meet that kind of work. Typically, a job like that demands hundreds of electricians, and like most places around the country, we don't have hundreds of electricians available."
The vehicle charging station construction is a portion of $73 billion designated to upgrade the nation's electrical grid, including modernizing it to better distribute renewable energy. IBEW members across the country in construction and utility will be on the forefront of those efforts.
"The grid upgrades are tremendously needed," Construction Organizing Director Al Davis said. "That is going to expand our work both for both inside and outside construction members. It's long overdue."
IBEW members also will be on the forefront of updating electrical systems at airports and ports, which have been neglected for so long in many areas that they are viewed as a security risk. A little more than $17 billion will go towards improvements at ports, with White House officials estimating about 68% of that figure being for new construction.
The shipping delays prior to this holiday season have highlighted inadequacies in the system that have been left unchecked for some time. Now, the Biden administration and Congress are taking steps to deal with them while also making them more environmentally sustainable.
No other organization is ready to meet the moment quite like the IBEW.
"It is mind-boggling the amount of activity that goes on at major seaports," Richard said. "The logistics and the electrification of that process is going to be big for us as well. This is really unprecedented."
IBEW members are also expected to take a leading role in upgrading the nation's water service infrastructure. White House officials noted that about 10 million Americans and 400,000 schools and childcare centers lack safe drinking water — from rural towns to urban areas to tribal nations. The bill provides $55 billion to address that.
"You wouldn't think water systems would be big for the IBEW," said Richard, who was business manager of Detroit Local 58 when the water crisis in nearby Flint, Mich., became public in 2014. "But when you get into the plants that deal with water treatment and waste, there's a significant amount of work there. A lot of water systems in this country are not too far away from what happened in Flint, and that can't be understated."
Solar work is expected to provide additional work opportunities, especially as technology improves the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of battery storage. Las Vegas Local 357 Business Manager James Halsey noted that many of his members are going through or have completed training for solar work and are doing lots of it now, much of it utility-scale.
|Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark (center in green and black dress) visited Boston Local 103 apprentices after the bill’s passing.
"Solar power is one of the solutions to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions and we do it better than anyone else," Halsey said. "The IBEW is on the front lines in doing work like this."
A Long-Overdue Investment in Rail and Broadband
Public transportation and freight rail also get a major boost from the new law, and again, IBEW members will be helping to lead the way. The bill includes $66 billion in additional rail funding to eliminate Amtrak's maintenance backlog, upgrade the busy Northeast Corridor and build out rail service in other parts of the country.
But once that work is finished, in many areas, the IBEW's railroad members will oversee maintenance and making sure the trains run smoothly. That prospect is just what Jamaica, N.Y., Local 589 General Chairman Ricardo Sanchez wants to hear.
Local 589 members have been busy with the extension of the Long Island Rail Road in recent years. But as more rail is built, companies will have to hire more workers, which will give all IBEW railroad locals additional chances to organize, Sanchez said.
"This bill is going to be good for unions for the foreseeable future," he said. "Money is going to be raining out of the sky. At the end of the day, if you're going to go to a green economy, you're thinking mass transit.
"There's so many possibilities. A lot of states have had all this infrastructure they wanted to do, but how were they going to pay for it? Now, the money is there. We have to take advantage of this opportunity."
Members in telecommunications will benefit from $65 billion in the bill to build out the nation's broadband and provide more people with access to high-speed internet, primarily in traditionally underserved areas.
Broadcasting & Telecommunications Director Robert Prunn said IBEW members should perform maintenance work on many of the new systems, which could provide additional job security in an industry that has changed rapidly in recent years due to technological advances.
The IBEW primarily has agreements with private companies in the telecommunications branch. Most have showed little interest in accepting money from the federal government in the past. A potential exception is Frontier, where officials have said they plan to bid for money provided in the bill to build out service areas.
Meeting Workforce Demands
Such a massive infusion of cash into the nation's infrastructure won't come without its challenges as well. The IBEW and other trades have dealt with a skilled worker shortage for many years, a situation that may be exacerbated by the bill's passage. The demand for skilled workers will be at its highest point ever.
