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IBEW Anniversary - November 28, 1891

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

This brief history of our Union is excerpted from the IBEW website

The 1890 St. Louis Exposition, an annual agricultural and technical fair, featured the breathtaking electrical wonders of the era. Wiremen and linemen from all over the United States flocked to St. Louis to wire the buildings and erect the exhibits. The exposition workers got together at the end of each long workday and talked about their working conditions. Their stories were the same everywhere: work was hard, hours were long, and pay was sparse. It was common for a lineman to risk life and limb on the high lines in all kinds of weather for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Two dollars and fifty cents a day was considered an excellent wage for wiremen, and many electrical workers were forced to accept work for just eight dollars a week. However, skilled laborers in other trades earned more; plumbers in large cities averaged a daily wage of $3.37 and bricklayers and masons earned an average of $3.88 per day. Another concern was that there was no training, and safety standards were nonexistent. In some areas, the fatality rate for linemen was one out of every two hired, and the national fatality rate for electrical workers was twice the national average for all other industries.

A union was the logical answer for the many problems facing these workers; so the small group of electricians meeting in St. Louis sought help from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to unionize. AFL Organizer Charles Kassel was assigned to help them, and in 1890 the group was chartered as the Electrical Wiremen and Lineman’s Union, No 5221, or the AFL Federal Labor Union 5221. A St. Louis lineman, Henry Miller, was elected as the first president.

It was apparent to Miller and the other workers at the exposition that their small union was merely a starting point. Only a national organization of electrical workers with jurisdiction covering the entire industry could win better treatment from the large corporate telephone, telegraph, electric power, contracting, and equipment manufacturing companies.

J.T. Kelly, the first secretary of our Brotherhood, said of Miller, “No man could have done more for our union in its first years than he did.” Miller packed his tools and an extra shirt in an old carpetbag and rode the rails to many U.S. cities to work the trade. The receiving committee for his arrival in a city was often a policeman who chased him and tried to put him in jail.

Colectivo Coffee Workers Organizing

Coffee has become big business and has given some companies in the industry big profits. In the past, few coffee shops existed and were scattered in large cities but in the last decade they have increased in numbers and are popping up everywhere. Unfortunately, the workers who have helped these companies grow and profit have not shared in that success. These hard-working employees have been underpaid for years.

Recently, IBEW Sixth District Vice-President David Ruhmkorff sent out a call to action for IBEW members to support an organizing campaign at Colectivo Coffee which is a Milwaukee- based company with twenty-one locations in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. IBEW Local 1220 from Downers Grove is leading the drive at the Chicago locations which they aptly named the “IBEW Strong” organizing campaign.

The company has hired union –busters and held captive audience meetings to intimidate and scare employees from organizing. Colectivo has also brought in an anti-union speaker during these hour-long meetings to confuse and upset employees. It will be a tough battle to organize these employees but the IBEW is up for the fight. If any of our members happen to frequent a northside Colectivo location please show your support by ordering your coffee “IBEW Strong”. The IBEW believes we will be successful and this success will open other opportunities to organize other coffee shops.

Nonetheless, Miller persisted. Everywhere he went, he organized the electrical workers he met into local unions. Because of Miller’s work, a great deal was accomplished in that first year of the union. Local unions chartered by the AFL and other electrical unions were organized all over the United States, including Chicago; Milwaukee; New Orleans; New York City; Evansville and Indianapolis, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota.

The First Convention was called in St. Louis on November 21, 1891. Ten delegates met at a boarding house, where Miller stayed, in a poor section of the city. It was a humble beginning—only a tiny fraction of the trade seemed interested in building a national union, and no representatives of southern or western workers attended the meeting.

They adopted the name National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (NBEW) for their union.

The delegates to that First Convention worked night and day for seven days drafting the NBEW’s first constitution, laws, ritual, and emblem. The delegates elected Miller as President. Their image of a fist grasping lightning bolts is still used as the IBEW logo. The ten lightning bolts represent our founders.

The St. Louis boarding house where our founders met was purchased by IBEW Local 1 in 2015. Donations from members and unions across the country paid to refurbish the long-neglected building which opened in 2016 as the Henry Miller Museum.

From its peak membership of approximately one million in the 1980s, the IBEW currently has about 775,000 members represented by over nine hundred local unions in the United States and Canada. Lonnie Stephenson, an inside wireman from IBEW 145 in Rock Island was appointed International President in 2015 and elected by Convention Delegates in 2016. The IBEW territory is divided into eleven districts; the Sixth District covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to over 100,000 IBEW members. The fortieth IBEW Convention will be held August 30 to September 3, 2021 in Chicago.


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