IBEW Local Triples in Size in Right to Work North Carolina
How a small local in Charlotte has increased in size over the last decade in the face of hostile legislation
In 2007, Charlotte, N.C., Local 379 held its meetings in a two-car garage.
Outside, the rumble and roar of NASCAR drivers doing practice laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway – located less than a mile away – were a regular irritant. Membership hovered around 200 and market share was a paltry 2 percent.
But 10 years later, thanks to a concerted effort by local leaders, and a little help from the International Office, the local has more than tripled its membership and moved from the little house by the racetrack into a 12,000 square-foot facility with two more satellite offices across its sprawling jurisdiction.
Here’s how they did it.
“This is a success story that needs to be told,” said Tenth District International Representative for Business Development Dave Hoque. “It can happen, but it takes effort.”
Hoque was part of the Carolina Initiative, an effort that began in 2007 and invested I.O. resources in the area to grow market share and increase membership. It followed the success of an IBEW pilot program in Florida, where organizers honed tactics like industry nights, reaching out to nonunion work sites and making the most of the IBEW’s intermediate worker classifications.
“We embraced a lot of new ideas,” said Local 379 Business Manager Tommy Hill, then the assistant business manager. “A lot of it was attitude too. But it started with asking for help.”
At the outset, the local didn’t have much in the way of infrastructure to grow. Devoting scant resources to a massive organizing effort wasn’t something that was in the cards.
But the Carolina Initiative brought a lifeline in the form of five full-time international organizers and four more whose cost was split 50/50 with the local. With the additional help – and a commitment from leadership – Local 379 dedicated itself to organizing. Growing became their No. 1 priority.
It all started with strong leadership, said Hoque. Under then-Business Manager Bob Krebs, the local developed 5-year and 10-year plans and fostered an environment that was open to change. Union meetings were often packed, and sometimes controversial, but the leaders, staff and organizers remained committed to the long, hard work of rebuilding the local.
“We knew, if we did nothing, there wouldn’t be anything left of this local,” Hill said. “We embraced our strategic plan, and our contractors took notice.” They bidded bigger and bigger jobs, counting on the local to provide the manpower. They even took advantage of the 2008 recession to advance market share. But most of all, they worked – hard.
Part of what the Carolina Initiative did was push for a “new IBEW,” a fresh way of promoting the union that focused on members’ skill and professionalism and the value of a talented workforce.
“We basically said, ‘This is what we want to be when we grow up,’” Hoque said.
Back in the 1970s, the local had about 1,000 members. So, they set a goal for half of that to start with, Hill said. They began organizing both members and contractors, and the Code of Excellence became the most valuable tool in their tool bag.
The Code is the IBEW’s pledge between labor and management to commit to professionalism and respect, distinguishing IBEW electricians as high-quality craftsmen. Local 379 adopted the Seventh District’s 8-hour Code training in 2015, and more than 300 members have completed the class to date, Hill said – all of them voluntarily.
One area the Code payed off was absenteeism, and Local 379 cut it substantially, Hill said, by emphasizing the value of the member to each project, creating a sense of ownership.
“If you realize you’re important to the job, you show up,” Hill said. “You don’t want to let the team down.”
Local 379 also utilized the Construction Wireman/Construction Electrician designations, an alternative classification that creates an entryway for nonunion electricians who have some experience but not at the level of a journeyman to become members. That allowed signatory contractors to be more competitive when bidding on projects, particularly in residential and smaller commercial sectors.
“That was a big help,” said Local 379 President and Assistant Business Manager Scott Thrower. “I was against it at first, but I came around when I saw how much more work it created.”
They held industry nights, inviting those looking to be, or already in, the industry to learn about the IBEW. And they launched a foreman’s development series, something that started in the Seventh District, Hill said.
The program teaches the skills needed to be a foreman with members participating in a series of 12 modules, or classes, over eight weeks, covering topics like the role of the foreman, material management, labor relations, safety and communication. About 40 people have graduated so far, with more than 80 taking certain modules.
“A lot of folks just get thrown in, and they’re expected to do a job they haven’t been trained for,” Hill said. “It fits like a glove with the Code.”
Local 379’s “New IBEW” also includes a good old-fashioned focus on member retention. The local has extended its hall hours and started a newsletter. It offers videoconferencing between its three offices for membership meetings and texts reminders beforehand.
The local offers financial planning classes, and more orientation and training opportunities – including new-member classes and benefits workshops – that teach younger members about the benefits of Brotherhood.
“It’s another tool in our right-to-work bag,” Thrower said. “We want engaged members who know the value of their union membership and know that we’ve got their back.”
All of it added together paints the story Hill, Thrower and the rest of the leaders at Local 379 want to share with others in a similar predicament to where they were 10 years ago: that with a lot of vision, a little help, and a massive amount of hard work, anyone can overcome the challenges to growth.
Today, Local 379 has about 700 members with more than 350 working on a new, eight-story hotel and three data centers. The hotel, especially, was the sort of mid-sized job they’d have struggled to land in the past.
Market share increased to nine percent in 2015, but Thrower says it’s likely closer to 10 or 11 percent now, with the local working close to 1,000 members for the first time in a long time. Its contractor base has grown from about five in 2004 to more than 26 last year, and its staff has climbed to 10.
They’re also an active part of the community. Local 379’s float for the Labor Day parade, which used to only draw about 10 members, now gets closer to 100, Hill said. They’re regular volunteers at local charities. And Local 379 advertisements are a common sight at NASCAR – their former neighbor – and at Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets home games.
“We’re a lot better off than we’ve ever been,” Thrower said. “We’ve been open-minded to a lot of ideas. We listen to everyone and try to do whatever we can.”
Taking on a project like the Carolina Initiative required a long-term focus and an enormous effort, Hill said. He encourages other locals to reach out to the I.O. and ask for help if they’re feeling stuck, but he says not to bother unless you’re ready to throw everything at the problem.
“Our success didn’t happen overnight, and we’ve still got a ways to go,” he said. “We put in a lot of work, but every day we’re changing our image in the Carolinas, and our members and contractors are better off for it.”