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An IBEW History

An IBEW History
by John E. Nolan
Published in 1992



There are times in the history of mankind, important times, crossroads if you will, that change forever the people that they touch. Such an event occurred n March of 1892 here in Detroit, Michigan. At that time a thirty-nine year old man named Henry Miller arrived in Detroit, riding into town on a freight train. This man was no bum, no hobo. Indeed, this young man was one of the original founders of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Today this organization is one the largest labor unions in the United States; numbering nearly one million members.

Henry Miller arrived in Detroit with only on purpose in mind; to organize the Electrical Workers of our city into the then infant union. By the 11th of March 1892, a Charter had been applied for and approved by the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

This organization, Local 17, is one of the oldest active locals in the international Organization. It is, this author believes, the oldest local union in the State of Michigan and is, quite probably, among the oldest local unions in the country. Our original charter, signed by Henry Miller, still hangs on the wall of our union hall at 18500 Grand River Avenue in Detroit, Michigan.

What, if anything, were the conditions that led to the formation of our Union? It must be remembered that, at this time, the electrical industry was in its infancy and, being new and exciting, it attracted men of vision and courage. These men however, were subjected to some of the worst conditions prevailing in any industry at the time. Long hours, terrible working conditions, seven day work weeks, work in any weather conditions, no training programs of any kind, and an average wage of 10-20 cents per hour were the rule of the day. Some statistics support the fact that one out of two men who entered the industry did not survive their first year.

As can be seen, there was a crying need for the formation of an organization that would squarely face and overcome the conditions prevalent at that time. Local 17 was to prove equal not only to that task but to carry on the battle of the working man and woman even until today.

As an indication of the effort that Local 17 was able to put forth, the following statement appeared in the National Journal less than one year after the unit received its charter. "Recently, about thirty armature winders of the Detroit Electrical workers made a demand for increased pay and probably fearing a strike, the company granted the demands."

The original organizers of Local 17 were devoted men who were dedicated to the spreading of the union message. The National Journal describes one of these men, George Harrison, as a brother "who is willing to sit up all night to explain the benefits of unionism to an electrical worker." The success that Local 17 had in the Detroit area was recognized by the National Organization when in the Fall of 1897 they were chosen to host the National Convention, scarcely 5 years after they were chartered.

A little digging into history and old records reveals that Local 17 has been an active and forceful group since its very beginning. This information can be found not only in the records of the local and international organizations but also in the record of our many employers. Quoting from "A History of the Overhead Lines Department," an internal publication of The Detroit Edison Company authored by Clifford P. Wells, Detroit, 1953; we find the following, rather lengthy and favorable, citation of Local 17.



The department may not have had any Union discussions when its work first started back in 1890 because it was not until March 11, 1892 that Local 17 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was chartered as an organized unit of the American Federation of Labor. From that date on, however, the Department has had organized union employees in the field operations and has had many informal discussions with them relating to working conditions and wages, so we can truthfully say that our relations with unions have been of long standing.

The first formal Agreement with Local 17 was entered into in July, 1941, and was simply a letter addressed to the union signed by a Vice President of the Company setting forth wage schedules and certain working conditions, as well as recognizing the Union as the sole bargaining agent to Department employees in certain listed classifications.

Since that date, the Agreements have become much more formalized, much more wordy, and much more detailed as to practices. The formal negotiations and formal Agreements have not, however, disturbed our good relations. As a matter of fact, they have probably served to enhance our good relations, because we have able to discuss matters with them more freely and both the Company and the Union have become much more familiar with each others labor-management philosophy.

As can be seen, the major utility of the time recognized the right of the workforce to organize and to be represented by the union of their choice, Local 17, in matters relating to wages and working conditions. There is a second matter clearly expressed in the cited document that is just as important; and in the context of the I.B.E.W., of paramount importance. This second matter is the establishment of a good relationship with all of our employers. A reading of Article I, Section 2, of the By Laws of Local 17, will reveal that the young union offered as much to our employers as to our members.

"The object of this local Union shall be to promote by all proper means the material and intellectual welfare of its members; to establish and maintain an adequate wage for our labor; to require of our members skill, intelligence and character; to protect our employers form the inexperience worker; to advance the principles and practice of conciliation and arbitration in the settlement of any differences with our employers."

A great number of people, both within and without the labor movement, would be surprised to find such a guiding principal as the above, set forth in the basic document of a local union. This single principle has, however, led Local 17 down a successful path and has helped it to achieve goals of wages, working conditions, company union relations, and direct services to our members second to none in the country.

We have covered some of the early history of our Local Union, however, because of the limits on the size of this work we will have to pass over many important events and much important history of both the International Organization and our Local Union. The author has attached, for anyone interested in further reading, a list of sources and interviews which were used in the preparation of both his paper and a more extensive work entitled "Evolution of a Trade Union." In addition, for the serious student, there is wealth of information available at the Walter P. Reuther Library, on the campus of Wayne State University.

In addition, I will not go into the formal organization of either the local or the international organization, so I have included a chart which outlines the relationship of the Members the Local Union, the District Organization, and the International Organization.

There are some issues, however, that are of sufficient importance that they will be discussed even if in a limited fashion.

