It’s really pretty straightforward says Don Aragón, president of VA Electric, Albuquerque, NM. How you want to work and who you want to work with is simply a fundamental freedom. Don is a Marine veteran, and anything that infringes on fundamental freedoms can be more than disappointing.
The story of his company, started by his dad in 1989, reflects a series of unfortunate incidences of union interference that caused great hardship for the company. Now extracted from that crushing obstruction, Don wants to be certain that his shop — and many others of his IEC colleagues — are protected from unfair business practices knowingly and unknowingly put into place to benefit one class of business over another. That’s why he has been involved with the IEC Government Affairs Committee since 2018 and currently serves as chair of the IEC Political Action Committee.
“My dad started the company and was a NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association) contractor,” Don says. “It took about two years for it to become totally apparent that the local union didn’t really care about him. The local would staff his jobs with unqualified people who could not even gain access to government facilities while sending the qualified journeymen to the large union contractors who were well represented among the local union leadership. There was a process of picking winners and losers and when my dad questioned that, there was no relief.”
Realizing it wasn’t going to get better, his dad tried to get out of the union. After writing the necessary letter to distance himself, he was ready to move forward. But that was not to be. Don says about a year later his dad received a letter from the National Labor Relations Board telling him there had been a legal action brought against him by the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) with a list of actions he must take, like letting go of his non-union workers.
“I was deployed 2,000 miles away and wishing I were there to help him out,” Don recalls. “My dad and brother worked 49 straight 16-hour days to fulfill the government contracts they had. Trying to fight this action with the pro-union government of the Clinton administration, he was poised to lose. I realized then and there that unions are not organizations for the betterment of this country.”
Don is clear to say he is advocating free choice, not anti-union.
“I want the basic concept of freedom that this country was founded on, and freedom to choose who you want to associate with, who you want to pay dues to, where you want to work. Those are some pretty basic freedoms in my mind, and that’s the message I want my representatives to hear.”
Don acknowledges that unions do provide benefits to some folks and wishes well to those who choose this path. That’s the key word — choose. Each individual should be able to choose their path. And that is why he is adamant about spreading that message through IEC advocacy.
IEC Government Affairs
Jason Todd is IEC’s vice president of government affairs and in an over-simplified explanation, his role is to be the interface between the U.S. government and IEC merit shop electrical contractor members. It’s a two-way street.
“My job is to advocate on critical issues that impact our members,” Jason says. “I put myself out there — meeting one-on-one with legislative staff and attending events where there may be opportunities to increase the visibility of IEC and present its position on issues.”
The other side of the street? Jason works with the IEC Government Affairs Committee and individual members to prioritize the issues that need to be addressed. In the same arena, he regularly publishes legislative email updates (IEC Insider; Capitol Connection) that are circulated to IEC’s membership to help them stay or become informed on issues presenting themselves that may have huge impact on their businesses.
“99.99 percent of the members of Congress are not electricians and many do not have experience running businesses,” he notes. “They count on their constituents to inform and educate them on areas where legislation can help them as well as where legislation or policy can hurt them.”
Jason points to a recent initiative where IEC action made a difference — the Federal Highway Administration’s final rule for the National Electrical Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program that guides the roll out of a network of EV chargers funded by the bipartisan infrastructure program. The final rule permits electricians that have graduated or received a continuing education certificate that includes charger-specific training from a registered program to install, operate, or maintain EV chargers funded through the NEVI program. IEC successfully modified the proposed rule, which originally had limited installation and service to electricians that went through the union-run Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program only.
Member Involvement with their Legislators is Key
Helping IEC members become comfortable initiating meetings and conversations with their representatives is another priority of Jason’s. In fact, he’s leading a session to provide best practices and strategies, as well as in-depth analysis of current issues, at the June 20-22 IEC Workforce Development and Policy Conference. Prior to the conference, IEC will provide registrants access to an online course they can take at their own pace that helps educate members on basic tenets of advocacy. He always encourages members to reach out to their representatives even before there is a policy issue they wish to address.
“Invite your local representative to visit your shop or invite them to attend an apprentice class to see what you do to prepare future electricians,” Jason says. “Let them get to know you so when they are presented with an issue that will affect our industry, they know they can talk with you to gain perspective.”
“So often in business we get overwhelmed with what we have going on right now in front of us managing day-to-day, that we don’t pay attention to these long lead issues that are really important,” he says. “Before you know it, there’s a new rule or a new law passed that really impacts you and it’s then even harder to deal with the impact.”
In New Mexico, Don references a county project labor agreement (PLA) that made employing union workers a requirement for city contracts over $10 million. This had been brewing for a while but was off Don’s radar. He first learned about it on the news when it had just been voted on and passed. He says all of a sudden, his company was kept out of the bidding for a lot of the work that it used to actively bid on and earn.
