About Local 310 Bortherhood Utility Workers Council
1300 Jefferson Boulevard Warwick, RI 02886 Phone: (401)738-1223 Fax: (401)738-1180
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Labor never quits. We never give up the fight – no matter how tough the odds, no matter how long it takes.—George Meany

 

About BUW/UWUA

The Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO (UWUA) is one of the most successful and progressive unions in all of the labor movement. We have over 50,000 members working in the electric, gas, water, and nuclear industries across the United States.

Our influence is not just felt by our numbers; it is recognized that the UWUA is both innovative and relentless in our interest in and ability to protect utility jobs, and the wages, benefits and working conditions that our members enjoy in their jobs. We are committed to a job well done and dedicated to improving the lives of our UWUA members and their families, indeed, all working families.

 

Click here to read the History of the Brotherhood of Utility Workers of New England, Inc. 

 

An Informal History of the UWUA

 

This is an early history of the Utility Workers Union of America. Its not a scholarly dissertation, replete with minute detail and documentation, nor is it intended to be. Instead it is more of a light and airy ride in a free balloon from which we will look down occasionally upon the landscape when something draws our interest, and if we look closely we are bound to see and recognize the faces of some of those who went before and upon whose shoulders the union now stands.

The history of the UWUA is full of bright spots, victories, and a few defeats, and it goes back further than most of us do. This unfortunately creates a problem of appreciation, especially of the early years. How does one recreate the texture of those times? How can we feel now that which was felt then? What was it like to practice unionism in the mid-1930’s? Whether you feel it was more rewarding or less rewarding, more difficult or less difficult than now, it was, in any case, far different from that which you experience today.

Oh, for the Good Old Days!

In those early years, the slenderest of roots of the UWUA could be found embedded in the soil in many parts of the U.S. In New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Ohio, to name only a few locations. It was a time that was not at all friendly to unionization. In fact, quite the contrary. The employers, industrialists, moguls, call them what you wish, were appalled at the thought of an organized work force. Employment at will was the commonest form of contract, which of course was no contract at all. The workman was considered as a kind of raw material from which a product was made. He was paid a meager slice of the profits gained from that which he produced. “Produced” is a key word here. Being sick and unable to work resulted in loss of pay; after all, there was nothing produced. And of course, major illness equated to major non-production and was tantamount to discharge.

Other aspects of the workman's employment also help to gain insight into his societal position. One did not grieve a work assignment, one accepted it. One did not complain about an unsafe condition, one tried to avoid it. And most certainly, one did not demand a wage increase, one hoped for it. To complain about such conditions was considered rebellious and unforgivable behavior, to join a group protesting conditions was another way of saying “I’m about to look for another job.” To actually lead a protest effort was considered akin to armed assault. Those who did, seldom heard the five o'clock whistle blow. And so it went.

Suffice to say, the workman’s lot was a dreary one. He lived a mere existence and dared not hope for a brighter future. That what you now consider indispensable was then unobtainable. He was truly cast in the role of the raw material that fueled the engine of production. Most frightening of all was that for many years, society found no quarrel with this state of affairs. It was this climate of intimidation, fear, and lack of concern for the employee with which the early union organizers were forced to contend.

I Tell You Martha, ‘The Natives are Getting Restless’

But in the early 1930’s, the winds of change were starting to blow. Society was beginning to suspect that this one-sided employee/employer relationship was not a healthy one. Pressure for some kind of parity began to mount. Pressure that demanded a meaningful change in this industrial relationship.

On June 16, 1933, Section 7(a) of the National Recovery Act became effective amid tremendous acclaim from workers. This section simply said:

Employees shall have the right to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from interference, restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or of their agents, in the organization or in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid protection.

This was a bare minimum, but none the less a tremendous advantage. A crescendo of union activity followed the passage of the NRA, and of course it drove the employers crazy. They simply couldn't abide the loss of their cherished master-servant relationship. They said it would lead to industrial anarchy. It didn’t. They said it would destroy the industrial capacity. It didn’t. They predicted many dire consequences would occur, but they didn’t. In sum, they said it wouldn’t work, but it did. However, one thing they didn’t say was that they were willing to sink to any depth to prevent the law from becoming a reality. They ushered in an era of beatings, goon squads, armed guards, tear gas, shootings, and other genteel forms of combat. It got so bad that it caused Congress, in 1935, to pass a bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner, liberal Democrat from New York, which underwrote labor’s right to organize free from intimidation and coercion, and voiced support for collective bargaining as a matter of national policy. This of course was the National Labor Relations Act. Popularly called the “Wagner Act.”