From its small beginnings in March of 1892, until today 100 years later, Local 17 has shown steady growth. From an original membership that numbered only a handful and met Monday evenings in a upper room of Hoffman's Hall (believed to be a saloon) which was located at the corner of Congress and Randolph streets, we have grown to an organization of nearly 2,000 members meeting in our own hall at 18500 Grand River Avenue in Detroit.

From a gentleman's agreement sealed only with a handshake between The Detroit Edison Company and the Local Union we have grown to the point where we have working agreements with the following organizations:

  • The Detroit Edison Company
  • City of Detroit
  • City of Wyandotte
  • Thumb Electric Co-Op
  • Utility Contractors
  • Commercial Contractors
  • Telephone Contractors
  • Cable Television
  • Tree Trimmers on the Telephone Property
  • Tree Trimmers on the Utility Property
  • Detroit Edison System Operators

In addition to the above, our local has developed relationships with other local unions both within our trade and within and without the State of Michigan to provide employment and exchange of information to enable our members to continue to be employed even in times of economic downturn. While these efforts are not always 100% successful, they have proven to be extremely important. This author has, on several occasions, had to avail himself of work out of our jurisdiction and was more than happy these relationships had developed.

Within our Local 17, one of the greatest concerns of both the officers and membership has been the technical training our new members receive. This training takes many forms, but most important of these are the Apprenticeship programs sponsored by, and mad available thru, the union. Again, we are unable to deal with all the programs sponsored by the local, but we will deal with the tow most important, in this authors opinion, that are presently in force.

First, both historically and in the number of graduates, is the American Line Builders Apprenticeship Training Plan, which is known in the trade as A.L.B.A.T. This organization is a joint union and management endeavor and has an agreement covering parts of all of nine states. It is governed by a board made up of equal representation of both labor and management. The organization provides texts, workbooks, examinations and central administration for the program. The headquarters of the A.L.B.A.T Program are in Vandalia, Ohio.

At the local union level there is an apprenticeship committee, again representative of both industry and labor, that is responsible for the testing, interviewing, and performance of each apprentice in the local's jurisdiction. This local committee is ultimately responsible for the quality of Journeyman Lineman that the local union trains.

The apprenticeship program consists of several areas of training. The first of these is, of course, the on-the-job training which the candidate receives in his day-to-day work. It is expected, within Local 17, that every journeyman will be not only a competent tradesman but accumulated. In addition to this training, there is Complete series of school work consisting of, but not limited to, mathematics, electrical theory, print reading, construction techniques, history of the industry, history and organization of the union, practical application of electricity, basic physics, and conduct and responsibility of the journeyman. This work is carried out at home, and each section is submitted goes on to the next section.

Thirdly, there is formal instruction for the apprentices conducted either at the local union hall or at our adjacent classroom on a regular basis. There are always qualified instructors on hand to conduct the classes and to handle any specific procedure which the apprentice may encounter. These classes include regular scheduled instruction on specific areas of course work, first aid classes, C.P.R. classes, arcing demonstrations, and an opportunity for the discussion of common problems that the apprentice may encounter his day-to-day-work.

In addition to these three areas of instruction, the apprentice is evaluated at three-month intervals by the Apprenticeship Committee on his work record, classroom performance, general competence and progress. It is at these evaluations that a determination as to readiness for promotion, the possibility of demotion, additional remedial training, or even dismissal from the program are decided. Having served for a short time on the Committee myself I know the sincere intent of the Committee to train the best possible apprentices and to protect the trade from incompetent journeymen.

There is one additional item that should be discussed. Does Local 17 really train excellent journeymen? Have the apprentices trained by Local 17 really been successful?

The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. Considering first the quality of the people trained by our Local and since the early 60's by our Local thru A.L.B.A.T. Members of the Local have moved into various positions of responsibility both within and without the industry. Members of Local 17 hold management positions within various utilities up to district managers or superintendents. Among contractors, or members hold positions up to President of various companies. Within the Union itself we have sent members off to positions up to District Vice President of the I.B.E.W. Almost since its inception the Directors position of A.L.B.A.T. had been held by a member of Local 17. In point of fact, the present Director is both a member of Local 17 and a graduate of the A.L.B.A.T. program. In addition, it was a young lady recruited by Local 17 who the first successful journeyman thru the training program and she is today an instructor in that same program.

Yes, I would have to say that our members are well-trained and highly successful, not only in the industry, but in all their endeavors.

There is another program within our Local of which our members can be proud. That is the Utility Tree Trimmers Training Program. This is strictly a local endeavor which began in the early 1970's when several of our members met over coffee early one morning to discuss problems among the Line Clearance Unit of our Local. They decided at that time, that many of the problems of the Unit could be solved with the implementation of a formalized training program.

Thru several false starts and overcoming numerous obstacles, these dedicated members finally won the day and a truly unique and innovative program was instituted. It took several years and an enormous amount of effort, but by the late 1970's classes had begun, a series of lessons had been developed, methods of evaluating the progress of apprentices were signed, and a formal structure for the overseeing of the entire program had been put in place.

