What is the IBEW?
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
Table Of Contents
- What Is The IBEW?
- Common Misconceptions
- Worker Classifications
- How The IBEW Book System Works
- The CW / CE Program
The IBEW is the largest electrical labor union in the world, representing over 775,000 workers across North America. While the bulk of its members are electricians, or inside wiremen, the IBEW also represents the low voltage, lineman, broadcasting, manufacturing, railroads, government, and even coffee shops.
Founded in 1891, the IBEW formed in response to horrid working conditions and low pay, with as many as 50% of linemen or inside wiremen dying on the job while being paid $10 a week. In 1919, the IBEW became a trendsetter when it formed the Council of Industrial Relations (CIR), whose purpose was to improve employee-employer relations. A huge success, the CIR has been able to settle thousands of disputes without striking, earning the IBEW the title of a “strikeless industry.” Fast forward to 2021, and members of the IBEW are one of the safest and highest paid trades in the construction industry, with inside wiremen (the standard electrician classification) earning an average of $1533 a week.
IBEW’s Constitutional Objectives:
• To organize all workers in the entire electrical industry in the United States and Canada, including all those in public utilities and electrical manufacturing, into local unions,
• To promote reasonable methods of work,
• To cultivate feelings of friendship among those of our industry,
• To settle all disputes between employers and employees by arbitration (if possible),
• To assist each other in sickness or distress,
• To secure employment,
• To reduce the hours of daily labor,
• To secure adequate pay for our work,
• To seek a higher and higher standard of living,
• To seek security for the individual,
• And by legal and proper means to elevate the moral, intellectual and social conditions of our members, their families and dependents, in the interest of a higher standard of citizenship.
But first, who am I?
There are many misconceptions regarding the IBEW, and while I’d much rather jump right in on tackling them, I feel obligated to briefly explain why I feel I’m an authority on the matter. To put it simply, I’ve dabbled in a lot of different types of companies. I started my career in a tiny electrical company with no more than a handful of guys. From there, I transitioned to a large non-union electrical contractor who was notorious for big jobs and treating their employees poorly. After a year there, I left to a mid sized non-union company who treated their employees very well. I genuinely enjoyed it and felt welcomed and well paid. All throughout being with these companies, I heard endless things about the union and why to not join. Constant rumors and bad mouthing union electricians, like they were some kind of enemy, or something to avoid. One thing always burned in my head though;
“If the union was so bad, where are all the ex-union guys who came to the non-union companies?”
I couldn’t find them. I never met a SINGLE one. To me, that was telling. So once I obtained my state license, I applied to the union and got in. All I found was higher wages and better benefits. Oh, and that there were a LOT of misconceptions about the IBEW. Here are all the common ones I have heard many times.
Misconception #1: “I can’t join the union unless I know someone / go through their apprenticeship.“
Many people have this idea that the union is a closed circle organization that you can only get into if you know someone or if you go through their apprenticeship. The fact of the matter is it’s simply not true. Many electricians, including myself, organized into the IBEW after getting their license through non-union companies. My union coworkers are very glad to have me and I have felt no resentments towards the fact I did not go through their apprenticeship. This makes sense, considering the fact that the first objective of the IBEW constitution is,
“To organize all workers in the entire electrical industry in the United States and Canada, including all those in public utilities and electrical manufacturing, into local unions, …”.
Misconception #2: “Union electricians only work 6 months out of the year.”
This is one I’ve heard a lot. The idea is that while union electricians make a lot of money, they can only find work for so many months of the year. With the sheer number of electricians in the country I’m sure this is true for someone somewhere at sometime. But I can guarantee you it is not the case for the majority of union electricians out there. One only has to browse union electrical forums like /r/ibew to see that the overwhelming majority have no trouble finding work.
Misconception #3: “Union electricians are lazy and sit around all day.“
Even disregarding the fact that this goes directly against the IBEW’s code of excellence, the biggest thing I noticed upon joining the IBEW is how similar it was to non-union. End of the day, construction is still construction, and electrical contractors are all very much the same. If I had you show up to a job site and didn’t tell you if it was a union or non-union contractor, I doubt you would be able to guess.