Employers opposed it in Congress and in the courts. They sought to evade it, by-pass it, or refuse, as long as they could, to comply. They took it to the Supreme Court on the basis of its constitutionality and in 1937, in a five to four decision in NLRB vs. Jones and Laughlin, the court said:

Employees have as clear a right to organize and select their representatives for lawful purposes, as the respondent has to organize its business and select its own officers and agents. …Long ago, we stated the reason for labor organizations. We said that they were organized out of the necessity of the situation; that a single employee was helpless in dealing with an employer; that he was dependent ordinarily on his daily wage for the maintenance of himself and his family; that if the employer refused to pay him the wages he thought fair, he was nevertheless unable to leave the employ and resist arbitrary and unfair treatment; that union was essential to give laborers opportunity to deal on equality with their employer. . . .

Even this did not entirely stay their hand. But you know that, don’t you. To this day, these aborigines, or their sons, are still out there.

Everybody Needs a Union

As we begin to unfold our early history, it is of singular importance to recognize that about the time our local organizations were beginning to form, so also was the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) aborning. This fact is important in that the CIO was the structure upon which the beginning of the UWUA was pinned.

For purposes of our narrative, we cannot justify a long pause to discuss the massive history resulting from the birth of the CIO, but we must at least brush against these beginnings as we pass to give context and form to our organizational foundation.

In this truncated version, we will begin with an already established American Federation of Labor and note only that organizational efforts by this body were conducted along traditional craft lines, a fact that was decried by a number of their member organizations. The vocal leader of this minority was John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, who was joined in this minority by Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Charles Howard of the Typographical Union, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers, Thomas McMahon of the United Textile Workers, Harvey Flemming of the Oil, Gas, and Refinery Workers, Max Zaritsky of the Hatters, Calp and Millinery, and Thomas Brown of the Mine, Mill and Smelters, all of whom believed that there was a need and a future in the organization of industrial workers. To this end, they pressed for and succeeded in creating a Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL, and they first announced the founding in the Sunday papers of November 9, 1935.

A short time later, in a radio speech broadcast in early 1936, Lewis explained the organizational hopes of this new committee.

These millions of workers in our mass production industries have a right to membership in effective labor organizations and to the enjoyment of industrial freedom. They are entitled to a place in the American economic sunlight. If the labor movement and American democracy are to endure, these workers should have the opportunity to support their families under conditions of health, decency, and comfort; to own their own homes; to educate their children; and to possess sufficient leisure to take part in wholesome social and political activities. How much more security we would have in this country for the future of our form of government if we had a virile labor movement that represented, not merely a cross-section of skilled workers, but also represented the men who work with their hands in our great industries, regardless of their trade or calling!

It is for the purpose of enabling them to acquire and enjoy these rights that eight international unions of the American Federation of Labor . . . have formed the Committee for Industrial Organization . . . We are working for a future labor movement which will assure a proper future for America—one which will crystallize the best aspirations of those who really wish to serve democracy and humanity.

This new committee took it upon themselves to organize the industrial worker, but soon found themselves in a violent dispute with William Greene, president of the AFL, who announced the reaction of the AFL Executive Council, describing the movement as “dual unionism” and called upon the CIO unions to disband. They refused and continued their efforts in a now hostile environment. In spite of this, soon this new idea, this new committee, was to become a new organization, the “CIO.”

Although this committee assumed the mantle of an educational group promoting industrial unionism within the AFL, soon the initials “CIO” began to take on a magic of their own with workers of the mass production industries who were in rebellion against the old way of industrial life. They were sick of low pay, arbitrary firings, and speed-ups. They wanted industrial unions, and the CIO began to successfully assist their organizational efforts. That these efforts were clearly successful is witnessed by the fact that millions became organized under the CIO banner.

Enter the C.I.O.

But the old hostilities regarding dual-unionism did not go away. The AFL first suspended the AFL-affiliated unions that had stayed with the CIO; and then, in early 1938 these unions were expelled. November of that same year, the CIO met in Pittsburgh and changing one word of the original name formed the “Congress of Industrial Organizations,” with John L. Lewis the first president, and Philip Murray and Sidney Hillman the vice presidents.