With the assistance of partners and the International Office, many local unions will continue to expand apprenticeship programs. That is a huge part of meeting the work but not the only one.
Richard said this is also the time for the IBEW to recruit nonunion electricians into the brotherhood. The more it can meet the calls of contractors, the better it is for all members.
"Our training centers can only bring in so many apprentices," he said. "Mathematically, we can't apprentice ourselves out of what is coming. If our members know of any friends or family working in the electrical industry on the nonunion side, now is the time to have conversations with them and introduce them to their local union."
|There are about 43,000 electric vehicle charging stations now in the U.S. The Biden administration wants to raise that to 500,000 and the IBEW will be a leader in that effort. Flickr-Creative Commons photo by Dublin, Ohio, USA.
Many local unions will continue to open doors to alternative classifications — construction wiremen and construction electricians, commonly called CWs and CEs. They are not journeyman wiremen but can perform less complex electrical tasks on the job. Many eventually begin apprenticeships. This could be especially crucial in making inroads in solar installation, which requires less technical skill than battery storage.
Virgil Hamilton, former construction organizing director, said the IBEW is at risk of losing opportunities to nonunion contractors or to unions that rely on less skilled labor if it doesn't add CWs and CEs. They have been increasingly welcomed in recent years but that process needs to continue at a faster rate, he said.
"If we are going to meet the need and not have the work pulled away from us, we have to use CWs and CEs for the lesser-skilled work," said Hamilton, who recently took an opportunity to return to the field in the Fourth District.
Increased use of the lower job classifications also would make the IBEW more competitive in solar installation, which is largely performed by nonunion workers.
"A very large percentage of solar work does not require the skills of a journeyman," Hamilton said. "If we are going to meet the need for manpower and keep it away from others, we're going to have to understand the right job classifications."
Due to Republican demands, particularly in the closely divided Senate, some union protections were removed from earlier versions of the bill — although federal Davis-Bacon Laws, which guarantee prevailing wages are paid to construction workers on federal projects, were maintained.
Austin Keyser, assistant to the international president for government affairs, said those changes will not be a major problem as long as a strong union supporter like Biden is in the White House. Cabinet agencies will ensure the IBEW and other unions get the work they are entitled to by the law.
But if a Republican, especially one hostile to labor, is elected in 2024, it could mean trouble.
"Once these rules are issued, they are incredibly difficult to reverse," Keyser said. "We know we have strong allies in the cabinet agencies and the White House that are going to make sure this is union work. We need to make sure that rules are put in place quickly to protect union workers and make sure they get those jobs."
Danielle Buchanan, a professional and industrial organizer in the Fourth District, thinks the bill will have a positive impact even in areas not readily noticeable, especially when it comes to recruiting new members.
"This is something that is good for everyone, no matter what political side of the fence you're on," she said.
Buchanan was in attendance when Biden signed the bill.
"I was around people from other unions and we knew this was going to be a turning point," she said. "To see someone like the president putting the focus on the worker was awesome."
Time to Get to Work
The work passing the bill is finished. Now, it's time for IBEW members to get to work in the field and reap the benefits. Many politicians recognize the importance the brotherhood will play. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin visited Chicago Local 134 four days after Biden signed the bill into law. Business Manager Don Finn thanked him for his work in getting it passed.
"The IBEW is leading the effort to train the next generation of skilled workers to build and install new electric infrastructure and throughout the state, companies and Illinoisans are stepping up to ensure our transition to a cleaner, stronger economy," Durbin said.
And, in the end, it will make for a stronger union.
"Anything that the light shines in, on or through is electrical work," Davis said. "Anyone who does work that relates to that belongs in the IBEW. All you have to do is take a look at strong market shares with low nonunion markets and you see the bargaining strength we have. You see wages, you see the pension packages we have, the health care, and it's the difference between growing and withering away and dying on the vine.
"If we have the right attitude, and we're accepting of people who haven't had these opportunities, and that includes contractors, we can grow from this. In this instance, this prevailing wage work and technology work that involves renewables, we have a small pool of contractors that do it. This is a chance to go out and prove ourselves to those contractors and show them we have the training and ability to provide a workforce and that we want their workers."