Idaho utility workers have been assaulted, threatened and shot at, and that’s not everything. Now, they have a new law to protect them, and it’s thanks in part to powerful IBEW testimony and a willingness to find common ground with a Republican-dominated Legislature that took the time to listen to unions.
“This is about hardworking people who are in harm’s way,” said Seattle Local 77 journeyman lineman Kyle Beierle, who was involved in the lobbying effort. “This bill isn’t union versus nonunion, it’s a bill for people who are just doing their jobs. And it’s been a long time coming.”
On March 25, Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, signed Senate Bill 1321 into law. The bill adds utility employees to a list of personnel who are protected with enhanced punishments if someone commits assault or battery against them, putting them in the same category as law enforcement officers, judges, corrections workers, emergency dispatchers, firefighters and Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation employees.
The law, which went into effect July 1, was sorely needed according to testimony from IBEW members and other affected workers. They’ve had dogs unleashed on them, shotguns brandished, death threats made and vehicles used as weapons, to name just a few of the incidents presented to legislators before the bill passed.
“We have sheriff’s office reports from Grangeville to Grandview to Rigby. This is occurring across the state, across different utilities, and it does seem to be increasing in frequency,” Idaho AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director Jason Hudson told the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee. “I have talked to several people who have been in the industry for many, many years across the state and almost universally what I hear is, there’s always been problems out there, but in the last five years it’s gotten a whole lot worse.”
A similar bill passed in neighboring Washington in 2019, but Idaho is not Washington, says Seattle Local 77 Assistant Business Manager Mike Brown. Washington is the third most union-dense state in the country, whereas Idaho has had right-to-work since 1985.
“It’s not favorable in Idaho and hasn’t been for a long time,” Brown said of the state’s political climate. “We’re usually just playing defense.”
But a few years ago, Brown, Beierle, Hudson and then-Local 77 Political Director Sean Bagsby got together to strategize about how they could do more in the deeply red state where Local 77 has jurisdiction in the northern region.
“For years we heard we couldn’t get anything done,” Brown said. “We were done with that mentality.”
So, they started looking for ways to build bipartisanship and in particular make inroads into the Republican party, which holds 84 of the state’s 105 legislative seats. One way they did that was by attending Republican political dinners. They even bought tables and made sure to donate at a level that would require the local’s name to be read aloud from the stage.
“We got some stares, but we just kept going,” Brown said. “We’re just people, just working people. We wanted to let them know that we’re not a bunch of heathens because we’re in a union.”
Their plan didn’t work overnight, but it did work. Eventually they built those relationships and that led to the utility assault bill, with Republican sponsors in both the House and Senate.
“Local 77 was the driving factor in making these protections for public utility workers a reality,” Hudson said. “They committed to the idea, invested the time to work together with the Idaho AFL-CIO to build a plan, and then had the patience to stick to the plan even when things sometimes seemed to be moving slowly.”
From there, it was the personal stories of those who testified and lobbied the legislators, including IBEW members, that ultimately brought the bill over the finish line.
“The testimony of our members was massive,” said Brown, who was among those who spoke to the Legislature and once had a person threaten him with a chainsaw.
One story that stood out came from Local 77 member Eric York. In 2018, the Idaho County Light and Power lineman was held at gunpoint — after being hit in the head with the barrel of the gun so hard that it drew blood — and forced to give up his utility truck. The man who committed the assault got barely more than a slap on the wrist, with a sentence of just 30 days in jail to be served at his leisure and 100 hours of community service.
“I’m really not familiar with addressing legislators or anything like that, but I wanted to help get the bill through,” York said. “It’s nice to know that we have more protection now, and that people might actually refrain.”
Local 77 member Ben Cook also testified, and then stuck around after to speak to as many members as possible.
“I felt that it was beneficial for the legislation to put a face on the bill so they weren’t just reading a piece of paper,” said Cook, who also told a story of having a gun pulled on him.
Local 77 was joined in its efforts by Salt Lake City Local 57, Boise Local 291, and Pocatello Local 449, all of which have members who would be impacted by the new law, in addition to workers from other unions like the Communications Workers of America and the Plumbers and Pipefitters.
“The beauty of this bill is that it’s not just a lineman’s bill, it covers anyone regulated by a utility commission,” Beierle said. “We did this for all of us.”
Idaho joins 15 other states in increasing penalties for assault against utility workers. And while Washington is one of those states, Beierle and Brown said they used Tennessee’s passage when lobbying since it’s politically more similar.
“We never mentioned Washington. Ever,” Brown said.
The lobbying team was also run out of Local 77’s Spokane office on the state’s eastern side, closer to Idaho, with Idaho people leading the charge.
“Idaho can be kind of a territorial place. It doesn’t want to follow the lead of Washington,” Beierle said.
The membership, which Brown estimates is about 45% Republican overall and closer to 90% in Idaho, also likes the bipartisanship.
“Before, they’d complain about the local’s Democratic support. Now they’re getting more engaged,” Brown said.
Those members aren’t the only Republicans who are more engaged with Local 77 either.
“Now the legislators come to us. They know we can get things done,” said Beierle, who also serves on the Idaho Labor Council. “We’re seeing who we can work with, and it’s a strategy that’s paying off.”
They even got a bill signing, the first for a labor organization in over 20 years and the largest thus far in Gov. Little’s term, with 25 people in attendance, Beierle said.
“This was a huge milestone,” said Brown, who got the governor’s pen from the ceremony.
Local 77 is paying back that GOP support too. They endorsed Little in his re-election bid.
“It’s probably unheard of in the labor world,” Beierle said. “But ultimately labor is nonpartisan. We have to reach across the lines.”