29. ‘THE EMPLOYEES WILL DECIDE’
And what an election it was to be.
The PG&E representation vote posed massive logistical problems for the NLRB. Due to the unit’s historic size, the NLRB was forced to waive the 30-day rule and allow nearly two months for setting up the election machinery.
PG&E was one of the most spread-out utilities in the United States, covering an enormous geographical area. The NLRB decided that General Construction would vote by mailed ballots. To accommodate the rest of the PG&E employees, the NLRB established 100 polling places. Fifty NLRB officials were brought in from all over the West to conduct the election.
For the International staff of the IBEW, working under International Vice President Oscar Harbak, the election was the culmination of over a year of hard work in which they assisted the campaign and supervised the two locals. Those International representatives included Chuck Hughes, Merritt Snyder, Larry Drew, Heavy” Newcombe, and Kenny Favel.
Ron Weakley worked behind the scenes for much of the organizing drive; his name rarely appeared in the Local 1324 newsletter. But three weeks before the election, Weakley decided to speak out. In an open letter to the UWUA published in the IBEW newsletter, Weakley took a last, almost wistful, look back at the CIO union he and others had once helped to build, and were now trying to defeat. He addressed his letter to The Leaders of UWUA’s Last Outpost”:
I remember a few years ago, around here pioneering a union, when it was tough to advance the cause of Organized Labor on this system,” Weakley wrote. The old CIO Union was built, not because of, but in spite of, eastern pie-cards and johnny-come-latelys. Our full time, elected leadership in those days worked hard with many of us to build a Union of 7000 members on this Coast…Those days are gone forever. The old CIO is dead and you can take much of the credit for its funeral. We, whom you continued to slander, are not proud and do not boast about the death of a good Union… You demanded a Union of political adherents to you and your planned program. We demanded a strong, unified Union which would and could act in our behalf in collective bargaining. You have placed your program before the employees and we have submitted ours. The employees will soon decide which they believe to be the better program.”
On January 25, 1950, the employees rendered their decision in the certification election for all physical employees at PG&E:
Neither union: 241
Challenged ballots: 266
The IBEW had won a decisive victory. Following the election, the union newsletter paid tribute to some of the individuals who had made the victory possible: Les Glasson of San Francisco, 33 years with PG&E and president of the first council in 1937; Ed White of Oakland, described as the hard-working wheelhorse of our organization”; William Haars of Oakland; Ed Hanlon and Bill Kennedy of San Francisco; Milt Ingraham of Ukiah; Don Hardie, Gene Hastings and Ron Weakley of Martinez. Also mentioned were Brothers Mercer, Carrithers and Hughes of Santa Rosa; Brothers Troxel and Gibbs of Redwood City.”
These were the individuals, the newsletter said, who have taken an active part in the heartbreaking job of rebuilding an organization after they saw the degeneration and imminent collapse of the Union they built with hard work, loss of sleep, personal sacrifices and sometimes apathetic support by those they worked so hard for.”
30. AMALGAMATION: ‘PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE’
The IBEW faced a host of pressing problems following its election triumph. PG&E workers had had no raises for more than 14 months. Under the UWUA a huge backlog of grievances had accumulated and important security provisions had been negotiated away. Further complicating matters, the UWUA still held bargaining rights for clerical workers in three PG&E divisions. A comeback bid by the UWUA was by no means out of the question either.
The IBEW faced internal problems as well. There were now two IBEW locals on the system, both under International supervision: Local 1245 and Local 1324. For there to be truly one union on the system,” some process of reconciliation–and eventual amalgamation–was needed.
The first steps along that road had already been taken prior to the election when Mitch Mitchell and other Local 1245 members decided to meet with some of the CIO cross-overs. Mitchell recalls coming down from Humboldt:
I had to come down to the San Francisco office–the IBEW was in San Francisco at that time–and we were told, ‘Don’t associate with these people from the CIO–the Weakleys, the Hastings, the Hardies–those are badasses. Don’t get involved with them.’ Another fellow by the name of Elmer Bushby and I didn’t buy all this malarkey. You know, people are people, and I didn’t think, just because they were affiliated with another organization, that they weren’t interested and concerned about the welfare of people in PG&E. They were PG&E employees.
So Elmer and I arranged to meet with Don Hardie. We started meeting with him when we’d be down here and talking about what we could do to organize and get everybody together. Weakley, of course, was a real strategist. He never was really out in front, but he was pushing everybody. He was meeting with his own people and strategizing to put things together. I didn’t meet up with him for quite some time after we started meeting with these other people–before he came out of the woodwork.”
