Peter Zupo Discourse Community: IBEW

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Posted on 13 Apr 2013 15:23

Joining the IBEW and its Successfulness as a Discourse Community
Peter Zupo
April 12, 2013


The main point of this report is to show how a worker’s union, specifically the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, uses the characteristics described by John Swales in the definition of a discourse community, to achieve its goals. It uses various forms of communication, both written and oral, to achieve its goals of getting better rights for electricians throughout the world. The IBEW uses various written genres, lexis, mechanisms for communication, and the various experience levels of its workers to introduce new workers to the methods of achieving their goals, and keeping current workers informed of how there are achieving their goals. It also shows that it would be a great choice for a new electrician to join this union because of their ability to communicate within their group and their ability to achieve better rights for electricians. The research for this report is drawn from a personal interview with my father, who is a New York City electricians a part of the IBEW, and also from various written genres that the union puts out to its members, whether internationally or among the local New York Metropolitan area electricians. Overall, the report reflects on the fact that by having the characteristics prescribed by John Swales in his definition of a discourse community, the IBEW is able to achieve their goals and keep the members of their community informed about the work that they are doing to achieve better rights for the electricians.


People who are about to join a technical job must face the decision to join a union or not. One of the unions belongs to the technical job of electricians. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is an international union aimed at protecting the rights of electricians throughout the world. They make sure that the workers’ rights are being fulfilled and that they have the best working conditions and benefits possible. One of the important ways that IBEW can work is by being a giant global community. However, something that can help describe the union and the reasons why it is successful can be attributed to the fact that IBEW is a successful discourse community.
According to linguist John Swales (1990), a discourse community is formed by, “…groups that have goals or purposes, and use communication to achieve these goal” (p. 466).
According to the same definition by Swales (1990), a discourse community can be defined as such through 6 characteristics, which are:
A generally agreed set of public, common goals; has mechanisms for communication among its members; uses its mechanisms for providing feedback and information; has several different genres as means of communication; uses specific lexis or language within these genres; threshold level of membership with a suitable degree of relevant content and discourse expertise (p. 471-473).
These discourse communities are used to help spread information and feedback to achieve the common goals that the members put forth. It gives them the ability to more effectively achieve their goals because of the effectiveness of their communication through the characteristics that Swales points out.
The IBEW is effective because of its ability to achieve the characteristics that Swales has put forth. The research that I have done to show the union meeting these characteristics are achieved because of a personal connection to the union. My father has been a part of the IBEW since he was 20 years old, and this year he achieves 30 years in the union. I have used my access to information about the union through my father to help prove that the IBEW works as a discourse community.
One thing that must be noted is that while the IBEW is a large international union, there are different sections, or chapters, within the union that are in charge of different geographical sections of the union throughout the world. My father is a part of IBEW Local #3, which includes electricians from the metropolitan New York area (the five boroughs, parts of New Jersey, and parts of Westchester county).


