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November 22, 2017
A Brief History of the IBEW
Updated On: Feb 28, 2010

   In 1844 the first telegraph lines were strung.  In 1879 Edison built the first commercially successful incandescent lamp.  The electric power and light industry was firmly established with the construction of the Pearl Street generating station in New York  City in 1882.  As public demand for electricity increased, so did the need for workers in the field.  Workers flocked into the jobs needed to supply our nations new electrical infrastructure. 

   Workers were putting in 12 hour days, 7 days a week for as little as 8 dollars a week.  In some areas, 1 out of 2 electricians hired died on the job, a mortality rate twice the national average of other workers.  Unionism was needed to address the workers economic and safety concerns.

   Behind the scenes, electricians were talking to each other as they moved from job to job around the country.  Then, on November 21, 1891, the first national convention was held.  Leaders drafted the constitution, general bylaws, and the "fist holding lightning bolts" emblem.  Henry Miller, an early activist, was elected the first president of the National Brotherhood of Electricians (NBEW).  By the next convention, There were 43 locals charted with a total of 2000 members.  A Fund was established to pay a $50 funeral benefit for members who died on the job.  A basic apprenticeship system was created.  Still, hostile anti-union employers dealt out beatings and blacklistings to inimidate organizing efforts.

   In 1896, Henry Miller himself died from a workplace electrocution accident.  He was penniless and his employer paid for his funeral and decent burial clothes.

   In 1899 the name International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was adopted with the addition of Local 93 of Ottowa, Ontario, Canada.

   Turbulent times of fluctuating membership and rival factions trying to control power ensued for a number of years.  Then, from 1913 to 1919, membership increased greatly due to demand and the war effort.  The IBEW responded heroically to help build the "Arsenal of Democracy".  After the war, however, the open shop movement and it's legislation, misnamed "The American Plan" aimed to destroy unions.  Anti-union employers attempted to destroy the labor movement through legal and illegal means.  Frequent bombings and beatings terrorized members and potential members.  By 1925 membership dropped to 56,349, losing over 90,000 members.

   The Council on Industrial Relations was created to resolve differences between the IBEW and the contractors association, NECA.  The Electrical Workers Benefit Fund was established to provide a death benefit for the families of workers.  The first pension was created, just as the great depression was looming around the corner.

   In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act was passed by congress, giving protections to union organizers and organized workers.  Finally, after years of struggle and repression, unions were recognized as a vital part of the American economic system.  But the struggle didn't end there.  It continues today as unions are constantly under attack by those who seek to profit by taking away what we as united workers have fought for over the years.  


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