Most of us don’t understand the complex systems that must be repaired and maintained to make the lights go on when we flip a switch. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) do. They also know how power companies staff the jobs to repair and maintain that equipment. Here’s a hint: They don’t use full-time employees working for ConEd or PG&E. And vaccine mandates and passports could get in the way.
A network of contractors employ linemen, who generally flock to the scene in advance when the weather patterns predict severe storms in a particular area. There are also archaic rules about which contractors can serve different regions based on union regulations. For example, non-union contractors from the South are generally not allowed to work in New York and California. Usually, IBEW linemen from Midwestern contractors would have been flooding to the Northeast before yesterday’s storm that left around 600,000 residents in several states without power. This time they didn’t.
In fact, according to one senior member of an IBEW local in the Midwest, the contractors did not even attempt to raise crews to go. This lineworker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that even if the call had gone out, almost no one would have volunteered. Anyone who did would be looked upon as a scab and have difficulty getting jobs out of the union hall in the future. Unions have ways to encourage solidarity. While the union contract prevents these workers from striking, working on a storm crew is voluntary. No employer can compel an IBEW member to go.
According to informal polling out of the halls, the men in these muscular jobs in flyover country who worked consistently during lockdowns have very low vaccination rates. While storm crews are an excellent way to make double-time for every hour worked, this lineworker reports it is not worth the hassle in places with vaccine mandates. When they flocked to New Orleans after Hurricane Ida earlier this summer, vaccine passports made it impossible for these workers to get a meal in a restaurant or a cup of coffee in a local convenience store.
When I asked this lineworker why he thought the rates were reportedly so low, he said that many of his coworkers had already recovered from COVID-19. He added that others had religious objections and some were worried about the potential for cardiac side effects that could take them out of their job. Among his vaccinated coworkers, he reports that none of them are willing to take a booster.
In his region, the contractors are not implementing vaccine mandates, a position supported by the IBEW locals. The local situation departs from the International IBEW, which expressed support for mandates, aligned with the AFL-CIO’s stance. This lineman shared how the political differences between the members and the International have been widening for years now. Many members in his region do not think the International represents their interests, and the locals will act independently on behalf of members.
It is not clear how an OSHA vaccine mandate might impact this workforce. Linemen are not a dime a dozen. Training to repair and maintain the grid’s complex equipment takes years. The halls already have a hard time acquiring people with the intellectual capabilities to understand the technical side who are also willing to do the very physical work. These men are in buckets fixing lines in the bitter cold and the sweltering heat and have to maintain a laser focus on the job at hand. One misstep could be deadly.
These men also know how badly our leaders lie about providing green energy in states like California because they maintain the systems that pump it in from other states and Canada using fossil fuels. This lineman is also warning that the same supply chain issues impacting store shelves will affect the electrical grid. There are already significant slowdowns in regular jobs to maintain the grid. Utility companies are also under pressure to finish scheduled projects before the end of the year.
The materials and equipment they need are not made in the U.S., according to this worker. Wire comes from Canada and China. The big transformers that power the substations are produced in two places, Israel and South Korea. Foreign policy impacts these supply chains, and coddling China and Iran is not the best approach. He also thinks the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement doesn’t understand the implications of eliminating purchases from Israel.
So, if you are a politician or a person who fully supports the vaccine passports and mandates, prepare to enjoy the cold and the dark. You might want to install a landline, especially if you live in a union shop state. A considerable percentage of the workforce that arrives to restore power after powerful winter storms are taking their labor off the table. If your attorney general is signed on to fight the vaccine mandates, breathe a sigh of relief. They tell me help will be on the way.