The IBEW Electrician Strike Says a Lot About the Future of Unions

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 Table of Contents 

  1. IBEW Local 46
  2. Why Strike 
  3. The Complications of NECA/IBEW Strikes
  4. How This Impacts the Public
  5. Unfair Treatment of Union Workers
  6. The History of Unions and Electrical Workers
  7. NECA Labor Strikes
  8. The Future of Unions and Strikes

IBEW Local 46  

An electricians' strike, now in its fourth week, is approaching a crucial juncture. The union contract covering more than 1,000 Limited Energy Electricians represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 46 in the Puget Sound area in Washington expired on March 31st. The union agreed to a 10-day extension while they continued to bargain over wages and quality-of-life issues with the NECA, (National Electrical Contractors Association), but since that extension, the union has yet to see change that would result in a higher-quality work environment.  

Limited Energy Electricians have extensive training in various systems and are well-versed in the latest technologies, with continuing education and regular license renewal required. This union unrest is a result of these workers being paid significantly less than other Puget Sound-area unionized electricians. To make matters more challenging, NECA negotiators have refused to grant them something that most workers have: paid holidays. 

As of April 25th, the Limited Energy Electricians’ strike is ongoing, even after the negotiating team repeatedly met with NECA. Picket lines continue throughout the Puget Sound area and strike training continues at the union hall.  



Why Strike? 

When the union pointed out that its massive wage disparity makes it harder to attract and retain Limited Energy Electricians, NECA negotiators have been dismissive, suggesting that there will “always be other workers willing to take their place.”  

“This unit has stood strong this entire time,” expressed Sean Bagsby, Business Manager/Financial Secretary for IBEW 46. “It’s most disappointing that the NECA does not value these incredible workers. The comments and opinions from the contractor negotiators are offensive and will not be tolerated,” Bagsby said. “The days of disposable humans are long gone and shall never return.” 

Since January, the union has been bargaining for better wages, paid holidays, and a fair contract to replace the one that expired on March 31. However, the union reported Wednesday that NECA negotiators have “refused to make any movement” from an offer that was unanimously rejected by its members. 


NECA feels that their original contract, set up in 2021, still stands as fair and just in today's labor sectors. They maintain an anti-strike clause for their partners while under contract. This prevents delays in labor-intensive projects that fall under the NECA’s umbrella. Their refusal to negotiate stems from their hope of maintaining compressible, long-term contracts that can last for years to equitably manage their many contractors with differing or competing interests. 

Additionally, this hope of minimizing strikes and labor stoppage comes as a direct response to the many project pauses during the pandemic. We briefly covered in our previous blog how the pandemic affected electrician apprenticeships as well as the completion of electrical projects. The NECA is working hard to maintain fair, long-term contracts that would prevent further delays.  


The Complications of NECA/IBEW Strikes 

When it comes to ranking convoluted problems, electrician strikes (especially amongst other labor strikes) tend to land somewhere above detangling a spiderweb. There are several reasons for this. First, both NECA and IBEW are organized at the national and the local level making it challenging to communicate effectively. To get a clear picture of this complex network, NECA has 119 Chapters across the country. For NECA National to interact with the Chapter staff across the country, they must communicate through an appointed Governor.  

In a similar way, the IBEW has 11 districts across the U.S and represents workers in Canada as well. In total, IBEW has over 2,300 Local unions and represents approximately 750,000 members who work in utilities, construction, telecommunications, broadcasting, manufacturing, railroads, and government. With so many cogs moving on a nationwide scale, it’s no wonder these strikes tend to last a while.  


How This Impacts the Public 

What happens to the public when a labor strike carries over month after month?  This effectively puts electrical work on hold, so if you’re working on any kind of new construction in the Local where a strike is happening, it will likely remain unfinished until the strike resolves. While this may seem like a pain, a Gallop poll released in late 2023 showed that most Americans support unionized labor strikes, regardless of the impact on their daily lives. In the case of the IBEW Local 46 strike, more than 200 supporters rallied Monday at Bellevue Downtown Park to show their solidarity. Members and leaders from multiple unions declared their support for “as long as it takes” for the electricians to get a fair contract. 

