The nucleus of our union formed in 1890. Wiremen and linemen came from all over the United States to St. Louis to wire buildings and exhibits for an exposition. The workers got together at the end of the workday and talked about their pay and conditions. Their stories were the same: long hours, the average workday was 12 hours in any weather, seven days a week, the pay was low, many men were forced to accept work for $8.00 a week. The work was hard and dangerous, the fatality rate was about 50%, the national death rate for electrical workers was twice the national average for all other industries. Henry Miller started the IBEW in 1891. The first convention was held in St. Louis on November 21, 1891. Ten delegates attended, representing 286 members. The founders of our union met in a small room above Stolley’s Dance Hall. The name adopted for the organization was National Brotherhood of Electrical workers. The delegates to that First Convention worked night and day for a week drafting our first Constitution, general laws, ritual, and emblem- the well-known fist grasping lightning bolts. The Convention elected Henry Miller as first Grand President and J.T. Kelly as Grand Secretary.
LOCAL 159 HISTORY
Local 159 was chartered in November 1900. There is little in the way of historical record of these early days. From Union Labor News, we know that in 1902, there were 25 members of Local 159. Part of the reason for this lack of records might have been due to poor record-keeping, but a more likely reason is the disastrous “civil war” which afflicted the International Union, beginning officially in 1908 and lasting until 1912. This struggle pitted two factions against each other, linemen locals, headed by James Reid and inside locals, headed by President McNulty.
There are no records of any meetings from November 1900 through June 1912. Local 159 was at this time a mixed local, including wiremen and linemen. The first minutes we find are from July 7, 1912, from Local 186, not Local 159! It looks like Local 159 seceded from itself, going into Local 186, which was the McNulty faction. There are dues receipts from Local 186 from August 1912 until July 1914, which show a number of 159 members transferred into Local 186. At the August 27, 1914 meeting, it appears that Local 186 members voted to return to Local 159.
In 1932, the contract established the first official apprenticeship program. At the November 8, 1934 meeting the Business manager reported he was organizing radio operators, and trying to organize the sound and TV systems installers. In the 1947-48 agreement, the employers agreed to pay one percent of gross pay into the National Employees Benefit Agreement pension plan.
At the September 9, 1954 meeting a motion was passed that when a member of 159 dies, each member will be assessed $1.00, and the Treasurer will immediately send out a check to the member’s family.
In April 1972, a separate residential agreement was negotiated. By the 1970’s the agreements started to have three-year terms. In the early 1990’s a systematic organizing program began, and full-time organizers were hired.
In 1992 the first union golf outing was held. Local 159 has always contributed to local charities, but perhaps more importantly, they have been there to volunteer. Some of the projects that we have volunteered for are Holiday Fantasy in Lights, Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity, Vilas Park Zoo Annual Fundraising programs, Halloween Tunnel of Terror, and Fishing has no Boundaries.
If Local 159 is to celebrate its second centennial, it must continue to build on the successes of the four previous generations of 159 members. It must not repeat the mistakes of the past. We must protect our craft and geographic jurisdiction, keep as many contractors organized as possible and organize new ones. We must continue to develop our apprenticeship and training programs and stand for quality work. We must continue to provide opportunities for our members to build solidarity.