International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper took over on May 1 for Salvatore “Sam” Chilia, who retired. Cooper, who joined Mansfield, Ohio, Local 688 in 1986, served as vice president, president, business manager, international representative and Fourth District vice president before his appointment to the union’s No. 2 job. He is responsible for everything from the IBEW’s various pensions and medical plans to its political engagement and general financial health.
Electrical Worker: Tell us about the transition from vice president to international secretary-treasurer.
IST Cooper: I’m really honored to have the opportunity to represent IBEW members in this capacity. The transition has been very smooth. Having the opportunity to work with Sam for a couple of weeks before he left was extremely helpful. As I said at Sam’s retirement party, this road’s been paved by many great leaders that came before me, so that makes it a lot easier for me. Although it has only been a few months, I feel confident that I have my feet on the ground.
EW: What’s a typical day on the job?
KC: It’s been hectic. I’ve been on the run, traveling all over the place, meeting with members and leaders across the U.S. and Canada. At the same time, I’m working hard to ensure that our membership is represented and that the policies and practices that we put into place in Washington, D.C., help our local unions grow and prosper. I want to make their jobs easier, not harder.
On the financial side of things, I’ve been meeting with investors and attorneys to ensure that the IBEW remains solvent and that we are providing the very best benefits we can to our membership. I’m grateful for the people I work with here, who have been critical to helping me settle in to the job so that I can get to work for members.
EW: What are some of the things that members’ dues pay for that you’d like them to know?
KC: Well, all union members understand the connection between their membership and higher wages and better benefits. But a lot of those things start here at the I.O. Our local unions have negotiating teams, and those teams get a lot of information from our great Research Department and our contract analysts that helps them to be more effective. As a business manager, it is important to make sure our side is prepared when we sit down and negotiate. That is a huge part of the reason we’re able to successfully go up against these big employers.
Our Political and Legislative Department lobbies the government and tracks legislation, rules and regulations that are important to our members, such as overtime protections, prevailing wage attacks, and they are also in charge of managing the IBEW PAC and the IBEW Registrar program.
The individual branches handle industry issues, national contract bargaining and disputes and assist local unions by coordinating communications among the local unions that share the same industry. Helping local unions stay abreast of industry trends is very important.
There’s also a lot of important record-keeping here. We manage the Pension Benefit Fund, the National Electrical Benefit Fund and the Family Medical Care Plan.
Civic and Community Services manages our RENEW program (Reach Out and Engage Next Gen) which helps to engage young IBEW workers. They also work directly with our constituency groups to ensure that we are active in the communities we serve.
And of course, all of the departments and benefits are interrelated and tie directly into organizing, which our Membership Development Department assists local unions to do.
Organizing is critical to our political strength, our community strength, our ability to get work for members and to provide the very best representation for our existing membership. The more numbers we have, the stronger we are, the louder our voices become, the stronger our health plans are, the stronger our pensions are and the stronger the IBEW is — it all goes back to organizing. The finances of everything get better with membership growth. The fact of the matter is, you get more political strength, you get more power at the bargaining table, you get better health care, you get more market share — everything becomes stronger as the union gets bigger. This equates to a better life for our members and all working families.
EW: What do you say to folks who don’t think organizing is important, to people who think younger folks are going to come in and take their jobs away?
KC: There are really good members who think that way, but we have to do a better job of educating them about why it’s important that we groom the next generation of members and how organizing affects them. For 125 years, members of the IBEW have passed the torch on to the next generation. It’s our job to bring along that next crop of young people, to fight for them, to make their lives better, the same way someone did for us. That’s how it’s worked since the IBEW was founded in 1891, and we’ve got a responsibility to pass that on.
EW: Your job also includes responsibility for the political action of the IBEW and its members. We’re in a tough time for unions right now, with politicians pushing right-to-work and talking about repealing prevailing wage laws and making it harder to organize. What’s the way through this?
