Organizing: The Lifeblood of Our Union

Local 11 Organizing Director Robert Corona Emphasizes the Need for Growth

Robert Corona, a proud 30-year IBEW 11 member, has served as the local’s Organizing Director for more than 10 years. After all the local has given to him, Corona believes in giving back to the local by being an active member, teaching apprentices, volunteering at events and training the next generation of organizers. Corona believes that there’s nothing more gratifying than organizing members into the IBEW 11 family and seeing the way that lives are changed. He has built the IBEW 11 Organizing Department into a powerful force. With nine full-time organizers, Local 11 is one of the IBEW’s largest organizing departments in the country.

News@11 recently spoke with Corona.

Q: Why is organizing important?
Organizing is the lifeblood of any union. Without organizing, you don’t have growth. It’s the members that make the union strong. The more members you have, the more work you can control.

Q: What are some of the different aspects of your job?
There are three components to organizing.

  • You organize the non-union electricians, so they become members.
  • You organize the work. We do that by going to city council meetings, working with politicians and the political process.
  • You organize the contractor, getting them to sign up with NECA.

As an organizer, you can be talking to a non-union contractor in the morning, to non-union electricians in the afternoon, and talking to politicians at one of their events in the evening. It’s not just walking jobs. It’s speaking at city council meetings, in public forums, at community events and at the job site. It’s talking to the contractor and keeping a level head when they yell at you.

We have nine organizers, one for each of the six districts, and a few general organizers. We currently have an organizer who deals specifically with veterans. Veterans make great members because they’re disciplined and used to taking orders and being on time.

Q: What’s it like in the field?
Some contractors are better than others. 50% are hostile, 25% refuse to see us, and 25% we can actually have a conversation. That’s why we do so much role playing with our new organizers. We try to meet every week to go over problems, issues, and do some role playing on what you’ll confront on the jobsite. One of us will play the “hostile” contractor, and let the organizer know what they’re up against, how they can’t lose their cool.

We used to have video cameras to document these hostile encounters if we ever needed to go to court. We’re allowed to be on public property and to talk to the electrical workers during lunch and breaks. But the contractors aren’t always happy about it.

Q: What qualities do you look for in hiring an organizer?
You’re a disciple for the union when you’re out there. It’s your duty to explain why union is better. We have to live and breathe unionism. It’s like preaching the union gospel. So, what do we look for?

  • Someone who has the respect of their peers in the field. That means people will listen to them, especially if they have a reputation as a good worker.
  • Someone with supervisory experience, running work as a foreman. That way, they know how to successfully deal with different personalities.
  • And we look for people who are active in their union, people who go to meetings, volunteer at events and give back. This isn’t just a 7 a.m. to 4 p.m job; this is 24/7. You might get a call from someone at 7 pm and you have to take it, especially if it’s about safety on a job site that you have to deal with the next day. This is a real brotherhood and sisterhood. We change people’s lives.

Q: What has been your most gratifying experience during your time with Local 11?
There’s so many, but I recall going to an apprentice graduation a few years back and an electrician I had brought into the union reached out to me and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but you brought me into the union, and it changed my life. And it changed my son’s life. I’m here for his graduation today, so thank you.”

I was really touched, but I told him, “I just showed you the door. You walked through it.”

It feels very gratifying to know you’ve changed people’s lives and affected multiple generations and brought people into the middle class.

Q: How did you get involved with IBEW 11?
I was in the U.S. Air Force for four years, came home, got a job at the refinery for two years, where I became a steward for the union there. Then one day I saw some electricians working at the refinery and I was interested. So, I applied and was eventually accepted into the union.

I actually took a pay cut to join IBEW 11. I went from making $16 an hour to $8 at the time. I had a wife and a family to support, but they told me they would teach me a trade. And it’s been very good for me and my family. I was blessed to be able to join IBEW Local 11.

Q: What has been one of your biggest successes as an organizer?
It’s not always the big jobs you remember. In fact, so many of the big shops today are all union because they were started by our members – CSI, Morrow Meadows, Rosendin. All the bigger jobs with PLA’s have to be union. But it’s the smaller contractors you flip that you remember. There was a non-union contractor in the San Fernando Valley – PowerCo Electric – back in 1999. We were much more militant then. We picketed in front of the contractor’s jobs, we closed down the gate where they were working. Then we picketed in front of his gated community.

There was another contractor, Iron Mountain in Carson in 2005-06. They were residential satellite installers. We held job actions, and it ended up going to an NLRB election. We started with seven employees, and finally got 15 into the union. We won the election from the bottom up.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge of organizing?
The last few years under [former President] Trump were tough for the labor movement. He made so many changes that weakened our labor boards. That’s why politics matters. It’s so vital that we change and strengthen the labor laws. But they’re slowly coming back under President Biden.

The biggest jobs all have PLA’s and they’re union. But we still have tons of non-union commercial and residential work that needs to be organized. Aerospace too.

Q: What does a day in life of an organizer look like?
That’s a good question. You might start out cold-calling a shop and telling them you’re coming out. Then you go out to the job site, and maybe you get yelled at, and you have to be polite and hand them your card.

Sometimes we get tips from workers asking us to come to the job. At other times, the contractors call in to us wanting to become signatories so they can go after the bigger jobs. You definitely need persistence to be a good organizer.

Q: What do you find to be the biggest objection about joining the union from non-union electricians?
Fear of change. We find that so many non-union electricians in the field are just resistant to change. They hear all these rumors about the union being bad and just taking your money, that you’ll be out of work. So, our job is to convince them. They can make $30 per hour as a non-union electrician, but $50 per hour as a union electrician.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from members who finally do join the union: “I wish I’d done it sooner.” Or “You changed my life.” When you hear that, that’s a good day.

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