Misconception #4: “The higher wages in the union are offset by the union dues.“
Union workers earn about 20% higher wages than their non-union counterparts, while union dues are only about 3-5%. In the IBEW specifically though, workers not only earn a higher than average wage, they also have access to multiple pensions and other benefits that increase their total package pay to be significantly higher. You can browse the dollar amounts of each below.
Misconception #5: “Union guys are laid off all the time!“
Layoffs can be common in the construction industry, there’s no doubt about it. But union electricians are laid off no more or less than its non-union industry counterparts. The advantage of being in the union when layoffs do happen is that the union will look for work for you while you are on the books and file for unemployment. No applying or interviewing, desperate to get a job. Just sit back and wait for a call!
Misconception #6: “Union electricians have to constantly travel for work.”
If work is very slow in a city, it’s slow across the board, which means it’s slow for union and non-union electricians alike. Unless you live in a very rural area, you shouldn’t have to drive far to the jobsite.
This might be confused with traveling electricians, which is very common in the union. Because some locals have very high pay ($80+/hour), lots of union electricians will travel to that city to pick up work. When work slows down in that area, they go to the next high paying city with lots of work. I know some electricians that have traveled for a year in northern California, did a bunch of overtime, and made well over $300,000. In BASE pay. If you count their contributions to the pension / 401k, it’s a much higher number.
Misconception #7: “Union electricians are hired by a seniority system.”
Some unions may hire workers / assign them to contractors by a seniority system, with those who have been in longest get first dibs. This is not the case for IBEW electricians. We have a simple queue system for “bidding” on jobs which you can read about here.
Journeyman Inside Wireman (JW)
A state licensed electrician who has either (1) finished the Electrical Training Alliance / IBEW apprenticeship or (2) taken the union Journeyman Wireman exam, which usually consists of a written portion similar to the state exam and a hands on exam. There are generally two JW books.
-Book 1: Local JW’s who live in the city. They get first dibs on any calls.
-Book 2: JW from other union locals who are traveling for work. They only can be dispatched to jobs once everyone from book 1 is either working or forfeited a call (by not showing up to dispatch).
JW’s are the “core” of the IBEW. They make up a bulk of the workforce and negotiations center around them as pay scales for other classifications and even for union representatives are based on a percentage of a JW’s wage.
Material handlers are non-registered apprentices whose work scope is limited to pick up, delivering, loading, and unloading tools, equipment, and material for contractors. They are not allowed to work on the job site in assembling or fixing anything. They generally have their own book to be signed. Many aspiring electricians become material handlers to gain experience with material to increase their chances of being accepted into the apprenticeship.
Someone who is enrolled in the Electrical Training Alliance apprenticeship. This program assigns you to contractors for work experience and are given classroom instruction in the evenings. Apprentices do not have books to sign, but are instead placed with contractors automatically. Many locals will automatically rotate you to a new contractor every year to ensure you are exposed to different types of job sites. Every semester (~6 months) you are guaranteed a set raise.
A non-registered apprentice with less than 8,000 hours of electrical construction work. CW’s typically have to do some form of classroom training while enrolled as a CW, but are not part of the apprenticeship program. While each local may run its CW program differently, typically there are 5 different CW levels. With each advancement you get a higher percentage of pay.
A non registered apprentice with more than 8000 hours of electrical work. If you are a part of the CW program, once you have over 8000 hours OJT (on the job training) and fulfill any classroom requirements, you become a CE. With over 8000 hours on the job you qualify to take the state license exam. Once you pass your state exam, you can take your union journeyman exam to qualify to be classified as a Journeyman Inside Wireman and make full journeyman wage. While you are working on these qualifications, you may continue to work and progress through the various CE levels. You can read more about the CW / CE Program here.
How the ibew “book” system works
One of the benefits of joining the IBEW is that the union will “look for work” for you and connect you with employers. While each local does this a bit differently, the idea is essentially the same. When you join the union you go down to your union office and you physically sign one of the “books”. A book is a queue from which the contractors hire from. There are many books to sign depending on your classification; Journeyman Inside Wireman, Construction Wireman, Streetlight Tech, etc.
How it works
Once you sign a book you are given a number, and that is your place in the queue. If you are number 50, you are 50th in line. If number 35 gets hired, they are removed from the books and everyone after that number moves up a number.