Don Hardie describes why amalgamation, after the election, was such a pressing concern:
It became obvious that the company was still going to be happy if it had two locals to pit against one another even though they were under the same International. They could still play their game. The thing we had set out to do was to have one [local]. There had to be some mechanism to get this done.
Here were people who had been at swords points over a number of years and all kinds of things said about each other that had to be overcome. [Local 1245] people had to realize that we weren’t a bunch of people running around with bombs in our back pockets and all that crap, that we were actually interested in having a bargaining unit.”
31. A MEETING OF THE MINDS
By that time,” Hardie continues, we had had enough meetings with the 1245 people to where there was–at least with some of us on both sides–a meeting of the minds. People like Mitchell, Hansen, other people, who began to start seeing eye to eye with us on things. It was coming.”
The IBEW International convention of 1950 in Miami provided an occasion for representatives of the two locals to get better acquainted. They had just pulled off a major organizing victory at PG&E, and according to Gene Hastings, who was one of the delegates, the PG&E delegation enjoyed something of a celebrity status at the convention:
There’s no question about it. There was a camaraderie thing back at the convention. The IBEW was real proud of the fact that they were going to have a large local on the [PG&E] property. That was the beginning of Local 1245 as one identity with Local 1324.”
Ironically, while things seemed to be coming together inside the convention, things were falling apart outside: During the convention a hurrican struck Miami. Coconuts, according to one report, were flying around like cannon balls.” Ray Michael remembers:
Scared my wife to death, that storm that came through. It was bad. It tore up trees and took the top off one of the hotels and put it off across the street. It was a storm. Here we had three thousand electricians in town and they have a hurricane that wiped out all the electricity. They made quite a deal about that of course.”
Ron Weakley and Mitch Mitchell met for the first time at the Miami gathering, where they sized each other up and began talking about the future structure of the IBEW on the PG&E system. That discussion, begun in 1950 in the middle of a hurricane, would continue the following year during a different sort of storm. The UWUA in 1951 petitioned the NLRB for a new election at PG&E.
32. CONSOLIDATING THE UNIT
By this time the IBEW had put some of the key union activists at PG&E on the International payroll and given them the job of consolidating the unit. Among them were Weakley, Mitchell, Mert Walters, and Gene Hastings. It was during organizing trips to the North Bay that Mitchell remembers getting better acquainted with Weakley:
He was from the Bay Area and I was from Humboldt, so we met in North Bay trying to convince these people to vote IBEW. We would meet somewhere and then we would go together. Riding from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg or wherever it was, you’d engage in all kinds of conversation. You learn each other’s backgrounds and what they’ve done and how well you do this and how well you do that.”
Obviously both men were bright and dedicated union men, each a leader in his own right. Although the International still had both local unions under supervision, the time would soon come, both men knew, when the two locals would be amalgamated. Several good men aspired to the leadership of the new organization that would be created by the amalgamation. But movements often find their own leaders, and by 1951 it was becoming clear that those leaders were Weakley and Mitchell.
Mitchell says Weakley’s political skills made him the logical choice for business manager. Mitchell became Weakley’s top assistant. Mitchell recalls:
It was just a tacit understanding. It just sort of became a thing: this is what’s going to happen, you know. Not that you talked about it that way. It’s just something you understand. And the IO understood it, I guess, at the same time. Weakley was a leader.”
On February 28, 1951, the two locals were officially amalgamated and a new charter was issued by the International. Because it was the older of the two locals, Local 1245’s number was carried over to the new local. Don Hardie, who had been a trustee for Local 1324, believes it was the right choice:
I think they chose wisely. I think historically the number had been established on the property, whether we liked it or not, or even if we felt we were better than they were, they had been here longer than 1324 had been here. So why not?
The important thing was to finally get this company arguing with one union and no opportunity to split it. Even today, the fact that the clerical workers are part of the IBEW instead of being left out there in somebody else’s bailiwick makes a hell of a lot of difference for the kind of clerical conditions you have. They have more bargaining strength.
I can remember a time,” Hardie continues, when the linemen wouldn’t take their raise until the company took care of the other end of the line. When you get that kind of solidarity, you’ve got a winner.”
33. ‘ONE UNION ON THE SYSTEM’
On June 29, 1951, the IBEW entered the home stretch in its bid to have one union on the system” at PG&E. On that day, the UWUA petitioned for a separate system-wide election for approximately 2500 clerical workers. The IBEW, which already represented clerical workers in five PG&E divisions (Sacramento, Humboldt, Shasta, Colgate and Coast Valleys) promptly intervened. Ultimately the election would cover both clerical and physical, but with separate balloting for each.
As part of its campaign, Local 1245 offered a specific program for clerical workers. The union’s priorities were: 1) Wage security; 2) Working conditions, including a job bidding procedure to insure that classification and company seniority rights would be protected in awarding jobs; 3) Job security, including setting the steps of demotion in cases of layoffs and cutbacks so that employees go down in the order they came up; 4) Pension security.
