Webmaster’s note: This extended chapter on the Sacramento Municipal Utility District is taken from Fist Full of Lightning, the history of IBEW 1245.
In late December of 1942, electric utility workers in Sacramento voted 234-191 to be represented by IBEW 1245 as PG&E employees, but they didn’t stay PG&E employees for long. When Sacramento residents broke away from PG&E to form the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in 1947, the workers providing electric service in the area were launched on a new trajectory as public employees. SMUD’s workforce was small compared to PG&E’s, but from the moment Ronald Weakley became business manager in late 1952, it was clear that members at SMUD were not going to be silent partners in the newly-amalgamated IBEW 1245.
During SMUD negotiations in 1953 members rejected management’s proposed 4.25% general wage increase as unsatisfactory. They were still holding out for more when SMUD finally imposed the increase unilaterally. Incensed, members at SMUD vowed to retaliate by taking an active role in the next election for the SMUD Board of Directors. By the following year Weakley’s negotiating team had achieved additional general wage increases, double-time for all emergency work between midnight and 6:00 a.m., a 50% increase in the shift differential, and a 25% increase in sick leave accumulation. In addition, management agreed to establish safety and apprentice training programs. These negotiations were a vivid demonstration of the muscle that IBEW 1245, as a regional union, could flex on behalf of members at public sector employers.
From Day One, though, SMUD was a challenging place to work. Leonard Williams remembered well the night that SMUD took over the area’s electric system from PG&E. The transfer was scheduled to take place at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day in 1947. Some PG&E workers, including Williams, had hired on with SMUD a month earlier to help with the transition.
“I was a troubleman,” Williams recalled in 1991. “We were over here ready to go to work when SMUD took over at midnight.” He didn’t have to wait long for trouble. The first call was from SMUD itself, which had set up offices in the California Fruit building in downtown Sacramento. Williams loved the irony.
“They had one of the old panels in there and it blew up. They started to work, then boom, they blew their fuses. We got a red tag hung on it. Made them very unhappy. Had the city condemn the board. First call.”
SMUD managers probably weren’t particularly surprised by the trouble. They knew they had a clunker on their hands when they took over PG&E’s electric distribution operations in the area. The physical system was in poor condition and poorly integrated. It included a jumbled assortment of distribution voltages, including an independent distribution system acquired from hop ranches that ran at 6,900 volts. Some equipment dated back to 1895. SMUD had acquired an antique, along with a backlog of 3,000 applications for service. During SMUD’s first decade of operation the number of electric customers would double. Peak demand would increase 228%. Bringing the electric distribution system into the 20th century would be a big job.
The system was in bad shape because PG&E had ignored it for more than two decades, going back to 1923 when Sacramento citizens voted 6,378 to 978 to create the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Public ownership of utilities was not a new issue. In the 1890s, the People’s Party, a national political uprising of farmers and workers, called for public ownership of America’s utilities (and railroads and banks). In the early 20th century, public ownership of utilities was also a major goal of the Progressive movement, fueled by widespread anger over high rates, poor service, and a general distrust of giant corporate monopolies—which private utilities were in the process of becoming.
To gain control of the area’s water and power resources, SMUD’s founders knew they had to acquire the electric distribution systems of PG&E and Great Western Power. PG&E fought the takeover tooth and nail. Before SMUD could acquire PG&E’s property through the process of eminent domain, the state Railroad Commission had to set a price for the purchase. In 1934, and again in 1938, SMUD directors pressed their case with petitions to the state Railroad Commission. In 1942, the Railroad Commission finally set a price. PG&E rejected it. SMUD followed with a condemnation suit in 1943, which SMUD won in Superior Court in 1945. PG&E appealed. Finally, on March 21, 1946 the California Supreme Court put the matter to rest by denying PG&E’s petition for further review.
Through all the years of litigation, PG&E had let its Sacramento system fall apart. It was up to men like Leonard Williams to start putting the system back together again.
SMUD advertised far and wide to recruit a labor force for its newly-acquired electric system. But many of its new employees were PG&E workers in Sacramento who simply crossed over when SMUD took control. Despite the decades-long battle for ownership of the system, a more cooperative relationship prevailed among the workers who actually ran the system. Many of the linemen had been members of IBEW 1245 at PG&E and remained so at SMUD. In some cases their old supervisors at PG&E pitched in to make the transition work.