When a contractor wants to hire new journeyman electricians, or any other classification, they will contact the union hall to put out a “call”. The union will then post that information online or over a phone system to let union members know what calls are out. To take one of the calls you have to show up to “dispatch” and bid on it. Different locals do it in different ways; some have it in person the next day, others you can simply do it electronically online.
The idea is simple though, whoever is on the books with the lowest number gets first dibs. If you pass on a job, it goes to the person behind you in the books. This system keeps everything fair so that those who have been out of work the longest can get to work sooner.
It’s important to note that every union local can have their own rules about dispatch procedures, so be sure to ask how your local operates it. Some locals who are especially busy and have lots of unfilled calls for example will kick you off the books and you will lose your spot if you don’t show up for dispatch or refuse calls a certain amount of times.
Some locals also have policies in place such that if a call goes unfilled, anyone can take it for the rest of the day. For example, if UEG Electric puts out a call for 10 Journeyman electricians, and only 8 show up for dispatch that morning, there are two remaining “open” calls. Anyone can come in and take them no matter their number for the remainder of the day, even if they just signed the books. The reasoning behind this is that everyone else on the books who failed to show up to dispatch that day forfeited their right to those calls.
If you sign the books and see you have a very high number, don’t be discouraged! Many of the lower numbers are retirees who still pay union dues and wish to keep their name on the books. Others are those who are traveling for work, or otherwise vacationing / not wanting to return to work. When I first joined the union I was somewhere in the low 400’s. I got hired within a week because no one else showed up to dispatch.
However, while you are on the books waiting to take a call you do qualify for unemployment and should file as soon as possible in case you are waiting for more than a week. You don’t want to miss out on any benefits from filing late!
The Construction wireman (CW) / Construction electrician (CE) Program
The CW / CE program is an alternative program to the Electrical Training Alliance apprenticeship. Not every local has implemented this program, and those that do have separate agreements to how they are run. While they are mostly the same, just be aware some details described here may vary by location.
Why it was developed
The CW / CE was developed as a way to both provide employment opportunities to those who were waiting to get into the apprenticeship, or those who did not qualify, and to better compete with non-union labor. While many people believe the CW / CE program is a dead end, it is actually designed to get you to a journey-level status and begin working as a journeyman inside wireman. It is often offered to those waiting to get into the apprenticeship program as a way to get work experience.
A Construction Wireman is a non-apprentice who has less than 8000 hours of electrical experience. They usually have 5 pay levels depending on the amount of documented work hours, and are set to a percentage of the Journeyman rate. CW’s are usually required to attend some form of classroom training. Below is an example of what the schedule could look like. Your local’s details may vary.
|Classification||Wage % of JW||OJT Hours||Classroom Requirements before advancing|
|CW1||41%||0-1000||OSHA 10, CPR, First Aid|
|CW2||45%||1000-3500||Conduit Bending and DC Theory|
|CW3||49%||3500-5000||AC Theory and Electrical Code|
|CW4||53%||5000-6500||NEC Code Course, Transformer Theory and Application|
|CW5||57%||6500-8000||Motor Controls and NEC Code|
A Construction Electrician is a non-apprentice with more than 8000 hours on the job experience, who may or may not have acquired their state license. Once they obtain their state license, they qualify to take the IBEW Inside Wireman test, which generally covers code, theory, and a hands on portion. Until their test is passed, they will stay classified as a Construction Electrician. A Construction Electrician’s pay is also set to a percentage of the Journeyman rate, and may have different levels. An example is provided below. Again, please note this is just an example and you should refer to your local for the correct numbers.
|Classification||Wage % of JW||OJT Hours|
The CW / CE program has long been the center of debate in the IBEW. Proponents of the program argue it’s a great way for aspiring union electricians to get experience in the trade before they enter the apprenticeship, instead of going to work for the non-union competitors. While CW and CE’s get paid less than their apprentice and journeyman counterparts, proponents of the program will argue that this benefits the IBEW as it keeps them competitive and allows for a larger market share in the private sector.
Many people fiercely disagree, arguing it undermines the fundamental premise that every electrical worker deserves a livable wage, and that wage is the base journeyman rate. Undercutting that wage not only underpays union employees, it takes away work from apprentices and journeymen and breaks down working conditions.