Leader saw his union thrive

With a poor economy and a political administration that hasn’t particularly supported organized labor, most unions are in decline these days.

Not Milt Foster’s.

Foster, business manager of the Everett-based Local 191 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, has seen his organization grow under his tenure from 550 members to 1,700. Its contractor list has climbed from 14 to more than 200.

Foster, who’s last day was Monday, ran the local for 18 years.

In a recent interview, he looked back on the organization’s success, saying it’s largely based on emphasizing quality workmanship and building partnerships with employers.

“We have a good product to offer open shops that want a quality work force,” Foster said. “We have a real partnership. If they make money, our members work. We’ve had good relationships, and we’ve built on that over the years.”

Foster said the goal is for members to work quickly and safely.

“We want to do it on time and on budget so we don’t have to go back,” he said.

Foster said through the years, his union has negotiated contracts with a variety of different groups, from maintenance electricians, to appliance service workers to people who work at small motor shops.

He noted the local hasn’t won a big share of the electrical work for the homebuilding industry. “It’s a very, very cutthroat industry,” he said. “We’re continuing to try to make gains.”

Foster said the local had tried to interest builders to use union workers by offering an additional five-year warranty on all home electrical work. “Residential contractors didn’t take advantage of it,” he said.

The union’s growth despite that fact has been a source of pride for Foster. So is its involvement in the community and in local politics.

“If it wasn’t for the union, there would be a lot more people without health care today,” Foster said. “That’s a real important issue that is not being dealt with.”

Asked how he was able to stay at the top of his union local for so many years, Foster said he always tried to be honest with the members. “As long as you’re honest with them and respect them, they respect you even if they don’t agree with you,” he said.

He said he also tried to make decisions based on how they would affect the union’s future.

“You can’t make decisions just because a half dozen people get up and yell at you,” he said.

Foster plans to keep involved in union activities through his position on the international’s executive council. But mostly he plans to enjoy his family in retirement and perhaps do a little fishing.

“I’m ready to enjoy my grandkids,” he said, noting he has purchased a home on the Skagit River. “And I plan to sit on the Skagit and fish for a while.”

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