In the two-plus years since COVID-19 transformed the lives of billions of people, so much has been lost or taken away. Nearly six million are dead, 900,000 of them in North America. Millions more suffered devastating hospitalizations and slow, often imperfect recoveries.
|Virtual job fairs don't end in-person events like this one in Salem, Ore. Old tools live on next to new ones.
Jobs, years of in-person schooling, a sense of security and community were lost as well. People celebrated holidays alone, mourned alone. The gathering places — restaurants, movie theaters and union halls — closed.
And it was a profound challenge to organized labor, which has always relied on solidarity, connection and trust to improve the lives of working people.
Along with so much else, for a time, the pandemic took away the most powerful tool the union movement had: face-to-face, person-to-person conversation and connection.
"To an organizer, it was impossible to imagine doing your job with no eye contact, no direct conversation," said Assistant to the International President for Membership Development Ricky Oakland. "The benefits of joining in union can be read on a pamphlet, but reading isn't knowing, let alone trusting."
As COVID sealed off jobsites and sent millions of workers to home offices, kitchen tables or near-empty office buildings, the need for worker protections didn't diminish, especially for those who couldn't work from the comfort of a laptop computer. The clamor for union protections only increased.
Eighth and Ninth District Regional Organizing Coordinator Bob Brock said the pandemic left organizers with a choice: change or watch and wither on the vine.
"Everyone has been forced to zero in on the essentials, the core," he said. "But this has been needed. It has been an opportunity to get back to the basics and reset."
Two years on, even with the pandemic still underway, it is possible to see what organizing will look like going forward: much of it familiar, but with new tools and strategies blazing the path to the future.
Essential Workers of the World Unite
One thing the pandemic didn't change is that working people in America are getting rooked. After decades of wage stagnation, jobs shipped overseas, factories shutting and union busting, the average CEO makes more than 300 times the average worker. The Great Recession swiped a generation's wealth, bailed out the banks and left working families on their knees.
Then, in March 2020, 13 million workers were laid off. Another 9.3 million followed them a month later.
Millions who weren't thrown out on the street were forced back into jobs with minimal protections and shoddy health coverage.
Yes, there was applause for essential workers — the first time since 9/11 that working people were allowed the spotlight normally reserved for tech billionaires and CEOs. They may have been celebrated, but it rarely translated into higher salaries, better benefits or even proper personal protective equipment.
Working Americans and Canadians could see with crystal clarity how little they were valued.
It was no small thing that organizing was at a crossroads just as workers were looking around for tools to improve their lives.
There were, basically, three great challenges that needed to be solved. The first and greatest was replacing the lost face-to-face connection between workers and the organizers working to help them. Development of leads and signing up new members while keeping everyone safe and distanced were the remaining two.
But meeting up, that was challenge number one.
"We have been about face-to-face for a very long time. With the rug ripped out from underneath us, well, how do we do what we are tasked to do every day?" asked Tenth District International Representative Brian Adams. "As a district, we are great at rolling up on a job, getting in front of a contractor, grabbing an electrician in a parking lot and telling them the reason why the IBEW would be great for them. We are really, really good at it. But how do you still be effective when that jobsite is locked down behind COVID precautions or shut down because people got sick?"
For that, organizers turned to teleconferencing — Zoom or any number of alternatives — the side cut pliers of the pandemic organizer: one tool with a thousand uses.
El Paso, Texas, Local 583 is conducting wireman interviews over Zoom calls. Third District International Representative Keenan Eagan ran informational meetings for Shamokin, Pa., Local 607 using Microsoft Teams. Second District International Representative Ed Starr held volunteer organizing committee meetings for presidential campaign workers who were spread across the country.
"The local contacts the guy, 'We see you applied, just want to follow up.' Only now the follow-up is a Zoom call, not a house call," Adams said. "We are all about identifying roadblocks and smashing through them."
There are even official vote counts conducted by the National Labor Relations Board that are observed using Skype, including a long-delayed election at Allied Power Services overseen by Sixth District International Organizer Lynn Arwood. The NLRB shut down in March 2020, right as the election was supposed to be held. It was delayed until July and the result was disputed by the company but was ultimately successful.
As of late January, Arwood said the IBEW and Allied were negotiating a first contract and close to an agreement.
One of the most promising uses of videoconferencing is the transformation of the traditional job fair, said former Director of Construction Membership Development Virgil Hamilton.
Historically, job fairs have been all-hands-on-deck, multi-week extravaganzas with organizers from many states leafletting the parking lots of jobsites and electrical supply companies, phone-banking and email-blasting, all to get nonunion electricians in the room with contractors with open calls.
