Labor History Archives

1891-1920 IBEW vs. The Corporations

The times we are living in now are much like the early 1900’s. The story below is about the early fight with Corporations

Below is official History from the International’s website.

From its founding in 1891 until about 1900, the IBEW sought to consolidate its position as the bargaining representative for all electrical workers. While this goal appears to have been achieved in several cities, including Kansas City, Kansas, and Mount Vernon, New York, during this period, the union made little headway against employers in other areas; for example, the Edison Company of Rockford, Illinois, which routinely discharged workers for joining the union.

Pictured Herbert C. Edwards, third from left, a member of Local 744 (then in New York City) and Local 3, New York City, takes a break with other members of a Western Union crew in Winfield, Long Island, in August 1921.

On May 1, 1900, organized electrical workers embarked upon a campaign of concerted activity. Nearly 100 workers struck for the eight-hour day in Rochester, New York; linemen employed by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company struck in Springfield, Massachusetts; 1,500 electrical workers in New York City ceased performing their jobs; and 400 electrical workers in Philadelphia walked off their jobsite. Records indicate at least one strike in 1900 concerned safety: Electric-light workers in Baltimore struck over an increase in wages, basing their demand on the increase in voltage which made their work more hazardous.

Clearly, from the Corporate perspective, the organizers of these concerted campaigns were “Troublemakers”. From previous Weekly History articles, these Troublemakers were branded and anarchists, commies, and other designations used to turn public opinion against the workers. 

While many of these strikes were unsuccessful, one two-week strike resulted in a signed agreement. An IBEW local in San Francisco signed Independent Electric Light and Power Company to a contract providing $3.00 per day in wages and an eight-hour day for linemen.

Members of Local 3, New York City. From left, Duke McSpedon, John Baccaglini, Jimmy Highland, Herbert Kretzer, Red Sykes and J. Werner.      

Union’s Influence Improves

The second decade of the IBEW showed an increase in the union’s influence and a corresponding decline in labor strife between electrical employers and employees. A study done by Charles Franklin Marsh indicates that between 1903 and 1908 only nine of 28 cases in which conditions were improved involved a suspension of work.

The involvement of officials at the International and District Council level in negotiations apparently accounted for much of the peaceful settlement of these contracts. However, another significant factor was the nature of the industry. Demand for electrical workers was high, particularly during this era when the electric light and power industry was undergoing its great expansion. This expansion resulted in the use of electricity in all aspects of everyday life, from factory to farm, from office to kitchen. Thus, while unions in other industries at this time were suffering declines in membership and bargaining strength, electrical workers were enjoying amazing increases. From 1903 to 1906 the number of card-carrying electrical workers tripled to about 30,000.

However, the participation of International and District Council officers in contract talks didn't preclude strikes entirely; although the officers’ intervention helped prevent hastily called, unauthorized actions. In one case where the Vice President wasn’t notified of repeated strike action within several months by the local, the union lost “the best job in the state of Wisconsin,” according to Vice President F.G. O’Connell.

Later the National Labor Relations Act formalized rules to settle differences by the collective bargaining process.

Often the job action wasn’t taken by the local union but by the company. In 1907 following the organization of a local in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Kenosha Gas and Electric Company locked out those employees who had joined the union. The dispute wasn’t settled (in favor of the union) until January 1908, thanks mainly to the support of the building trades.

While on the labor side strikes were designed to stop the flow of wealth to owners, the companies could use the lockout to put economic pressure on workers. Management can severely damage a family with a lockout and they are also able to prolong strikes as the companies were supported by Government subsidies and tax breaks.

Internal Strife

The Reid-Murphy Split in the IBEW’s leadership lasting from 1908 to 1913 not only resulted in a bitterly divided membership, but also affected the union’s ability to prevail in labor/management disputes. While some electrical workers and their employers continued their ongoing work arrangements, the Reid faction disrupted relationships among others. For example, Local 61 of Los Angeles reported in 1911 that the formation of a Reid local resulted in Local 61’s inability to improve working conditions for its members at Southern California Edison Company, Los Angeles Gas and Electric Company, and the Pacific Light and Power Company.