Lest the reader think that this was not a considerable undertaking; there was, at that time, nowhere in the country an existing program dedicated to the training of tree trimmers specifically for the purpose of Line Clearance. Our craft is considerably different than ornamental trimming and our journeyman and apprentices are exposed to the hazards of electrocution, burns, and falls just as any other members of our trade are. So, in addition to their skills as trimmers, they must also develop a certain level of skill in dealing with the hazards attributed to our trade. This program is still so new that our government does not yet recognize it as an apprenticable trade. In fact, it is only in the year 189 that our International organization has recognized it as such.

Our UTT program is organized with some similarities to the A.L.B.A.T. program; however, our Training Committee has never let that interfere with innovations that were to the benefit of the apprentices. The formal organization is a committee of equal representation of both labor and management, with the chief instructor sitting as a non-voting member. The program is set up to qualify a journeyman in a two-year period. His training takes place in four steps of six months each. His progress is subject to review by the Training Committee at unspecified intervals, but not less than four times during his training, or as often as deemed necessary or desirable by the committee.

The candidates training takes place both on the job in his day-to-day work where weekly field evaluations are completed and forwarded to the Training Committee along with all of the other records of this training. Again, it is the view and the requirement of Local 17 that all journeymen also be teachers and willing to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

In addition to field training, there is a specified series of classwork that must be completed with passing grades before promotion or classification as a journeyman. These classes were developed with the assistance of many of the journeyman already in the trade, with the assistance of various organizations including our International Organization, several Michigan universities, several utilities, and other individuals and organizations too numerous to mention here.

It is a matter of pride with all the members of our Local Union that after almost 20 years of work in behalf of our members in the Line Clearance Unit that our International Organization has not only recognized this area of our trade as an apprenticable skill but there is now an annual Line Clearance Conference sponsored by the International designed specifically to deal with the problems and needs of all our tree trimmers. In addition, this annual conference has recently determined that a nationwide training program must be developed, and the basis of that program will include much that Local 17 has developed thru 20 long years of effort.

While we are justly proud at Local 17 of our training programs, our wage scales, our working conditions, and our labor agreements, there is more to life than work. What of the aging members of our Local? What of the sick or injured members? What of the member seeking counseling for the many, many problems that confront the individual today?

Again, Local 17 can be justly proud of its leadership in this area. As long ago as 1927, when neither the government nor our employers gave any thought to the condition of an injured or disabled or retired employee, Local 17 took a leadership role in providing retirement benefits for all the members of the International Organization when, during the 19th National Convention here in Detroit, the first Union Pension Fund was established. It must be remembered that this was before Social Security, before Social Security, company pension plans, before Workman's compensation, before any of the benefits that we take so much for granted today.

Today we have, in almost all of our agreements, a specified pension plan. There was however, a long lag in the providing of these benefits to the contract members of our Local. Today we may say, without taking a back seat to any organization, that this segment of our membership has also been provided for. Most of our contract members now participate in some or all of the following programs: The Electrical Workers Benefit Fund sponsored by the International Organization, The National Electrical Benefit Fund jointly sponsored by our employers and the union, District 10 Pension Plan (a self-contributing annuity) sponsored by our Union, and the Local 17 Health and Welfare Plan jointly sponsored by Local 17 and our employers.

All of our members, whether they be employees of a utility participating in pension and stock option plans, a municipal employee involved in the first 30-and -out plans ever negotiated in the electrical industry, or a contractor benefiting from the programs listed in the above paragraph, can look forward to a retirement that will be free from financial worry and will offer a degree of dignity, unheard of only a few short years ago.

One of the items listed above deserves some additional comment. Many of the members of the Local are covered under employee programs in the event of sickness or accident. The contract employees, however, as recently as the middle of the 70s, had no such protection. It was at this time that the Local determine that something to be done in behalf of these members at proposal meetings, with our contract employers, and with prospective insurers, it was determined that the Local should set up its own insurance fund. Today that fund provides dental care, optical care, major medical, hospital/surgical, life, accidental death and dismemberment, and wage continuance insurance for some 800 members and their families.

This author is extremely proud of this fund, as for the past seven years I have been honored to serve as a trustee on the board of this organization. We know that we provide competitive benefits in all areas that we cover and that we provide them at the lowest possible cost to all of our members.

While the reader can be sure that there is a great deal of history and information left unreported by this document, you can be just as sure that this short overview of our is in line with events and actions that this document does not contain. I personally and all the members of Local 17 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers can indeed be proud of our accomplishments and truly these accomplishments are not to the credit of any one man or group of men, but to the membership as a whole.

We stand here today 100 years old, or is it 100 years young? I prefer to think of us as only a youngster, because as sure as there will continue to be a need for the electrical industry in our future, there will continue to be a need for the Union in our future. And as long as that need for a union exists, Local 17 will be there, in the forefront, with its members and officers leading the way to a brighter future for all of us. If indeed history is the oracle of the future, then this short trip into the past will give us reason to hope that as long as we hold the lightning in our hand we have a bright future indeed.

With undying gratitude, I sign myself, on this our 100th Year Anniversary.

John E. Nolan
Journeyman Lineman
Local 17, I.B.E.W.




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