13. MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
While the IBEW was gathering strength in the countryside, PG&E workers in the Bay Area were marching to a different drummer.
In early 1941, a small group of men–probably fewer than a dozen–gathered in the Plaza Hotel at the corner of Salvio and Grant in Concord, California. It was hardly the setting for an historic event: a small bar in a two-story hotel described by one PG&E employee of that era as little more than a glorified rooming house. The Plaza Hotel has long since vanished from the city landscape, but the meeting in the bar that day turned out to be a landmark in local labor history.
The men in attendance were from PG&E’s three River Plants at Martinez, Avon and Oleum. They included Bert Mudgett, Bill Tod and John Hanson, all watch engineers. They included Don Hardie and Ray Michael, and Jim Cuthill, a fireman at Martinez. Also present was 25-year-old Ron Weakley.
Like Hardie and Riley, Weakley brought a union background with him to PG&E. His stepfather was a committed union man, a member of the IBEW since 1905. While Mitch Mitchell was in the north woods in the early 1930s learning unionism from the IWW, Weakley was dipped in the waters of labor activism during the 1934 Longshoremen strike in San Francisco. Only 19 years old at the time, Weakley pitched in and did what he could to aid the strikers. He was among the thousands of strikers and sympathizers who staged a dramatic silent march up Market Street to protest the killing of two union supporters on Bloody Thursday.
After spending four years in the Navy, Weakley worked briefly for the old Key system, now called AC Transit, and in 1940 hired on at PG&E for 50-cents an hour in the steam generation department in San Francisco. Like Hardie, Riley and Michael, Weakley was soon transferred to the River Plants in Contra Costa County where he became a watch engineer.
Those who attended the meeting at the Plaza Hotel credit Weakley with driving the group forward. Michael remembers Weakley this way:
He acted like he had the experience and the background to know what to do and what to expect. And we just followed.”
And, indeed, there was little doubt in Weakley’s mind where the group was headed: the industrial unionism of the CIO.
14. ATTACKING THE NEANDERTHAL
The IBEW at that time was still primarily a union of linemen. It had barely a toehold among linemen at PG&E and showed little interest in other classifications. Clearly the steam plant workers meeting at the Plaza Hotel had to look elsewhere for a union banner under which to rally. That banner was the Utility Workers Organizing Committee.
It was almost a laughable undertaking: fewer than a dozen people believing they could take on one of the largest corporations in America, a company that had spit in the eye of the National Labor Relations Board and ripped apart every organizing drive ever conducted on its property. If the company had shown any interest in addressing some of the workers’ concerns, the union movement might never have left the starting gate. But workers saw little evidence that the company would ever change voluntarily: it just wasn’t in the nature of the beast.
Ron Weakley remembers:
PG&E didn’t like ever losing anything. They had things like area differentials where they paid people less out in the boondocks. They had sex differentials. It was pretty Neanderthal. We had to attack all these things. The CIO principles were equality for everybody. The basis of mass organization was that you shouldn’t discriminate against anybody, for political beliefs, sex, race, or anything else.”
Workers also had serious health and safety concerns, Weakley recalls:
One of them was inclement weather, linemen working in the rain–which is very very dangerous. Dirty water is a conductor. Another was adequate retrieval of injured persons from the underground: caving in of ditches, no shoring. We lost people from that. Another problem was in steam plants: protection from steam burns. Protective things around ladders–they had these great big tall things you had to climb–that was one of them. And one of the problems for the clerical workers was their working spaces and conditions. They didn’t have coffee breaks and things like that.”
Throughout the Bay Area workers were frustrated with conditions at PG&E and looking for some way to organize. And the men meeting in the bar of the Plaza Hotel in Contra Costa County, though not the first to gain a UWOC charter, were among the first to take action. Chartered on April 17, 1941, as UWOC Local 169, they began the job of dragging PG&E–kicking and screaming–into a union representation election.
15. PETITION FOR ELECTION
In April of 1942 the UWOC petitioned the NLRB to represent PG&E physical employees in the East Bay. PG&E, remembering its success against the UE in the system-wide election in 1937, wanted to repeat the system-wide format in order to overwhelm this small pack of East Bay trouble-makers. The NLRB, siding with the UWOC, approved an election limited to the East Bay. However, the NLRB noted that the entire PG&E system would be the optimum unit” for a union, leaving the door open for the unionists to organize on a system-wide basis when they felt strong enough to do so.
By this time, of course, the IBEW had decided that it, too, would attempt to organize PG&E workers in all Divisions, including the Bay Area. The IBEW chartered Local 1245 in April of 1941 in large part to compete with the UWOC. Local 1245 held its first organizational meeting on May 10, 1941, in the Labor Temple in Sacramento. But, as the IBEW was soon to learn, the train had already left the station: the Bay Area was going with the CIO.
On June 2-4, 1942, PG&E physical employees in the East Bay voted. Fifty-four employees voted for no union.” The IBEW received 201 votes. The UWOC received 809 votes, an overwhelming majority.
Winning the election, of course, was only the beginning of the battle. The NLRB certified the UWOC on June 20. In keeping with its tradition, PG&E adamantly refused to bargain with the union.
16. WAR LABOR BOARD
But even if PG&E hadn’t changed, something in the world had. America was now at war with Germany and Japan. And the federal government was concerned to make sure that labor unrest did not disrupt the war effort.
After the war began, the National War Labor Board was empowered to mediate labor-management disputes and regulate employers’ labor policies. On October 16, 1942, the National War Labor Board ordered PG&E to bargain, under the threat of imposing a mediation panel.
By Christmas, there was still no movement at the bargaining table and a mediation panel imposed a settlement. Two years after a handful of union-minded men met over drinks at the bar of the Plaza Hotel, the UWOC had its foot in the door of one of the leading utilities in the world.
During 1943 and 1944 virtually the entire PG&E system was organized by divisions, with various locals of the UWOC reigning in the Bay Area and IBEW Local 1245 winning in the outlying areas. Certifications were issued during those years at the following PG&E divisions:
East Bay, 1557 employees, UWOC
Shasta, Humboldt, Sacramento, Drum, 1653 employees, IBEW
Central Supply, 181 employees, UWOC
System dispatchers, 10 employees, UWOC
General Construction, 2325 employees, IBEW
North Bay, San Francisco, San Jose, 2809 employees, UWOC
Desabla, Colgate, Stockton, Coast Valleys, 1557 employees, IBEW
Building Maintenance employees at General Office, 56 employees, UWOC
Gas Supply & Transmission Dept., 102 employees, IBEW
San Joaquin, 1642 employees, IBEW
After winning various elections by division, both unions set about consolidating their gains. On May 26, 1944, IBEW Local 1245 negotiated its first master contract covering all PG&E divisions that it represented. On August 15 of that year, the UWOC also negotiated a master contract for all of its PG&E locals.
With the war coming to an end, the union tide at PG&E appeared to be rising.