They are time-, personnel- and money-intensive and require many people, not least the nonunion workers, to all be in a single place at a single time. They also require a fair bit of courage.
"People are genuinely afraid of going to job fairs and are afraid of being seen by owners or spies. We know owners come to job fairs. Shop managers and owners just drive through the parking lot to see if they recognize cars or schedule overtime to keep people from going," Hamilton said.
All of that changes when job fairs pivot to private teleconferences.
One format of the virtual job fair was developed out of a series of district and international organizing conference calls.
The organizer or a local union volunteer is assigned to every applicant. They conduct a virtual interview to establish experience level, do a skill assessment and create a personal connection.
"This is nothing new really: Relationship Building 101. The organizer's job is to educate them on what to expect and to forge a personal connection," Hamilton said.
It's the next part of the process that is new. The organizer then sets up Zoom interviews with the hiring contractors, and the job fair valet stays with the potential new member every step of the way. The job comes from the organizer, but the opportunity, the standards and protections in the contract, and future jobs, that all comes from the IBEW.
"We want them to see us as more than a job provider. We want them to see the brotherhood aspect of the IBEW from the start of their journey," Hamilton said.
It is a significant bonus that in a virtual job fair things like getting mailers, brochures and yard signs ordered and shipped, reserving tables and spaces and coordinating schedules and travel to get everyone in the same place take a backseat.
Now we are universally focused on message, outreach and follow up," he said.
Even in more ways, Adams said, the rise of videoconferencing made communication easier, especially internally.
"What's funny is we are probably communicating at a higher level now. It was more one-on-one before. Now it is district wide. We have guys in Arkansas talking to organizers in the Carolinas who maybe hadn't talked more than twice a year during a blitz or at a conference," he said. "It is a [hard] time to be alive, let alone try to fill a 10-man call by your lonesome. Just connecting with one another, it keeps the morale high."
Fourth District Organizing Coordinator Gary Osborne put it more simply.
"We're busier than ever because we haven't been in our cars," he said.
It must be said that the volume of online meetings that characterized the start of the pandemic has waned. Most locals returned to in-person meetings in the fall, even if some went back to restrictions during the omicron variant wave.
But some new tools that grew in prominence during the pandemic will only grow further, Oakland said.
Developing lists of nonunion electricians from hiring websites like Indeed, LinkedIn and others is a valuable tool that is only now being used to its full potential. Organizers are also developing campaigns to reach the entire community of nonunion workers, including targeting ads to specific locations like jobsites or electrical supply companies.
Organizers had been using each of these tools in a scattershot way, or hiring specialist companies to do it for them, for years. But they were brought together as a unified and flexible pandemic toolkit during the Berg's Going Union campaign, a multi-jurisdictional organizing campaign targeting one of the largest nonunion contractors in North America.
"What we have come to realize is that a person's online address is at least as important as their physical address," said Workforce Recruitment Coordinator Aaron Jones, a third-generation IBEW member from Las Vegas. "We needed to find a deeper use for social media, adapting it and hiring platforms for organizing purposes. And then we needed an online resource, not just a website. Something more than 'Call us today.'"
In early 2021, the positive outcomes from the BGU campaign led International President Lonnie R. Stephenson and NECA CEO David Long to create a Workforce Recruitment Task Force that would target Nashville, Tenn., Phoenix and the San Antonio/Austin market, areas with lots of open calls and high expected growth.
The result was astonishing, Oakland said.
"In three months in these cities we filled at least as many open calls as we did over a decade using industry nights, and we did it for far less than 10% of the cost," he said.
The results were so promising that Jones compiled a manual that included all the tools used in the task force trial run and made it available to local and international organizers from the Membership Development Department. Then, in January, the Workforce Recruitment Task Force model was expanded to an additional 25 cities.
"This has been a difficult time, but in 10 years I have never felt as effective as an organizer as I do now," Jones said.
The end goal, Jones said, will be a database of every nonunion electrician in North America and a strategy to reach them with a compelling message both online and in-person to create a real relationship.
"It will take time, but we have the tools," he said.
Jones is almost evangelical in his advocacy for the newer, computer-based tools to start the connection with nonunion workers, but he is clear that what will make it last is the community-built worker-to-worker interactions.
“The realities of organizing in a pandemic helped us to make connections between old tools and new ones, and now we’re operating on another level,” Oakland said.
Signing Up by Logging On
Finally, there was the problem of signing up new members when the old way required in-person interactions deemed unsafe in the pandemic's early days.
