International President Emeritus Edwin D. Hill, a transformative trade unionist who modernized and shepharded his beloved IBEW through one of the deepest and most painful recessions in history, died Saturday, Dec. 1. He was 81.
|Hill was a second-generation member and a labor activist from his earliest days. Here, he leads a labor rally as business manager of Beaver, Pa., Local 712 in 1973.
“The labor movement has lost one of its great visionaries and leaders,”said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, who succeeded Hill upon his retirement in 2015. “We join with President Hill’s friends and family in mourning his loss.
“But while this is a moment of great sadness, we draw inspiration and joy from President Hill’s nearly six decades of service to working families and the union that was the cause of his life: the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.”
Under Hill’s leadership, the IBEW held fast to its history and traditions while making key changes to modernize and preserve the Brotherhood’s influence as one of North America’s most powerful voices for working people.
Key to that influence was Hill’s laser-focus on organizing. When he ascended to the office of international president in 2001, he wrote:
“Some leaders in Washington revel in hobnobbing with the powerful. I recognize the importance of a strong presence in the halls of power, but I know that any power we wield comes from our strength in numbers and our solidarity as working people.”
It was a lesson Hill had learned over the course of his 54 years as an elected union officeholder, starting in 1961 at Beaver, Pa., Local 712 on the political action committee just a year after he topped out as a journeyman wireman.
A second-generation IBEW member from Center Township, Pa., Hill’s long belief in the collective power of working people carried him through decades of leadership that saw the labor movement subject to vicious attacks from union-busting politicians, misleading campaigns from companies seeking to maximize profits on the backs of workers, and ultimately, the most devastating economic downturn since the Great Depression.
In large part, it was his response to that once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis that cemented Hill’s status as a leader willing to think outside the box to preserve the Brotherhood and the labor movement he loved.
Whether it was rethinking the relationship between employers and unions that led to the creation of the IBEW’s Code of Excellence and business development initiatives or his willingness to take on powerful voices within his own union with the market recovery measures that led to the successful alternative classification system, Hill was always ready to do what it took to put IBEW members to work.
“Ed Hill woke up every day with a singular focus,” Stephenson said. “That was making sure that he and his leaders and the international, district and local levels were doing everything they could to put IBEW members in a position to be successful. Sometimes that involved killing off a sacred cow or two, but Ed was fine with that as long as his union brothers and sisters came out on top.
“His efforts ensured that the IBEW not only survived through the toughest of times but expanded and grew,” Stephenson said.
That expansion wasn’t by accident. Hill’s experience, from his time as a local president and business manager through his rise to Third District Vice President, International Secretary and then International Secretary-Treasurer, taught him that growth in the face of adversity was the only way to maintain collective power.
|As International President, Hill could still be found often on the front lines of labor struggles, arm-in-arm with his union brothers and sisters. Here, he’s pictured standing with striking workers at Fairpoint Communications in Maine in 2014.
As Secretary-Treasurer, he invested in the modernization of the IBEW’s record-keeping and membership databases and worked with then-President J.J. Barry to add needed resources to organizing. He continued that expansion when he succeeded Barry as the union’s president in 2001, directing his leaders in the Membership Development Department to harness new technology and tools for organizers in every branch of the IBEW.
“The IBEW is where it is today because of the leadership of Ed Hill,” said International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper. “As Secretary and then as Secretary-Treasurer, Ed Hill gets much of the credit for bringing this Brotherhood into the 21st Century. He saw early on that the old ways of doing things could be improved, and his leadership even before his time as International President allowed the IBEW to keep its focus on the people who mattered most – the members.”
Hill’s most lasting legacy, however, may be his thorough reevaluation of the relationship between employers, employees and the unions that represent them. He knew that organizing meant little if the IBEW couldn’t put those members to work, so Hill took a nascent idea started in the Eighth District and breathed fire into it.
That idea was the Code of Excellence, a commitment from IBEW members and signatory contractors to set the gold standard for quality work in the electrical industry.
“Anti-union propaganda had created a perception that hiring union workers was bad for business, but we knew better,” Hill said at his retirement. “We just had to remind our customers, and truth be told, some of our members, that high standards of craftsmanship and productivity are hallmarks of the IBEW and the foundation of a profitable business.”
Under Hill’s leadership, the Code grew from a single district and branch – construction – into a hallmark of the IBEW’s identity across North America and all seven branches of the union. It also worked hand-in-hand with another of Hill’s innovations: business development.
|Hill retired in 2015 and is pictured with his successor, current International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, and then-International Secretary-Treasurer Salvatore J. Chilia.
Early on, Hill noticed that IBEW signatory contractors were missing out on big construction projects, depriving the industry’s best-trained electricians of sorely-needed jobs, especially during the recession that started in 2008. His solution was to get the union involved in those sorts of projects at the planning stage, well before contracts were drawn up.
The IBEW’s Business Development Department was created under Hill’s leadership to build relationships with the owners of large projects and work with them from the early stages, leveraging the IBEW’s significant influence in the halls of power to help make their projects a reality. The side benefit – for both sides – was the use of industry-leading IBEW electricians once ground was broken.
“I think of Ed as a pioneer, always looking for new ways to help IBEW members in this changing economic environment,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said at Hill’s retirement. Shuler, a member of Portland, Ore., Local 125 and one of Hill’s former senior executive assistants praised her former boss’s willingness to embrace the new and unfamiliar. “He often said, ‘Making mistakes is good. It’s better to try something and fail, than not try at all – because if you’re not failing once in a while, it means you’re not doing anything new.'”
The officers, staff and entire membership of the IBEW wish to thank Brother Hill for his lifetime of service and commitment to the Brotherhood he so loved. Our thoughts, prayers and deep gratitude are also with his wife Rosemary, the couple’s three children and grandchildren in this difficult time.