New Jersey IBEW Local 164 member Kevin O’Sullivan’s life is a study in being open to opportunity and having the smarts and confidence to pursue or at least consider possibilities. As any good life coach will tell you, this is the ideal way of being in the world.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles to knock over or wrenching decisions to make along the way. It’s about not being easily derailed from the goal – passionate pursuit of a meaningful and principled life -- and going with the flow of what’s working most of the time. For O’Sullivan, a 45-year-old who hails from Rutherford, N.J., a strong family tradition entrenched in unions provided an ideal foundation for what was ahead, essentially the life he has created.
“I’m open to whatever life brings me,” he said in our recent interview at Trinity restaurant in Hoboken, N.J.
His path has taken him from his native New Jersey to Washington, D.C., back to Jersey again. He has been an executive and a journeyman, a speaker and an advocate, a student and a leader. The life he has forged so far runs the gamut from learning his trade as an electrician to the political arena interacting with members of Congress, governors and a President of the United States (Bill Clinton) as political director for the Building and Construction Trades Department. From there, with health concerns of his parents in mind, he took the reins as executive director of the New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council.
Now, over a year after giving up that position and putting on his tools again, O’Sullivan has another opportunity squarely in front of him. He is running for business manager of IBEW Local 164 in the upcoming June 3 election. After all the work in the trenches, putting himself through school in his 30s (bachelors degree in labor studies), the hobnobbing, the divorce that also came with the loss of his house and dogs during this recent rough economic stretch, he is now running for a position with the potential to bring it all to bear.
This is a man who, according to his Web site, was asked to work for a new political group called “the project” in Washington, D.C., whose mission was “to be a rapid response team that would be dropped into hot political races and build relationships between labor and community groups.” He flourished in the role and after graduating with honors was hired to take it up a notch as political director, where he “helped train a new breed of political operatives.”
O’Sullivan’s decision to run in this election is fueled almost completely by his desire to provide empathy, experience and a sense of unity to a group of men hard hit by our country’s economic downturn. They, like many, went from “living large” to praying for enough work to keep their pensions in sight. O’Sullivan is right there with them now and has witnessed fear and disconnect in the ranks.
“It’s taking an opportunity to stand up and to fight for what’s right,” he says in a video on his Web site. “A lot of guys don’t have the opportunity. A lot of guys have wives, children, mortgages. They’d like to stand up. Unfortunately they’re frightened. The opportunity is there for me right now. I don’t have to worry about a mortgage. I don’t have to worry about a family. My family is my extended family and my local, so I’m doing this to fight for my larger family.”
O’Sullivan is part idealist, mostly in the sense that he brings belief in positive outcomes. Realism reigns, though. The business manager position will bring more work, more stress and responsibility for over 3,000 families, but it will also bring unparalleled satisfaction that he is using skills and education acquired along the continuum that is his life. He is at his best when he is advocating for labor’s rank-and-file. It is what he was put here to do and he takes it very seriously, which might account for the fact that he keeps attracting opportunities that lend themselves to that overall mission.
“I have no choice,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m wired this way.”
At a time when people wonder about the relevance of unions, O’Sullivan knows they’re needed more than ever. There is anxiety about getting enough work to qualify for benefits, as the boom brought about from jobs like the development of the waterfront in Jersey City over the last decade has given way to long-term jobs being a rarity.
“The economy is cyclical and our guys are surfing the waves of the economy,” he said. “We’re on the front line. We’ll tell you when things are getting ready to dry up. You don’t need the financial analysts, ask the construction workers.”
As O’Sullivan touched on in the aforementioned video, his recent personal odyssey plays a part in all of this.
“Everything’s for a reason,” he said of his divorce et al. “The odyssey is over. I just feel like I am who I am. I stand up for what’s right. What are you going to take away from me? I have no fear. I’ve seen so many men that have sold their souls for their positions. They don’t sell it all at once, but piece by piece. You can just see the hollow, empty looks in their eyes ... I want a simple, straightforward life.”
He has seen a guy who has no chance of working this year wonder if his marriage can weather the pending short sale on his house and he knows what he can do is empathize because he’s been there. Like the most self-aware among us at times designed to test our mettle, O’Sullivan had to rethink materialism and evaluate what’s important on a personal and professional level.
“At the end of the day I’ll look back at my life and say, you know, I did the right thing,” O’Sullivan said.
“Stand up for the men. I’ve always stood up for the boys on the job. Anybody that’s ever worked for me knows that.”
It’s the only way he knows how to be.