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Member Spotlight: Melissa Reyes (IBEW)

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Member Spotlight is a new, recurring blog post series intended to highlight and connect the dots between the programs and priorities of the NC State AFL-CIO and the leaders and activist members of our affiliates who make it all possible.

My name is Melissa Reyes, and I am a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 379 living in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

We need to reignite the passion for organizing here in Charlotte, and that's why I serve as the district representative for RENEW, an IBEW initiative to get more young people involved in union work. I’m also passionate about working to diversify the building trades.

Our union is changing big-time, and that’s what motivates me. When I was in the apprenticeship program, I was the only woman in the program all four years. We’re intentionally working to become more diverse by opening up the doors for everybody. 

We need to get women, people of color, young folks, and anybody who is passionate about the labor movement involved because we are the future. If you look at IBEW leadership on the international level, it’s a sea of older white men. That is a consequence of IBEW having been a segregated union. It’s natural to bring your child into what you do, but you had only white men at one point, so it was mostly their kids who had the advantage of knowing about the opportunities to build a better life by working in the union building trades. 

Now we’re facing a shortage of people entering the workforce in the construction sector and in our union. As older members and leadership in particular ages out, we're going to need qualified young folks who are educated and have immersed themselves in the labor movement filling those roles.

What I want people to know is that in order to be a strong union, we need to be an educated union. We need to know what protections are in our collective bargaining agreements, how our benefits work, and what the responsibilities of leadership are. 

Here in the South, many people don't know that unions exist. Most of the participants in our apprenticeship program became involved because they want to become an electrician, and they know that it pays well. I'd say up to a quarter of them didn't apply for an apprenticeship because they'd be getting a union job. They just don't understand the benefits.

It’s really hard to build a culture where you're proud of being a union member if you don't really know what that entails. That's why I try to get the young folks involved, to open their eyes to what it's all about, and so maybe they’ll pursue a union career like I did. And I tell every single member the union is not a behind-the scenes entity that works in the background for us; we are the union, and it takes engagement from each and every one of us to make it thrive.