Change makers: Electrical Workers Minority Caucus turns 50


In 1974, Keith Edwards, Omar Shabazz, and Howard Pulliam felt a need to band together as Black members of an overwhelmingly white construction union. They formed a support committee. Next month, the group they founded within IBEW Local 48 will celebrate its 50th anniversary. At first they called it the Sam G. Whitney Association, named after the first Black journeyman electrician in Local 48, who had successfully sued electrical contractors for discrimination. 

Today the group is known as the Portland chapter of IBEW’s Electrical Workers Minority Caucus (EWMC). The second Tuesday of each month, a core of about two dozen active members meet at the union hall to mentor and encourage fellow minorities to join the union, stay in the union, and take part in leading the union.

“The EWMC is oftentimes the very first stop for people coming to get information about how to navigate the complexity of the apprenticeship program,” says Local 48 rep Aaron Barber-Strong. “And it’s a safe place for people of color and women. They come into an environment where they know they’ll be seen and heard with people that they feel comfortable being around.”

When Edwards joined Local 48 in 1970, there were no women and few people of color in Local 48.

“We were concerned about the lack of diversity and opportunity for people of color to enter the apprenticeship program and become electricians,” recalls Edwards, 75.

“The building trades was a very lucrative career opportunity that really wasn’t open to people of color, partially because they weren’t familiar with it,” Edwards said. “I had such a great opportunity to be in IBEW. I had great wages. I had excellent benefits. So I got involved and I tried to share that message with others and get others involved as well.” 

The same year that Edwards, Shabazz and Pulliam founded their committee in Portland, a group of Black and Hispanic delegates threatened to picket outside IBEW’s 1974 International Convention in Kansas City, Missouri to protest the under-representation of minorities on the International staff. But after talking with union leadership, they founded the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus (EWMC) instead — to advocate for greater diversity and inclusiveness within IBEW. Edwards’ Portland committee became a chapter of the national group. 

Edwards recalls that Local 48’s all-white executive board started out curious about what caucus members were doing, but they were never resistant. Once executive board members understood that the group wanted to recruit new members and make the union more welcoming to everyone, they supported it, Edwards said.

Edwards himself went on to lead Local 48 as the first Black business manager of an IBEW local in the nation. He later worked as a regional representative of the international union. Now retired, he’s served as president of the EWMC within the international union since 2014. 

“We (in the EWMC) advocate for people of color and women to be in leadership positions in the IBEW,” Edwards said, “and we’ve done pretty well.” 

EWMC offers an eight-hour leadership training program, in which members learn the IBEW constitution and how to use Roberts Rules of Order.

EWMC members must belong to IBEW, but chapters are independent and autonomous, and aren’t an official arm of the union. Dues are $25 a year for the Portland chapter, and $75 a year for the national organization.

Chapters are challenged to meet certain goals. One is to strive to increase their membership by 25% every year. Chapters also offer training opportunities for members, like financial literacy courses. They adopt elementary, middle, and high schools to expose children to union electrician career options. 

“When a Black kid sees a Black man or woman standing there saying, ‘hey I’m IBEW,’ it feels different,” said Portland EWMC’s current president, Willie Leffall. “You see someone that looks like you, that talks like you, that shares the same struggle that you had coming up, or just someone that you can just relate to, that makes a difference.”

EWMC members also develop relationships with members of other unions, and with local community and faith organizations. They help workers register to vote. And they foster member-to-member mentorship. In Portland, EWMC meetings begin with introductions and a chance for prospective IBEW members to get advice about joining the union. 

And EWMC comes up with suggestions to make IBEW more welcoming to members from all backgrounds. At the 2022 IBEW Convention in Chicago, the EWMC helped pass several amendments to the IBEW Constitution. One modified the constitution’s language to make it gender-neutral. Another made it a violation of the union constitution for a member to discriminate against or harass another member because of race or sex or gender identity. A third added new language to a declaration that lists what IBEW is for and against. Since the 1950s, IBEW’s constitution has said that the union “will continue to oppose communism, Nazism or any other subversive ‘ism.’” Delegates at the 2022 convention added racism, sexism and fascism to that list.

The share of Black electricians is growing — slowly. In 1995 (the earliest year information is available) 5.5% of electricians were Black. Last year the figure was 6.7%. That still lags the overall population; in 2023, about 12.1% of the U.S. population was Black.

This year marks 50 years of the EWMC’s advocacy and mentorship. But to get to parity, plenty of work remains to be done.

“The main thing we have to do is remember that everybody wants to be around somebody that looks like them,” Edwards said. 


IBEW Local 48 members will honor the 50th anniversary of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus July 12-14 with a river cruise and gala dinner. 


  • WHEN Friday July 12. Boarding begins 6:30 p.m. Cruise runs 7-9 
  • WHAT BBQ buffet, DJ, line dancing. 


  • WHEN 5 p.m. cocktail hour, 6 p.m. dinner and program
  • WHERE Vancouver Hilton, 301 West 6th Street, Vancouver
  • ENTERTAINMENT DJ and celebrated soul music singer Andy Stokes

  • COST $150 gets admission to all events, plus a t-shirt and commemorative coin; or $50 for each event.
  • TICKETS Purchase tickets by July 1 at


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