Vice President Murray immediately set about establishing the Utility Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC) within the CIO, assumed the chairmanship and appointed Albert Stonkus to be the organizing director. A few short months later, in the latter part of September, Lewis called Alan Haywood, then president of the New York State Council CIO, to a meeting in a New York hotel and offered him the chairmanship of this newly formed committee. Haywood accepted the job and soon after his acceptance, Stonkus decided to resign. Thus, in November of the same year that he took the assignment, Haywood found himself the chairman of an institution heavily in debt and directorless. After struggling along for a full year with the committee that was barely afloat, he was assigned the additional burden of its directorship.

It was then, in late November of 1939, that Chairman/Director Haywood decided it was time to go to the Washington Headquarters of the CIO and request the right to hire some people to do the organizing work. The leadership, impressed with his enthusiasm, gave him the go-ahead. Thus armed, he set about his search for people who had the ability, talent, and the desire to put together a union organization. It is here that we meet the men and hear the names we have heard many times since. There was Harold Straub and Ed Shedlock from New York; Reggie Brown from Pennsylvania; Garland Sanders from Michigan; and Bill Munger from Ohio.

These men set about the hard, grueling, sometimes dangerous, exciting task of organizing the unorganized under the banner of the UWOC. By 1939, after hopscotching the country coast to coast, they could report 39 new unions organized. By 1940, the figure rose to 42, to 96 in 1941, and nearly doubled in 1942 to a count of 180 local unions. It might be surprising to some to know that not all these locals represented utility workers, some locals represented workers with railroad systems. In fact, of the 180 unions in the UWOC fold in 1942, 79 of them were railroad locals.

My Boss, My President, My Friend

We now leave the UWOC for a moment and turn our attention to the development of our local unions. However, before doing this we should take note of the one wild shot most used by many employers in their frenzy to avoid legitimate unionization.

One of the earliest ploys attempted by management to keep unions at bay was a variation of the theme “if you can’t beat um, join um.”

They went about setting up their own unions; nice, wholesome, company dominated, and of course, tame organizations, that at least gave an illusion of independence, and it worked for a while. But even the dullest began to get suspicious when monthly union meetings were held in the company Board of Directors room. Even more destructive to their clever plan was that many people were far from dull and began to recognize these early set-ups as raw material out of which could be fashioned real representative organizations. Also about this time, the government saw how silly this all was becoming and said “Come on fellas, pick a side; you're either management or you're not!” And with that we said “Goodbye” to company unions (at least formally).

Here and There We Struggle to Our Feet

It is at this point, if we hope to follow the beginnings of the UWUA, we are forced to run off in many directions at the same time. The risk is to exclude any number of interesting stories about the early history of a number of our local unions, but as was said at the onset this is but an overview, much too condensed to permit such multiple digressions. However, we will examine a few specific cases of local union development, either because a number of our early leaders came from these locals and/or because their formation is interesting and documentation is readily available. We apologize in advance if your local is not included. The aforementioned time, space, and lack of documentation make such omissions understandable, if not excusable.

 

Consumers Power (There Auto Be a Better Way)

As you will soon see, most of the utility employers tried to start company unions with the forlorn hope that such organizations would in some way prevent honest unionism from gaining a toe-hold on their properties. Consumers Power Company was not an exception but their efforts (intended or otherwise) seemed half-hearted and a bit late. In fact, they found themselves actually competing with real efforts resulting from strong interests in union principles developing in the minds of employees at Saginaw, Bay City, and Flint, Michigan. Garland Sanders, a lineman with the company, was astute enough to perceive this interest and accepted the task of building upon this interest a strong formal union organization. It wasn’t long before he felt his efforts were ready to pay off, that he had what it took, and he was right, for suddenly Consumer’s Power was a company with a real union, a union affiliated with the CIO. Not long after that, the union had its first contract with the company; a contract between Consumers Power Company and, well, you’ll never guess who! A contract that was signed by the United Auto Workers. The reason for this rather unusual relationship was that the UAW was the only established union close by capable of absorbing this fledgling.

When this first contract expired (and there is reason to believe that this was the very first contract entered into by any current local of the UWUA), John L. Lewis, then head of the CIO, thought it inappropriate for utility workers to be affiliated with the UAW and cast about for a more suitable relationship. Not much was available, but he did notice that there was a “United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America” in the CIO, and in that they had the word “electrical” in their title he figured, why not, and with that the Consumers Local was affiliated with the UE.

About this time, the IBEW came hustling into town (or they were hiding in the bushes all along) and at the conclusion of this latest contract they snapped up the Consumers group and signed a multi-year contract that provided less than three cents over its term. Needless to say, the members were irate – no, mad; well, more like boiling – and when the contract expired, the first chance they got, they headed for the exit. Here suddenly was an opportunity for the Consumer group and the UWOC to effect a mutually beneficial relationship.