Now, on the other hand, should the public choose to side against strikers, this tends to bring about more animosity between laborers and consumers. A strike doesn’t hold much weight when the public actively fights back against unions. This has not happened in most recent cases.  

Electricians choosing to strike can cause delays in a handful of industries including transportation and infrastructure. If IBEW Local 46 finds it beneficial to remain on strike until they get the results that they want, this may have long-term challenges for anyone involved in those industries. 

Overall, an electrician strike causes minimal disruption to everyday life and finds support from the majority of Americans. 



Unfair Treatment of Union Workers 

While poor wages and working conditions were not nearly as drastic as they once were, unionized workers have always fought for the best possible work quality. Historically, hostile employers and anti-labor prejudice had once been horrific. Beatings and blacklistings were common, and as such, members concealed their “tickets” (or union cards) in their shoes as they traveled from place to place seeking employment.  

One account recalls the experience of a member traveling by boxcar to Cripple Creek, Colorado to find work. He was dragged from the car and searched; when an NBEW card was found in his pocket, he was chained to a tree, whipped, and shipped out of town on the next freight train. 

There haven’t been accounts of this kind of violence against unions for quite some time, but mistreatment doesn’t have to be violent for it to be unfair.  

The History of Unions and Electrical Workers 

Over the course of U.S. history, we’ve seen more than our fair share of strikes involving electrical workers, with the first recorded labor strike being in 1906. 

The surge in unionizing began years ago when the public demand for electricity increased and the number of electrical workers grew. These unions were formed due to employers keeping wages low by hiring an untrained workforce. Without proper training, the industry was overrun by individuals with inadequate skills and insufficient knowledge to practice the trade safety. This is where the surge in unionism began.  


By 1880, enough telegraph linemen had organized themselves to form a local assembly, which affiliated with the Knights of Labor, an important labor organization of the day that was established in 1869. From there, more workers began forming smaller unions until the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers formed in 1891. 

The drafters of the NBEW Constitution established an apprenticeship system to raise standards in the trade and prevent unnecessary incidents. This system required a minimum of 3 years of training under the supervision of a journeyman before an applicant could become eligible for membership. The apprenticeship also limited the ratio of apprentices to journeymen. Later, an apprentice was required to pass an examination before being admitted to membership in a local union. 


NECA Labor Strikes 

Success in NECA-IBEW negotiations hinges on many factors that can sometimes lie outside of the negotiators’ control. These include things like as the state of the industry, inflation, and settlements reached by other trades and their respective management associations, as well as the individual personalities of those at the negotiating table and their respective bargaining processes. What every negotiation has in common is that their success, especially on behalf of the union workers, depends heavily on the quality of the relationships and the degree of trust between the two negotiating teams.  



The Future of Unions and Strikes 

Union membership rates had seen a steady decline between 2010 and 2020, making strikes — one of the most powerful ways for organized labor to fight for higher wages — considerably less effective. That doesn’t mean, however, that the landscape for union workers is bleak. In 2023, nearly half a million workers in the US went on strike, making it one of the most prominent years for industrial action since 1990. 

Despite the high-profile strikes of 2023, workforce union membership in the US remains firmly around the 10 percent mark, with no real movement from the previous year. In part, this is accounted for by a growing overall workforce, which is growing at the same pace or faster than union membership. However, polling from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a growing popularity for union membership and strike action, suggesting strikes are here to stay and will contribute to be a new norm of elevated industrial action in the country. 


1 comment

  • Posted on by Constant Voltage LED Driver with Junction Box
    The updates you have provided above are actually great. Thank you very much for providing that useful information. The history of union workers is explained very nicely. Thanks. Constant Voltage LED Driver with Junction Box

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