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IBEW Union electricians. A cultural study by Jessica Brown. What is culture?.

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ibew union electricians

IBEW Union electricians

A cultural study by Jessica Brown

what is culture
What is culture?

This is a cultural model, based off of Edward Tylor’s definition of culture: “Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Basically, our learned thoughts and beliefs shape who we are, and what our culture is.

a little background
A little background…
  • Unions have been a part of our country’s history since the end of the Civil War.
  • They began as one response to modern industrial economy.
  • The idea behind unions is organization of the laborers in order to gain power in the workplace.
  • They wanted to have regulated pay, work hours, and to have a political voice.
  • Though unions today have less influence than they once did, there are still a few very notable unions in the workforce.
international brotherhood of electrical workers
international brotherhood of electrical workers

IBEW, for short. This union represents men and women electricians. There are many companies that you know that are part of the IBEW, such as Cache Valley Electric and Wasatch Electric. Most large electrical companies in Utah employ union workers. My informant, Derek Brown, currently works for Cache Valley. He is a part of Local 354, which is the section of the union for our area.

the electrician s cultural diagram
theElectrician’s cultural diagram

The main belief that stands out among members of the IBEW is a strong emphasis on the Brotherhood. They believe that, because a person is in the Union with them, they are like brothers. They should be treated as such. This leads them to act like family, helping and supporting each other on and off the job site.

hierarchy of electricians
Hierarchy of electricians
  • A materials handler is usually a person that works on the job site, but has not yet been accepted in to the apprenticeship.
  • The apprentices are the bottom of the ladder. They are in a five year program to become Journeymen, and each year they earn more respect in the trade. (ex. First year apprentices aren’t as cool as third or fourth years.)
  • Journeymen are the next level up. They have completed their apprenticeship and are now in charge of the apprentices.
  • Foremen are in charge of groups of journeymen and apprentices on a job.
  • A general foreman is the next level up, and is over a group of foremen.
  • The superintendent is the “head honcho” of the job. They are in charge of everything.
  • There are also corporate level hierarchies, but these are the positions we will focus on.

The main theme of the IBEW union is brotherhood. It is the belief that the people in your union are like family. One brother helps another to the best of his abilities. They stick together in every situation, from strikes to Labor Day celebrations.

brotherhood comes first
“brotherhood comes first”
  • This is what my informant says is the central belief of the IBEW community.
  • There are some brothers that believe this so strongly, that they think if someone doesn’t help a brother with the fullest of your abilities (no matter what that may mean) that person is a traitor of the brotherhood.
  • The brothers that aren’t super active in the brotherhood are not the favorites.
  • Most of the IBEW members are strong in the brotherhood and do everything they can to support their brothers, in any situation.
other ibew beliefs
Other IBEW beliefs
  • All products that can be, should be made in the USA.
  • Keep the jobs here. Don’t send them overseas.
  • Fair pay – “8 for 8” – this means that you work eight hours, and you get paid for eight hours.
    • (I thought this was something everyone believed in…but this belief exists BECAUSE of unions!)

Made in America

Fair Pay

where when and how do union members gather to practice their beliefs
Where, when, and how do union members gather to “practice” their beliefs?

It isn’t exactly a religion, but some of the brothers take it just as seriously.

  • The IBEW has monthly meetings to discuss current issues. They gather in the Union Hall and vote on issues if they need to.
  • The IBEW and other unions host a Labor Day party every year in Magna to celebrate organized labor.
  • Apprentices also gather in the Union Hall for their school time, which happens for one week; once every seven weeks.
what else is sacred to the ibew
What else is sacred to the IBEW?
  • Weekends exist because of unions.
  • Holidays – especially Labor Day – are important to members of the IBEW.
  • When a union worker has to work on the weekend, they get extra compensation (regardless of overtime)
  • “You don’t mess with a man’s lunch!” –Derek Brown
  • The break room (or tent, depending on the job) is a kind of sacred place.
  • The workers get to have a moment to themselves during the work day.

Weekends and Holidays


national electrical code
National Electrical Code
  • The code is something that all electricians have to follow in order to work on electrical systems.
  • The code book describes the code as “the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity.”
  • There are safety personnel on each job site to make sure the code is being followed, and that everyone is practicing their electrical work safely.
the education of an ibew electrician
The education of an IBEW electrician
  • According to my informant, most of the culture knowledge is learned through hands-on experience. They learn on the job.
  • The main instructor is an apprentice’s journeyman. There is supposed to be one journeyman for every apprentice.
  • There are also classes, once every seven weeks, where they learn the “old-fashioned way” in a classroom with textbooks and work sheets.
experiences that can aide in becoming a union electrician
Experiences that can aide in becoming a union electrician

I asked my informant about things in his childhood and other experiences prior to joining the union. These are the ones he shared that helped him most with his current position.