The members needed qualified representation and the Utility Workers Organizing Committee needed members. Harold Straub and Ed Shedlock arrived on the scene and after many meetings and discussions, the membership cast their lot with the UWOC. With this act, they were to become the first chartered local in our family of locals. The local number “101” attests to this fact. Other locals at Consumers Power also have low numbers: Locals 103, 104, 105, 106 and 107. Such numbers indicate that many of the Consumers employees were the first to enter the UWUA. 

Consolidated Edison (As easy as 1-2)

Around this same time, unionism in an independent form was beginning to take hold in New York. An affiliation of the Bronx Gas and Electric Company, Yonkers Electric Light and Power, and the Westchester Lighting Company had by the mid-1930’s been operating a form of company union under the title of “Employees’ Representation Plan” wherein employee representatives for each of the enfolded groups were selected for the purpose of raising problems of mutual interest, and offering in the form of requests, solutions to these problems as is expressed in a portion of the old minutes produced below:

The purpose of this meeting is to form a group as outlined below, to discuss problems of mutual interest appertaining to the Yonkers, Bronx and Westchester Companies, and to present requests, when recognized as a bargaining group, to the Management. (emphasis added)

After a discussion, it was decided to have the following plan of organization:

The Unit shall consist of the chairman, secretary and an advisory board, consisting of two members, of each general council of the Westchester Lighting Co., the Bronx Gas & Electric Co., and the Yonkers Electric Light & Power Co.

The chairmen, only, are to have the right to vote on all matters brought up for discussion and presentation to the Management.

In order to adhere to the principles of collective bargaining, the Unit must be accepted by each individual general council and then the Management will be requested to recognize the Unit as an official bargaining group.

The advisory board, in each case, shall consist of two members of comparable departments of each company’s general council, alternately attending each meeting of the Unit by groups (or departments) as agreed upon at each preceding meeting. It was decided at this meeting that two representatives of the Commercial Group (or department) of each general council would attend the next meeting in the capacity of advisory boards with the respective chairman and secretary of each council.

Such arrangements changed from time to time in form and content but the intentions remained the same, at least on the part of the employee representatives, to affect favorably the working conditions of the employees.

However, these attempts by the employees were, as was almost always the case, fatally flawed by the proviso that all decisions on merit, or actions taken on proposals, were the exclusive purview of management, as was reflected in the May 9, 1935, minutes of the Employees General Council:

We were informed that one of the major subjects presented for Company approval by the First General Council was the matter of job reclassification. This request was not granted by the Management and the First General Council suggested that we give this matter some thought and endeavor to have same favorably accepted by the Management. A motion was brought up to the effect that each representative, with the aid of a committee appointed from the members of his particular group, classify the jobs under his jurisdiction. This motion was seconded, voted upon and passed. (emphasis added)

On March 23, 1936, the Public Service Commission approved a merger of the New York Edison Company, the Bronx Gas and Electric Company, the New Amsterdam Company, the Central Union Gas Co., the Northern Union Gas Co., and others into the “Consolidated Edison Company.”

Shortly after the forming of this new company, the Employees’ Representative Council met and affirmed its relationship with this new entity but the days of this company union were fast drawing to a close.

A year after the merger in April and May of 1937, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), an AFL affiliate, moved in and obtained a “Consent Recognition” to represent the ConEd employees. Thus, without options, the employees became members of the IBEW. The IBEW immediately issued charters to the seven company unions. Two charters were issued to ConEd locals (later to be Local 1-2 of the UWUA). The third went to the New York Steam Employees, the fourth to Consolidated Telegraph & Electrical Subway Employees, the fifth to New York and Queens Electric Light and Power, the sixth to Brooklyn Edison Company, and the seventh to two Westchester affiliates.

The members were far from happy with their new union inasmuch as the IBEW chartered them as “B” locals. This “B” local designation meant that these members could not perform work that IBEW reserved for its “A” members. This also meant that the IBEW was not going to last long at ConEd, and it didn’t.

In early 1940, a massive work jurisdiction dispute erupted on the ConEd property when the IBEW insisted that stranger “A” members be brought in to do work normally assigned to ConEd workers. The membership was furious, but the IBEW didn’t care. What to do? They went on strike and with this action the IBEW gobbled up their treasury. This was the last straw and the seven “B” locals threw the IBEW out. They demanded of the Nationa