An Unlikely Texas Leader Puts Members First, Breaks Barriers Along the Way

Blog article from the IBEW/The Electrical Worker Online

Letty Marcum just needed work when she interviewed at El Paso Local 583 in 2007 to be a part-time assistant to the office manager. She had been a homemaker for 15 years on the East Coast and now she was back in her hometown, a single mom with no job and a high school diploma.

Thirteen years later, she is the twice-elected business manager of Local 583 and the president of the El Paso Building Trades Council.

"Letty is hard working. She is unafraid. She is committed. She is smart, strategic and really nice," said Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy. "She is a rising star in the labor movement in Texas."

Sister Marcum isn't the first woman to run an IBEW local. That was Annie Malloy, who was president of the all-female telephone operators sub-local 104 formed 108 years ago in Boston. She isn't the even the first woman to run a construction local. Asenath McLeod took that title at Raleigh, N.C., Local 553 back in 1991.

At present, there are at least two dozen women running IBEW locals and the first female international vice president, the Fourth District's Gina Cooper, was sworn in last year. But Sister Marcum's meteoric rise to local and community leader is still remarkable.

Because, of course, none of that was apparent on her first day at Local 583 in 2007. Seventh District Organizing Coordinator Javier Casas was Local 583's business manager at the time. He ran a two-person office, himself and an office manager. It is a smaller local deep in the heart of right-to-work America.

The office manager needed help, but only a little, they thought.

"I was looking for a part-time student. My niece was friends with Letty's sister," Casas said. "It was a simple interview: answer phones, take messages. Be friendly with members."

But little by little, Casas says, she was delegated more duties.

"Letty is always asking questions about the agreement. 'What does this mean? What does this mean?'" he said. "Eventually, she could answer the questions. And members would call, and she answered theirs."

"I was horrible. I would ask, 'Why this? Why this? Why does this apprentice have to go before a review board? Why? Why?'" Marcum said. "Mr. Casas always had patience for me. But eventually he said, 'Unless you sit in this chair, you don't know.'"

Within a year, she was full-time. Casas said he really saw her shine when she helped on dispatch.

"She was good at it," he said.

"I am good at it," she confirmed. "Mr. Casas would say, 'This guy doesn't like short calls.' And I would say, 'I got this.' And I would talk to him. 'Do a good job. This shop is always keeping on hands if you do a good job.' And he would take it."

"I don't know how she did it," Casas said. "She was a hell of a dispatcher."

"He didn't know how I did it?" she said. "I didn't know how I did it!"

Marcum had no background in unions. She was often alone in the office, but she picked it up quickly and loved helping people.

"I did ERTS, per capita, helping retiring members with paperwork," she said. "A contractor would call and ask how many were on the out of work list and I would say, 'How many you need? You need 50? I can get you 50.' And they would say, 'You sure you're not the business manager?' and I said, 'No. But I am here to help.'"

In 2008, Marcum started night school to get her bachelor's degree in business. The local also bought a building with a social hall attached and Marcum took over organizing events there, including weddings, retirements and quinciñieras.

"Mr. Casas kept saying I should find something better. 'Don't feel like you have to stay here,' and, 'You deserve more money,'" she said. "It was tough, writing papers at 3 a.m., but my family is great and I have five brothers and sisters and they helped me."

When she graduated, she didn't leave. When the office manager retired in 2011, she stepped into the role.

Then, in 2012, Casas was bumped up to state organizing coordinator. The assistant business manager filled out the rest of his term but was challenged in the election and lost. The new business manager made Marcum a member of the local, but their working relationship was otherwise rocky. Marcum won't go into details, but in August 2015, she quit.

But that didn't stop the member calls. "Her guys," as she calls them, kept on with the questions. And pretty soon, one of those questions was, "Why don't you run for business manager?" By January 2016, she ran out of reasons for saying "no."

She moved in with her father, stopped looking for other work, enlisted her family's help making flyers and hosting events. She ate into her savings and ran.

"I don't want to say anything negative," she said." I just thought I could do better."

The membership agreed. She won a runoff in July 2016.

"When I first heard, I thought 'There's no way. This will never happen,' and at each step it did," said Seventh District International Vice President Steven Speer. "I knew her when she was secretary for Javier, and she is just very impressive. No, she didn't have complete technical knowledge of what we do in the field, but her job doesn't require that, so much as commitment to serve the members. Her desire to serve and learn and then work makes her highly effective."

One of the first things she did was get the El Paso Building Trades Council meeting again. It was homeless for a time and wasn't meeting regularly. Then she started roping people in like it was a job she was dispatching. Pretty soon, she was indispensable, and when they looked for a president they looked no farther than Marcum.

"Without a mover and a shaker, it won't shake on its own, right? Well, I just realized, 'That's me now,'" she said.

She was unanimously elected president in 2017.

There have been doubters and detractors. But that doesn't bother her, she says.

"One contractor said I was the worst thing that happened to the local. That's nothing. 'Pfft. You done? Now it's my turn,'" she said. "Mr. Casas always said, 'You don't have to prove nothing to nobody. You show them. They will see.'"

She reorganized the health insurance plan that was bleeding the local and didn't cover spouses, started winning outside market share and expanded organizing. Now, she is also treasurer of the El Paso Central Labor Council

In 2019, she won reelection by 60 points.

"Any question was answered when she was reelected. People can say the first time may have been a fluke. But that reelection? No one can say anything," Speer said. "Nothing."

After her first election, Marcum attended the International Convention in St. Louis. She visited the Henry Miller Museum, the birthplace of the IBEW, and signed her name next to all the others on the I-beam in the basement. She says, she looked around and thought, "I deserve to be here."

She and Casas were looking at the IBEW Constitution when she says she turned to him.

"There is a lot of he, he, he; where is the she? Look at this, Javier. This is BS,'" she said laughing. "What, they never thought there would be a woman? That is my mentality."