“When we came over, SMUD had no hammers, no testers no rubber glove bags. We didn’t have very many rubber gloves,” Williams recalled. “When we left, my superintendent down at PG&E says, `Here’s a hammer, here’s a rubber glove bag, here’s a tester’… We took them with us… We were friends with the people over there.”
PG&E let SMUD have access to some PG&E office, garage and warehouse facilities during the first 18 months. PG&E also agreed to sell or lease spare construction equipment, service trucks, tools, materials and supplies. And PG&E agreed to help the District in securing experienced personnel. Nonetheless, there were times during the transition when the two employers competed for workers. PG&E was finding places for its employees elsewhere in the PG&E system, trying to hang on to some of the company’s talent. SMUD hoped to keep some of those same people in Sacramento. Elmer Klassen, for example.
Klassen had been a PG&E lineman in Sacramento for about a year. The PG&E general foreman asked Klassen if he’d be interested in staying on with PG&E. Klassen was agreeable, but he didn’t want to turn down a possible job with SMUD unless he knew for sure that PG&E really had a job for him. The PG&E general foreman was supposed to confirm the job with Klassen by Thanksgiving of 1946, just weeks before SMUD was launched. Thanksgiving came and went with no word from PG&E.
“So Hank [Baumer] from SMUD came by,” Klassen recalled, “and he said, ‘Hey, what are you going to do? You going to stay with PG&E or are you going to come with me?’ I said, ‘Well, Hank, it looks to me like I’m going to go with you…’”
When the PG&E general foreman learned that Klassen was now planning to go over to SMUD he came running. “He said, ‘Elmer, what in the world are you going to do, let us down?’ And I said, ‘No, Harry, you told me you’d let me a’know for sure [by Thanksgiving].’ ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I did, didn’t I? Well, we want you. You can tell Hank to go peddle his apples. You stay with us.’” Klassen told him that would be OK, just so long as he had a job. But the door for linemen remained open at SMUD. A year later, Klassen paid a visit to Hank Baumer in Sacramento and hired on.
Not all of SMUD’s new recruits came directly from PG&E. In 1948, while SMUD was still actively gathering its workforce, Kenneth “Slim” Ambrose was working for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. A storm, Ambrose said, not a SMUD recruiter, convinced him to give the new public utility a try.
“They had a big storm up in the mountains and a big old snowplow went down over Donner summit and (hit) the equalizing guy… It took down about twenty poles down the hill and twenty poles uphill. All those poles were down. Every one of them sonofaguns.”
Ambrose’s crew gathered up their gear, jumped in the back of a line truck and headed out. They got to Truckee about three o’clock in the morning.
“At six o’clock in the morning we were back on the top of that damn Donner summit. Oh, that sonofabitch was cold! Every time you would touch anything metal with your leather gloves, it’d freeze. You’d just pick off little pieces of leather.”
They were on the job about two weeks. At Christmas, they figured they would go home. Management had a different idea, Ambrose remembered.
And they said, “No. What you’re going to do, you’re going to go revamp the line between Truckee and Tahoe City.” Now it was still winter. Us poor bastards were up there on that line. After we got that job fixed up, I said the hell with that noise. I says, that’s not going to happen to old Ambrose.
When he got home he told his wife he was going to see Hank Baumer. At SMUD.
With the likes of Leonard Williams, Elmer Klassen and Slim Ambrose, SMUD was getting more than experienced linemen. These were linemen in the union mold, men who believed in standing up for their rights. They understood it was easier to do that when you had a union backing you up.
Williams originally hired on at PG&E, in February of 1938, right after the utility had used a company union to crush the UE-CIO union organizing drive (see Chapter 28). But both the CIO and the IBEW still had members on the property and there were plenty of reasons for workers to keep trying for a union, according to Williams. “You’d go out on overtime, but you didn’t get paid overtime. You stayed till the job was done. If there was a storm, you kept going. No supper.”
The 1937 union drive may have been thwarted at PG&E, but workers still found ways to engage in concerted action. Williams recalled how they would thwart the boss’s attempt to work them “off the clock.” Start time was 8 o’clock, but if enough men had arrived by 7:30 and there was trouble somewhere on the system, management would order them to load up their trucks and get to work. “It got so we all stood across the street at the tavern and watched the clock,” Williams said. “Three minutes to eight we run for our truck—we wouldn’t go in the yard because if we did they put us to work early.”