In many cases across the United States, each group engaged in strikebreaking against the other. ‘The Reid faction broke strikes and founded locals of members employed at lower wages than the McNulty group’s locals in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, Gary, Dallas and other cities. During the secession period a strike demonstrating the legitimate (McNulty) Brotherhood’s influence on wages and working conditions in the electric light and power industry occurred against eh Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

The “Light and Power Council of California,” including workers aligned with the Reid faction, was formed in December 1912 to unite the different organizations working for PG&E, particularly for signing joint agreements. Reid electrical workers, some stationary firemen, gas workers and miscellaneous repairmen answered the strike call on May 7, 1913. Within two weeks Vice President Grasser of the McNulty group agreed to provide electrical workers to the company and had signed agreements covering wiring and conduit work and the construction, operation and maintenance of transmission, distribution and telephone lines and their connected apparatus. Although wages and working conditions weren’t significantly improved, the importance of these agreements was getting the company to “employ only members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, together with its subordinate local unions....”.Compared to destroying the Reid electrical workers, wages became secondary.

The strike also caused the splintering of several other unions and trade union groups, which supported one side or the other of the electrical workers’ dispute. The settling of the strike in January 1914 coincided with the return of most of the secessionist electrical workers to the IBEW led by President McNulty.

When It Works

When strikes are conducted successfully, they can have far reaching effects on not only the strikers, but on succeeding groups of members. A successful strike by Local 84, Atlanta, lasted from August 1916 until March 1919. But for the next nine years, the company was strongly unionized with almost-continuous signed agreements with the local.

Withholding labor cuts off the flow of wealth. It works if everyone sticks together.

The strike began when 18 men were fired for union membership. The 150 linemen were joined by the street railway and gas workers. Although a wage increase was negotiated, the primary reason for the strike was the right to organize. The members won that right and also reinstatement of the original 18 fired workers and preferential listing for those strikers desiring reemployment. Two reasons for the success of the strike were the leadership of the local’s business manager and the support given Local 84 by organized labor in Atlanta and throughout the country.

The April 1919 strike by telephone operators against New England Telephone Company was one of the most massive strikes in history involving mostly women. It resulted when the Post Office Department didn’t provide a wage-adjustment procedure for the demands of the operators, instead using a system omitting union bargaining with management. Alter attempting to follow this system, but receiving no reply from Postmaster General Burleson and after working for several months without a contract, the operators were ready to strike.

Portion of the striking operators during the 1919 New England Telephone strike. (The Boston Globe, as it appeared in Labor's Flaming Youth, Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878-1923, Stephen H. Norwood.)

The IBEW leadership was concerned about attacks on telephone workers’ right to organize and bargain, but it urged the operators to wait until the results arrived in May on a referendum for a nation-wide strike of telephone workers. Since March 1919 Julia O’Connor, head of the IBEW Telephone Operators’ Department, had trouble preventing the 4,000 Boston operators from striking. But in April the operators’ patience ran out.

More than 2,000 Boston telephone operators and representatives of every IBEW operators’ local in New England jammed Faneuil Hall on April 11. Vice President Gustave Bugniazet attended the meeting with instructions from acting President James Noonan to try to prevent a strike. Brother Bugniazet’s efforts failed, and the motion to strike passed unanimously. Subsequently, Sister O’Connor issued orders to leave the job at 7 AM on April 15 and presented the workers’ wage-increase demands.

The strike shut down telephone service in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. But the women didn’t at first have the support of the male telephone workers in the five states; and AFL President Samuel Gompers, supporting the IBEW leadership, sent a telegram opposing the strike. Nevertheless, the women set up 24-hour picket lines, very likely a first for any women strikers. Workers, such as taxi drivers, belonging to unions coming in contact with strike-breakers refused their service to the strikebreakers. The police in Boston and other New England cities were exceptionally sympathetic to the strikers, even to lending raincoats during a storm and getting lunch for the strikers.

The strike lasted five days, with the IBEW male telephone workers joining the women the third day. Postmaster General Burleson relinquished his opposition to bargaining, and a settlement was reached which included the operators’ right to bargain with the company’s general manager.

The strike was considered a potent victory for the telephone operators, who also returned to their positions with full seniority. In addition, they demonstrated their ability and determination, while challenging established male trade union authority, to secure better wages and conditions for telephone operators.


Discuss this on the job. Discuss it with family and friends. How has the AFL’s approach to working with owners worked over the past 80 years? How is it working now? How will it work in the future? With Neoconservitives changing the balance of power between Corporations and Unions by changing labor laws, what do you think we should be doing now?

IBEW Local 46 ~ 19802 62nd Ave S, Kent, WA 98032 ~ Phone: 253-395-6500 ~ (Toll free) 1-866-651-4600