The first thing that I wanted to prove was that the union had a common set of goals for each of its members, regardless of the local chapters geographical location. According to the IBEW website, the goals of the union include, “…representing workers in the electrical industry in the United States, Canada, Panama and several Caribbean island nations; particularly electricians, or Inside Wiremen, in the construction industry and linemen and other employees of public utilities” (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers [IBEW], 2013). No matter how the union is run or how it goes about communicating or doing business, the union has a shared amount of common goals. This can be seen in the international version of the newspaper, The Electrical Worker. In “Working Families Unite Against Attacks”, there is talk about members of the union fighting against possible legislation that could hurt workers’ rights in those areas. The Article mentions the union going against protests in areas like Kansas, Iowa, and Pennsylvania (2013). Despite the fact that this is the international version of the newspaper, the article shows electricians from different part of the country coming together to show their disapproval for people’s support of legislation that would harm workers’ rights.
According to my father, at meetings for the Local #3, the members of the union discus bettering the rights of the union members, especially in the New York metropolitan area. One of the ways that this is discussed is by talking about politicians who want to pass bills to make working conditions better. The higher-ups tell the people in the local chapter to call their congressmen and assemblymen to support bills that they want passed, and to go against bills that do not agree with the union’s policies. In both of these ways, the members of the union share common goals that they work towards achieving together. Their methods of communication aid in the accomplishment of their goals because they are able to be organized enough to support their own agenda and policies.
An important part of a discourse community is the fact that the union uses its mechanisms for communication to send both feedback and to spread information throughout the union. However, when it comes to written communication, they have several different genes of writing to spread their communications. An important part of the overall communication of the group deals with the newspapers of the union. There are two different kinds of newspapers in this union. The first kind is the international version of the newspaper and it is called The Electrical Worker. This gives different stories from all of the different local chapters of the union throughout the world.
The other kinds of newspapers are local versions of the newspaper. The version that I had the ability to access was the local newspaper for Local #3. This paper is dedicated to workers in the New York metropolitan area that are supported by the union. Instead of giving the news and events pertaining to the union as a whole, this newspaper gives specific information pertaining to members in the chapter of this geographical region. An example of this specific information given can be seen through the article titled “Members aid in Sandy Relief”. This article shows members of the local union helping their fellow local members who were affected by Hurricane Sandy (2012). While this can be news found in the international version, it is more personal and appealing to the people who see these events on a daily basis because of the geographical area they live in.
In addition to having these genres to help communicate, each one of these genres have a written lexis that members of the union understand, that an outsider to the union may not be able to understand. Even within the newspapers there are varying degrees of vocabulary or jargon that a person might understand internationally, but then not locally. An example of a form of lexis in the international newspaper that would be known to all members of the union can be found in the section of the newspaper titled “IBEW Helps build World’s Largest Yogurt Plant in Idaho”. There is a section describing one of the workers, which states, “… Pat Bristol, general foreman for Shambaugh and Son, a signatory design/build firm and subsidiary of EMCOR” (2013). Generally, one would not be able to fully understand what Mr. Bristol’s position is if they are an outsider to the union. However, most people in the union understand what a foreman is and what a signatory design/build firm is and they are able to understand the importance of Mr. Bristol’s quote to the article, no matter what chapter of the union they are in.
On the contrary, the local paper has some items that people who are not in the geographical area of Local #3 might not be able to understand. One example can be seen in an article titled “Appeal to Transfer Assets to Disaster Fund”. When describing some of the destruction from Hurricane Sandy, the article states, “With Breezy Point and the Rockaway’s in Queens, the entire Brooklyn waterfront along Coney Island and Garretson Beach, downtown Manhattan and the south shore of Staten Island…”, the article uses many terms to describe neighborhoods in the New York City area that one who is an outsider of New York City might not be able to understand. These terms, among others, show the different kind of lexis that is used in the Union at various points of time.
A third piece of written genre that I was able to find that also utilized a specific lexis used by the union was a postcard sent to remind my father about a meeting that he is supposed to attend. The postcard stated, “Please be advised an Open Mic Meeting regarding the upcoming contract negotiations has been scheduled for… All Members in the following divisions: AJ (001)… are encouraged to attend” (2013) The postcard is used to communicate brief, but important messages to the union’s members. The lexis that it uses includes both the mention of contract negotiations and the term AJ (001). While an outsider may not know exactly what contract negotiations the postcard is referencing, an insider to the group will understand that this is the negotiations for the new contract between the union and the electrical employers. The term AJ (001) seems like gibberish to an outsider, but to my dad it means the level of electrician that he is and which unit of this class of electricians he is in. It means that he is a “journeyman” electrician who can do various electrical jobs. It is because of these kinds of different genres and lexis that communication in the union is very effective.
A final, important characteristic of Swale’s (1990) discourse communities is that there is, “a threshold level of membership with a suitable degree of relevant content and discourse expertise” (p. 473). This characteristic is seen in the union through heir apprenticeship program. According to the website for the IBEW Local #3, the apprenticeship program is meant to give people who have no working experience with being an electrician, and under the supervision of a higher leveled journeyman, learn the trade (IBEW, 2013). This relationship between the “upper-level” journeyman and the novice electrician leads to better electricians in the union and a more effective workplace. Their communication leads to new, better experience workers being part of the union.


The main results that come from my research is that the IBEW does fulfill Swale’s definition of a discourse community. It follows all six characteristics and creates an effective communication through the group the help achieve the union’s goals. It has specific goals, uses different writing genres, implores a lexis that is specific to the group, and uses it’s different rankings of its members to aid in achieving the union’s goals. Now that it is known that the union is a discourse community, what does this mean to someone who wants to join a union or is about to join a union?

Discussion and Conclusion

While the research that was done focused on proving that the union matched John Swale’s definition of a discourse community, the real point is to show how this helps a union achieve its goals and why a new electrician should chose to be in a union. The main part of Swale’s definition is that a discourse community is meant to be a group that has a set of goals and uses communication to achieve these goals. I think that IBEW achieves their goals very well, and it is in part attribute to how well they work as a community. When they are able to communicate, they can achieve their various goals successfully.
The union uses its various mechanisms of communication to achieve its goals. Not only do they have oral communication amongst its members, but they also have various forms of written communication. Through the website, newspapers, and through various other genres, they can communicate through writing, and through specific language or lexis. Also, they use the experience and knowledge of some of their “higher-ranked” members to help integrate new members into the union. I believe that the IBEW not only is a great example of a discourse community according to Swale’s definition, but also uses its characteristics to enhance the communication amongst the members of its community to achieve its goals of getting better rights for its workers. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers would be a great choice for a new electrician because through the use of community and communication, it works harder towards getting electricians the rights, wages, benefits, and working conditions that the electricians rightfully deserve.

Works Cited

Home Page. (n.d.). International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Retrieved April 10, 2013, from

IBEW Local #3 (2012, December 20). Appeal to Transfer Assets to Disaster Fund. Union World, p. 1.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (2013, March 1). Working Families Unite Against Attacks. The Electrical Worker, p. 4.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (2013, March 1). IBEW Helps Build World's Largest Yogurt Plant in Idaho. The Electrical Worker, p. 20.Electrical Worker [New York] 1 Mar. 2013, Vol 7 No 3 ed.: 20. Print.

Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32 Print.

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