In February of 2020 when the first contract was agreed with Atlanta Gas Light, any worker who wanted to join the IBEW could do it roughly the same way anyone might have joined 125 years ago: filling out a paper form. And that was the plan to sign up new members to Atlanta Local 1997.
But by mid-March, there was no way to get the paper applications to everyone and International Office staff that processed the applications was largely working from home.
"We couldn't speak to potential members and stewards couldn't even see their coworkers because the company, understandably, kept them separate," said Fifth District International Organizer Joe Skinner. They had to come up with new tools, new strategies nearly overnight. "We pushed everyone to digital forms and mobile-based membership applications. We emailed them links and left pamphlets with QR codes in the workplace."
The key change was the digital membership application.
"The DMA is an absolute game changer," said Director of Membership Development for Professional and Industrial Jammi Ouellette. "I can't begin to describe how big going digital is. There's nothing more frustrating for our new members than chasing down paper. When the office closed and we couldn't manually process applicants, what were we supposed to do? Luckily [Per Capita Department Director] Louie [Spencer] was a champion to get us digitalized and offer an electronic membership option."
Atlanta Local 1997 signed up a majority of its new members using the DMA within eight weeks of its first contract approval. Since then, the unit has grown to more than 200 workers without the signing of a single physical card.
Brock said you don't even need the pandemic to see how valuable that is; you just look at the opposite case. On a recent campaign, signed authorization cards expired before they could all be submitted.
"Paper is a challenge, just the logistics: I get the authorizations from the International Office, give them to the volunteer organizing committee captains; they give it to the new members, back to the captain, back to me and then back to the I.O. The DMA just eliminates all those exchanges," Brock said.
Now, organizers are going back through the unit and doing authorizations with the DMA and when the member fills it out on a computer or by phone, it is filed and official.
"The second they fill it out, it's where it needs to be instantly," he said.
Across North America, the unthinkable is commonplace: newly organized wiremen and linemen are contacted, signed up, interviewed and sent out on work without ever meeting anyone in person.
"The only time they come in now is when they get sworn in," said Seventh District Organizing Coordinator Javier Casas.
Some locals aren't even requiring people to come in for that. Boston Local 103 Business Manager Lou Antonellis saw only the torsos, heads (some masked) and raised right arms when he swore in the Joe Kennedy for Senate campaign workers via videoconference in 2020.
The Tools We're Keeping
Another thing the pandemic taught organizers was that some of the old tools — the oldest tools — worked just fine.
Not everything changed two years ago. On the construction side in the U.S. and some parts of Canada, the building boom took a brief stutter step and then simply barreled on. Open calls were the reality before 2020 and for many locals manning the work is still an organizer's primary task.
"Our message never changed, especially to contractors. Top-down organizing can be very effective via phone or Zoom — in-person meetings are not completely necessary to address their fears or concerns and discuss the value we bring to their company. If the top-down process isn't successful, and they choose not to sign, I'll strip your workers," said Second District International Vice President Mike Monahan. "Most of what we do in the Second is top-down organizing and COVID restrictions didn't impact that."
Anyone can find out that a nonunion contractor won a job through online sources like Dodge, Industrial Information Resources and others and explaining the benefits of signing an IBEW contract can be accomplished over the phone.
"We never skipped a beat, never had to change," Monahan said
Fourth District Organizing Coordinator Gary Osborne said field organizers continued making jobsite visits, though with precautions never seen before.
"If for some reason a jobsite came down with the virus, we don't want blame to come down on our organizer," he said. "They are following the guidelines. They may go on jobsites, but they go with a mask, distance and just as often as talking they leave literature on car windows fishing for calls."
You have to be an idealist and an optimist to be an organizer, but you have to be brass-tacks pragmatic, too.
"We're like MacGyver. You use every tool, and every tool has a use. And organizers never, ever throw a tool away," Jones said.
And while the future will involve developing better, more complex and interconnected tools to find prospects and make the pitch, the job of the organizer hasn't dramatically changed because the most important skill is what an organizer does when they make a connection, Brock said.
"I have a rule. The more I'm talking, the worse I'm doing," he said. "My job is to listen, because if it was only about wages and benefits, everyone would already be in our union."
"Whether you are trying to organize electricians or camera operators, really what you are trying to figure out is the change that person wants to see in their work life, so you can then have the conversation about how being part of the IBEW can help them realize that change. The only way to find that out is listening. In person. Online. On a Zoom. In a living room. You listen. And when we listen, we have a chance to change lives forever.”