Insubordination could get you fired, so linemen looked for ways to improve their working conditions without jeopardizing their jobs. Williams explained how they finagled meal breaks after PG&E pulled them out of Sacramento to go work on storm damage in Oakland, where there were poles down “as far as you can see.” An hour-and-a-half past quitting time, the men would wave at each other, come down off the poles and take their tools off to show they were ready to eat. Williams re-enacted the confrontation they provoked with the boss. “Boss would say, ‘Put your tools on and go back there.’ [The men would reply] ‘I’m here ready and willing to do the work, I just can’t cut it. I’m too hungry.’”
Williams and his co-workers used the same technique when the boss tried to get one lineman up a pole to work primary. You’d never refuse the work because they’d fire you, Williams said. Then, to illustrate the proper strategy, he cupped his hands to his mouth and called out, “I’m up here ready and willing to do the work, I just can’t cut it by myself.”
It was this sort of collective action, Williams said, that created bonds of solidarity between workers and “helped bring on Local 1245.”
Elmer Klassen was another early lineman who brought a union man’s point of view with him when he arrived at SMUD. Klassen got his union schooling in the Midwest, working on a line gang in 1936 for Kansas Gas and Electric in Wichita. By 1941 he had worked his way up to journeyman lineman in nearby Newton. At one point he and a few of his fellow union-minded linemen had a talk with the boss about their wages. Soon Klassen and the others found themselves summoned to a meeting in Wichita with the line superintendent, an unsmiling beer-bellied man named Montague, although linemen called him “the Penguin.” Here’s what the Penguin had to say, according to Klassen:
“I understand that you guys are grumbling about wanting more money up here. Let me put it to you this way: Every morning, there’s guys sitting at my office door wanting a job—better electrical engineers than you guys are linemen. You guys can take it from there.”
“In other words, if we didn’t like it, we could quit,” Klassen said. But Klassen and the others soon heard about a union job in Tennessee. All they had to do was run down to the IBEW office in Wichita and sign up for it. Klassen called the line superintendent in Newton and told him that he was quitting and going to Chattanooga the next day. The superintendent said this would put him in a real bind. It was the moment Klassen had been waiting for.
“That’s when I told him, I said, ‘Well, maybe you can have [the Penguin] send you up one of them men from Wichita, one of them electrical engineers he’s got lining up in front of his door each morning.’”
After coming to SMUD at the end of 1947, it didn’t take long for Klassen to become involved in IBEW 1245. To hear him tell it, it wasn’t entirely voluntary. At the union meeting, the business agent was assigning people to be stewards. “He had made half a dozen stewards. And I thought: Whew, I got by this. I won’t get assigned to none of that stuff. But then he said, ‘And the chief steward over all of them I’m going to make it Elmer Klassen.’ And I’m there thinking, oh no, oh no.”
Within about six months Klassen was chairman of the unit. The recording secretary was Slim Ambrose, who also was elected to serve on the Local 1245 Policy Committee. In 1991, Klassen reminisced with Ambrose about the SMUD unit meetings, which weren’t real spirited in the beginning.
“We weren’t getting much of a crowd coming out at night,” Klassen said. “We decided to get a little more action out of that local union, to get some more attendance. Between the two of us we made up a deal where we would serve them sandwiches and beer—two bits apiece, wasn’t it?”
Ambrose agreed that sounded about right. Klassen continued: “We had Limburger cheese and salami and everything. Oh man, I’ll tell you. It got the attendance up.”
By 1954, the unit was confronted by a new challenge: the arrival of television. The union’s regular meeting night, Wednesday, was “fight night” on TV and no amount of Limburger and salami could compete with that. A headline in the Utility Reporter reported the inevitable outcome: “SMUD changes its meeting date.”
Ambrose and Klassen both served stints on the union’s negotiating team during the early 1950s. At that time the union was fighting for many of the things that SMUD linemen in a later era would take for granted—like the opportunity to have a hot meal or decent work gloves. The canvas-backed “Jack and Jerry” gloves provided by the District were worthless in the rain. “We’d go out in a rainstorm and we’d take whole boxes,” said Ambrose. The men pursued the matter in negotiations until the District finally provided leather gloves.