“I learned that we have to keep on top of what’s brewing in our government both locally and nationally and we have to keep our eyes open,” Don says. “That’s why people like Jason Todd at National are important because it’s his job to keep us informed of issues in Washington and he does a good job of it.”
PLAs have been a problem on the National stage as well. In spite of efforts by IEC and others to oppose PLAs on federal construction projects valued at above $35 million, President Biden pushed it through on executive order.
“IEC’s merit shop electrical contractors object to the Biden administration implementing policies that blatantly favor labor unions,” said Thayer Long, IEC CEO. “Instead of fair and open competition for federally funded construction projects, the administration has chosen to discriminate against the 87 percent of the industry’s workforce that chooses not to be unionized. This anti-competitive policy will increase the cost to the American taxpayer, exacerbate workforce shortages, and limit opportunities for small contractors interested in rebuilding and repairing our nation’s infrastructure.”
While the merit shop didn’t win here, it has to keep fighting Don says. It can be a battle, and it often is hard to meet with legislators. Don mentions a newsletter he received recently from one of his senators, Martin Heinrich. In it, Don says the senator talked about how great the unions were and how they need to stay strong so that they can continue to defeat the low-road contractors.
“Those were the exact words he used, and I was floored,” Don says. “Thank you very much Senator Heinrich. I am going to reach out to him at the June meeting in D.C. and I’m going to bring that article and ask him to explain what he meant by that. Maybe it won’t change his view but maybe he’ll hear a lesson there from a hard and valued worker in his constituency.”
Don points also to why it’s important for IEC members to support the IEC PAC.
“By combining our thoughts and, yes, our dollars, perhaps we can help get the merit shop better represented in Congress,” he says. “As PAC chair, I am extremely proud to report that we raised 7 percent more in 2021 than in 2020 and 29 percent more in 2022 than 2021. I am the proudest, however, that we are educating more IEC members on government affairs.”
Getting it Done Locally
IEC chapters play an important role in promoting IEC advocacy. While none of IEC’s 53 chapters have a staff member dedicated solely to government affairs, executive directors regularly engage with IEC National and their contractor members to encourage active involvement in their regions.
Niel Dawson, executive director for both IEC Atlanta and IEC Georgia, is passionate about doing his part. These chapters work closely with IEC National. For local issues, they employ a lobbyist as part of the Specialty Contractors Coalition, who acts on their combined behalf.
The coalition includes IEC Atlanta, IEC Georgia, the local NECA chapter, Georgia Sheet Metal Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, the Mechanical Contractors Association of Georgia, and Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors Association of Georgia.
“Union and non-union shops have the same business issues,” Niel says. “Labor, that’s a different story of course. We believe we have more power if we can go to legislators and say we all agree or disagree on a topic.”
In addition, the lobbyist sends Niel’s team various alerts and weekly reports. Niel then disseminates appropriate information to his boards and government affairs committees to gain their input.
In recent years, they’ve had a couple of major wins.
“Senate Bill 379 passed last year, a career initiative bill which helps give funding to apprenticeship programs,” Niel notes. “I sent information on this accomplishment out to our members to let them know they could now apply and receive up to $50,000 in funding by working through the State Board of the Technical College System of Georgia.”
In another instance, Niel and two of his board members attended a fundraiser for the Atlanta mayor. Somewhat small in scale — about 50-60 people — the program began with short self-introductions by those in attendance. The three of them each identified electrical and the IEC apprenticeship program when introducing themselves.
“When the mayor followed with his introduction, his speech, he referred to electrical three or four different times,” Niel says. “That’s advocacy at the grassroots level — getting your name out there. We had multiple people coming up to us afterward as well because people don’t always know who we are, what we do, and the extent of merit shops.”
This opens some doors — they’ll be meeting with the labor commissioner, a senator, and with about 10 other associations host their annual legislative reception with around 100 legislators in attendance. He also plans to have a number of his members at the IEC Workforce Development and Policy Conference in June.
“It is so valuable to attend the IEC conference,” Niel says. “Not only from the point of view that these are the issues we must be following legislatively, but it’s an incredible learning experience going to meet your member of Congress.”
Don’s 1-2-3 to Becoming Involved
1.Go to the IEC website and become PAC authorized.
This opens you up to receiving more information on what’s going on – action alerts – point-by-point docs you can take to your legislator and even personalize a bit.
2. Act on those action alerts.
Become educated on what’s going on
3. Contribute to the IEC PAC.
It takes $$ to run for office and IEC wants to be able to support those who align with our positions.
Spread the Word
Don Aragón wants all to encourage the positives of working for a merit shop electrical contractor, and offers these examples of posters from an IEC chapter.