KC: Our strength is in the membership, and politicians pay attention to the number of working families we represent. The larger the membership, the more influence we have as a union, and that gives us a chance to fight back against the anti-union rhetoric we’re seeing around the country.
I think Trump stole our message during the last cycle. For 30 years we’ve talked about bad trade agreements and how they affected us as working people, how important buying American made products are to our economy and in providing good jobs for the middle class. And I really hope he delivers, because a lot of our members chose to believe what he was saying. Unfortunately, his actions have veered far from that message. We all have to pay attention and hold the president’s feet to the fire when it comes to delivering for working families.
EW: We’ve seen more of our members running for public office. In July, we had a member win a state senate seat in New Hampshire. We’ve got another running in Massachusetts, and of course Donald Norcross is in Congress from New Jersey. Is that encouraging to you?
KC: Absolutely. In my mind, our government was set up for the people, by the people. The better cross-section of everyday life we have in government, the better we’re represented, especially when it comes to working people. When you put an IBEW member into a political office, they start day one understanding the struggles of being a working person. Many times, the people we send to Congress have never worked with their hands or had to struggle to figure out how they’ll send their kids to college or pay the bills. I think that’s important.
EW: We’re seeing a lot more locals using the Family Medical Care Plan. How’s that going?
KC: The Family Medical Care Plan covers about 95,000 people in 165 local unions, and all of the international staff is under the plan. We hope it continues to get stronger — we think it will. The more people that join the plan, the more bargaining power you have to drive down the costs. Most importantly, we don’t pay CEOs or shareholders. One hundred percent of that money is going to benefits — no marketing, no big bonuses, just providing our membership with the very best health care benefit we can.
The Electrical Worker ran a story a few months back about Local 66 down in Houston. They started using the FMCP, and it turned into an organizing tool for them because the opportunities for that health care were so good that people who weren’t members wanted to join to get a piece of those benefits. We’re encouraged by that kind of story and hope to see more locals take advantage.
EW: What are things you want people to know about you that maybe they don’t know?
KC: Honestly, I grew up as kind of a poor kid. The IBEW gave me an opportunity to move into the middle class. I learned very quickly that with collective bargaining you could have a better life for both you and your family as well as the community you live in. I want to pass that along to our membership, and I want to pass that along to workers throughout the United States and Canada who can benefit from being a member of the IBEW. We owe it to the future generation of workers to bring them along, educate them, help them build a better country and a better life for themselves and their families. That’s where I try to keep my focus every single day.
EW: What are the challenges the IBEW faces in the near term or long term? What kinds of things are you worried about or keeping an eye on that members should be looking at too?
KC: Unions are not as strong or as popular as they once were. I’ve heard people say that we are no longer needed, that our time has passed, but that’s not true. The income gap between the wealthy and poor is growing. Teaching workers how to stick together on fundamental issues that they face on a daily basis in the workplace has never been more important. Educating the population on how important collective bargaining is — and what collective bargaining is — has never been more important.
If I’m a baseball pitcher, and I can pitch a ball 100 miles per hour on a consistent basis, I will get paid a lot of money because there are not a lot of people in society that can do that. But as far as electricians go, approximately one in every 586 people is an electrician, so individually we can be replaced. But collectively, we all can’t be replaced. We must stand together, support one another and not buy in to the divide-and-conquer mentality that pits worker against worker.
Making sure we pass that baton to the younger generation is also important — most statistics out there say millennials believe in unions, but they don’t understand unions — so it’s our job to educate those young people. I recently sat through a meeting where people brought up a lot of issues with millennials, about how they don’t do this or that. And I reminded them of a presentation that a fighter pilot gave to us at a recent meeting. She talked about landing jets on a carrier, and how her life was on the line every time she landed that plane. And there was a whole team whose only job was to make sure that $100 million jet stopped on that ship, and the average age of those workers responsible for her life and that $100 million piece of equipment was 19 years old. So, every generation steps to the plate when it’s their time, and their time’s coming.