Another problem: back then there were no rest periods. The men might have to stay on a job for the entire length of a storm, Klassen said. “And that would be, sometimes, three days and three nights, see. And, boy, after that you aren’t worth shooting, so we decided that they got to give us a rest period.”
A decent meal was another thing the union had to fight for. Management thought cold-cut sandwiches should suffice. It was up to negotiators like Klassen to insist that linemen expected more. Klassen said the union “kept a’battling” until management gave the men an hour to go into a restaurant and eat. “We got up to where they had to feed us every four hours. Which for some of these guys who always ordered a steak, why, they got pretty well built up.”
In those days, the men didn’t hesitate to threaten a work stoppage to strengthen the union’s hand at the bargaining table. “Every time we had to threaten ‘economic action,’” said Ambrose. “We didn’t say we were going to strike, it was just ‘economic action.’” But Ambrose recalled one bargaining session in the early 1950s when SMUD General Manager James E. McCaffrey took them by surprise. “Old McCaffrey said, ‘Well, tell you what, you guys, you go to dinner and you come back and we’ll meet at seven o’clock and you tell us just exactly what’s the minimum you’ll take.’” The union negotiators came back from dinner and said that $96 a week was the minimum they’d accept for a journeyman lineman. McCaffrey said fine. “And that was his negotiation,” said Ambrose.
Negotiations weren’t always so easy and produced plenty of tense moments. But there was a substantial degree of mutual respect between union workers and individual managers at SMUD. This was due in part to the fact that many managers had themselves worked as linemen and carried union cards. One of those managers was Archie Horton, who’d come to SMUD in 1950 as an apprentice lineman, made journeyman in 1954, and ended up as a line superintendent. The way Horton saw it, people who came up through the ranks often made the best managers.
“A lot of the people at that time had been union members all their life. So they knew the circumstances (people work under) and they’d do everything they could to avoid grievances. Anytime you have people unhappy, you’ve created yourself a lot of problems.”
Work could be something of a living theater, where managers and workers played out roles that bordered on the comical. Klassen recalled jockeying with his boss, Hank Baumer, over rebuilding Sacramento’s G and H alley—a nightmare of old construction many blocks long that dated back to the early days:
And we drove to that and looked at it a time or two. But old Baumer, he said, “I’m not going to give you that job. I’ve got another job over here.” So he’d give me another job for about two or three weeks, maybe a month. And then we’d get through with that and then [Baumer would say], “Well, Elmer, what am I going to do with you? I got the G and H alley.”
“We’d shudder, you know,” Klassen recalled. “I didn’t want that durn job.” Then one day Baumer came out to a job Klassen was finishing up. “He said, ‘Well, Elmer, I don’t know what I’m going to give you for a job.’ I said, ‘Give me the G and H alley.’ He said, ‘You mean you’re asking for that?’ I said, ‘I don’t want you holding it over my head the rest of my life. I’m going to get it anyway.’”
Confrontations came and went. People learned what they could expect from one another. “I’ll tell you,” said Klassen, “I tangled with Hank. We were banging our fists on the table and getting mad and old Hank would say, Well, if you can get mad, I can get mad.’ Then he’d start banging the table.”
Baumer “had a fist on him like that,” noted Ambrose, holding his hands about a foot apart. “But he never held a grudge.”
“No, he never held a grudge,” agreed Klassen. “If it made common sense, he was all for it.”
Eventually Williams, Horton, Ambrose and Klassen were all promoted out of the bargaining unit. But at heart they remained linemen, and had fond memories of the days they spent among the customers they served. Klassen recalled working in an easement by Fair Oaks when it began to rain:
“A fellow came out of a house there and he said, ‘What are you fellows doing in the rain? You don’t work in the rain, do you?’ I said, ‘Not unless it’s an emergency.’ He said, ‘Well, where do you get out of the rain?’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll get in the back of that truck, find an old garage or something.’”
The customer went inside his house, then came back outside and said, “You know, my wife and I are going to town, we’ll be gone all day. If you fellows have got to get in out of the rain, here’s the key to the house.”
Later, the crew took him up on the offer. Klassen said the couple had left them a pot of hot coffee. “We appreciated it. We even took our boots off. Set them out on the front porch and went in there barefooted. People were like that. They liked the linemen.”