  • “My whole life I have enjoyed working with my hands. As soon as my dad thought I was old enough, he let me help him fix things and use his tools. That’s the youngest I can remember about learning things that were beneficial to my current career.” –Derek Brown
  • He also worked for his uncle, who is a non-union electrician, for a year before he was accepted into the Union. This helped him to be a quick learner once he joined the IBEW.
  • He also said that paying attention to math in high school is a big deal if you are looking in to a career in this field.
safety gear of electricians
Safety Gear of Electricians
  • On the job, electricians are required to wear the following:
    • Safety vests
    • Hard hats
    • Steel-toe boots
    • Protective eye wear
    • Gloves
  • Most of them also wear “bibs,” or coveralls, to protect their clothing. The bibs also provide extra pockets and weather protection.

Safety Gear

Electricians at Work

electrician s salary
Electrician’s Salary
  • Electricians, even as apprentices, are paid a decent wage.
  • Thanks to the Union, they have a guaranteed pay that they start with, and guaranteed raises every six months.
  • The Union also ensures that their workers will be paid overtime when they work over 40 hours a week, as well as if they work on weekends.
  • When I asked my informant what his ideal salary is, he said $35.00 or more per hour! This is about what a journeyman makes at the end of his or her apprenticeship.
  • “Borrowing another worker’s tools without permission.
  • Using another crew’s tool for your own crew without permission.
  • Leaving shared tools in a state that is unusable or inconvenient for other workers.
  • Leaving a work area in an unclean or unsafe situation.
  • Apprentices can be disrespectful by ignoring the instructions of their “elders” (so to speak) and by not following their instructions.
  • Not wasting another brother’s time.
  • Allowing someone to use your personal tools is a HUGE display of respect and trust for that person.
  • In contrast, politely asking to borrow another’s tools and returning them in good condition also displays respect.
  • More experienced workers show respect to less experienced workers by teaching them how to do things, instead of simply ordering them to do things.



people that show respect or don t
People that show respect . . .or don’t

These positions, generally, are ones that are more respectful to others:

  • Apprentices
  • Journeymen
  • Some Foremen

In contrast, these positions display less respect toward their fellow workers:

  • Head hunters
  • Most foremen
a quick observation
A quick observation . . .

These are a few things I’ve noticed in situations when I have been around a group of IBEW electricians.

  • First of all, if you think sailors cuss, you should hear these electricians! They have crude nicknames for almost everything and everyone, and they use swear words like regular vocabulary.
  • I have also noticed their emphasis on brotherhood, on and off the job. They often go out of the way to help each other, whether that means helping a brother move some furniture or fixing a car for them.
  • Once, when we were shopping, another electrician saw my informant’s IBEW t-shirt and literally said, “Hello, Brother!” That was something I never thought I’d hear outside of my church!
  • They also communicate in humorous ways, using lots of sarcasm.
symbolic culture
Symbolic culture
  • Unity
  • Brotherhood
  • Friendship
  • Support

This “bug” can be seen on almost every car in a union job’s parking lot. It is the seal of the union, and is basically sacred to anyone who is a member.

IBEW “bug”

What it means…

ibew bug stickers
IBEW “bug” stickers

These bumper stickers have great meaning to people involved in the union, and they’re free! So, everyone has at least one. They put them on their cars, their hard hats, and even their lunch boxes.

  • When I asked my informant if there were any specific stories about the bug, this is something he shared with me:
    • “I have heard stories about wives or daughters of people in the union that are broken down on the side of a road somewhere, and because they had a bug in their back window, a fellow brother stopped to help them out. This is why I made you put one on your Jeep!”
    • (did I mention my informant is my husband?)
  • The IBEW is constantly adapting.
    • The need for electricians is not a constant. Sometimes many are needed, and sometimes hardly any can be used.
    • It all depends on the economy, and how many construction sites are running at the time.
    • The Union Hall always has a list of what jobs are available, and how many people are needed for each job.
    • When more electricians are needed, more apprentices are accepted in to the program. Likewise, when less are needed, applicants are put on a waiting list. (My informant was on a waiting list for 3 years!)
in conclusion
In conclusion

Studying the subculture of IBEW electricians has helped me to understand the mindset of working in a union. I has also helped me to understand some of the things my husband does!

  • The thoughts and beliefs of the IBEW:
    • Brotherhood comes first, and the workplace should be a fair and safe place.
  • What these thoughts and beliefs lead to:
    • IBEW electricians have more family because they are in the union. They treat each other like brothers, and are there for each other on and off the job site.
    • Their belief in a fair work environment leads them to run their union like a democracy, where everyone gets a direct say in everything that happens in their careers.
    • Their electrical code leads them to act safely and responsibly, for they are working in a dangerous field of work!
  • How else their beliefs are displayed:
    • They all proudly display their union seal on their cars.
  • Nancy Bonvillain, Cultural Anthropology, 2nd ed., 2010, Prentice Hall, Pearson.
  • My personal field notes
    • A special thanks to my informant, Derek Brown
  • http://www.shmoop.com/history-labor-unions/
  • http://www.mackinac.org/2305
  • Google Images search