Edwin D. Hill, a union wireman who juiced his career with a 54-year tenure as an elected official of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and led the estimated 775,000-member union as president for 14 years with a “laser focus” on organizing, died on Dec. 1 in Pittsburgh after a five-week hospitalization for an unspecified cause, says a union spokesman. He was 81.
When he retired in 2015, Hill was cited by Washington Life magazine as one of the "most powerful people in Washington,” with the publication noting his strong stance against income inequality.
In a union obituary, Hill was termed a "transformative trade unionist who modernized IBEW and led it through the 2008 recession."
An IBEW spokesman said via email, “It’s a testament to the leadership that President Hill demonstrated that we were able to grow despite seeing plant closings, slowed construction and layoffs" during the downturn.
Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trades Union, said "his voice was among the most respected and unifying throughout the entire labor movement.” Union membership was about evenly split between construction and utlity sector members.
"The trades got absorbed in their own issues in the past and ignored their customers,” Hill told ENR in 2007. But they have "repented," he said.
Hill sought to patch the relationship by creating such programs as IBEW’s "Code of Excellence” to boost training and accountability, and adding a mandatory substance abuse testing policy to all collective bargaining agreements.
A second-generation IBEW member since 1956, Hill gained stature first as business manager in Local 712 in Beaver, Pa. and later as a protégé of General President J.J. Barry, who he succeeded in 2001.
Hill pushed to modernize IBEW record-keeping and membership databases and boost resources for organizing. In a 2002 editorial that cited lack of support for organizing as a key reason for the carpenters' union decision to withdraw from the AFL-CIO and from the building trades, ENR also noted Hill's efforts.
ENR reported in 2002 that Hill wanted to hold IBEW locals more accountable for organizing, delivering his message to union officials n what ENR called "no uncertain terms" at the union's annual convention.
Enforcing the organizing rules in the union's constitution should be a sufficient answer to ''our problem,'' Hill said.
The union chief also called on local councils to monitor activities of nonunion employers in their areas. If local officers were not able to identify firms, ''we'll do it for you,'' Hill warned.
After noticing that IBEW locals and signatory union contractors were missing out on big construction projects, he pushed to get them more involved at the planning stage to build relationships. He also used the personal approach on members with targeted mailings and phone calls to undecided members during key elections, ENR reported.
But he could play hardball also. In 2003, he was among three union presidents who pressured former building trades chief Robert Georgine to step down from the board as chairman of ULLICO Inc., the labor-owned insurance and investment company, after an insider stock trading scandal.
"We believe that the controversy surrounding ULLICO at this time makes these changes necessary to secure the future of ULLICO," Hill said.
Lonnie R. Stephenson, who succeeded Hill as IBEW president, termed his union predecessor “ one of its great visionaries … who understood the need to always be on the forefront of changing trends.”
Stephenson said that after retirement, Hill worked with Electricians Without Borders to help restore infrastructure in Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake.
John Grau, National Electrical Contractors Association CEO, in a statement, called Hill “a devoted champion of the electrical construction industry.”