As with the first election, the NLRB took a long time to sort out the issues and set a date. In the meantime, on December 3, 1951, the International ended Local 1245’s supervision and restored its autonomy. Also that month two International representatives were assigned to assist the clerical organizing drive: Merritt Snyder and Della E. McIntyre. McIntyre, a 14-year member, was one of the first women to have a prominent role in IBEW’s long history of organizing on PG&E.
The clerical bargaining committee for units which had already achieved representation consisted of: George Pappani, payroll clerk, Salinas; Al Shoof, meter history clerk, Marysville; Edith Shook, clerk B, Red Bluff; and Al Kaznowski, former payroll clerk and in 1951 a business representative for Local 1245.
In early 1952, the San Francisco Area Group of Professional Employees Association petitioned to represent the professional” and technical” employees of PG&E, employees who were included in the IBEW’s physical unit in the 1950 election. Local 1245 charged that PG&E was behind this effort to split the professional and technical people–about 300 workers–out of the unit. While Local 1245 didn’t oppose establishing a professional unit within IBEW, it opposed any arrangement that would create more than one union on the property. Unfortunately, UWUA’s bid for a new election had given PG&E an opportunity to carve away at the unit.
On March 19, 1952, the ballot tally was announced. IBEW again had won the physical unit. The vote was 5072 for the IBEW, 3158 for the UWUA, 156 for no union.”
But no party got a majority in the clerical election, where the results were 994 for the IBEW, 716 for the UWUA, and 364 for no union.” A runoff would be needed.
On April 28, 1952, the clerical runoff election vote tally was announced: IBEW-1327, UWUA-436. On May 5, 1952, IBEW was certified as representative for the clerical unit. Clerical agreements at the districts represented by Local 1245 prior to the election were extended to all clerical workers at PG&E. Two new representatives were added for the clerical unit: Elmer Bushby, clerk A, from Colgate, and Richard Prothero, clerk C, from Humboldt.
There was, in the end, a blemish on the victory. On May 13, just a week after IBEW was certified as representative for the clerical unit, ballots were counted in the separate election for professional and technical employees. IBEW received 205 votes, the UWUA received only nine votes, but the San Francisco Area Group of Professional Workers–later to become Engineers and Scientists of California–received 390 votes.
But it was only a small blemish. After a half-century of trying, the IBEW had won an enormous victory. For all practical purposes, there was indeed one union on the system.” PG&E workers had a unified voice at last.
34. EMPOWERING THE RANK & FILE
The job of the union did not end with the election victories of 1951 and 1952. It was, in fact, just beginning.
Deprived now of its International subsidy, Local 1245 members had to put their organization on a sound financial footing by enacting a dues increase. Relations with the UWUA, which still represented workers at other utilities, had to be repaired. And there was a constant need to sign up members because the contract contained no union security clause.
Just putting a roof over the organization’s head was an issue. Having had temporary headquarters at the Sailors Union of the Pacific in San Francisco during the election campaigns, Local 1245 now was in search of new office space, which it found in May of 1952 at IBEW Local 595 in Oakland.
Creating a structure for the amalgamated union was also a great challenge. The old Local 1245 had been a typical AFL union, with power concentrated at the top. The Bay Area people who crossed over to the IBEW in 1948 brought with them the democratic ideals of the CIO, which emphasized empowerment of the rank and file. Together they hammered out a new structure that preserved positive elements of both traditions. The business manager was given broad authority to conduct the business of the union, insuring that the union could speak with one voice in dealing with the outside world. But control over finances was vested in an elected Executive Board, whose decisions in turn were subject to review by an elected group of rank and file members called the Policy Committee. That committee was later renamed the Advisory Council and continues to serve that function to this day.
But probably the largest problem of all coming out of the gate was combining the two contracts. The two groups–AFL and CIO–may have been amalgamated in name, but their contracts reflected very different philosophies. Reconciling their differences, and then getting PG&E’s agreement, was a major undertaking.
35. CARRY IT ON
In the years ahead there would be enormous challenges: Grievance procedures were in desperate need of overhauling. Safety concerns needed to be addressed. A proposed Right-to-Work law had to be combated in 1958. And eventually a union security clause would have to be negotiated to give the union the stability it needed to protect the interests of PG&E workers over the long haul.
Without a doubt, Local 1245 bears the imprint of the great historical forces of our age. Its character was fashioned by the rise of AFL craft unions in the late 19th century, by the Wobblies who first sounded the battle cry of industrial organizing, and by the CIO which transformed that battle cry into a practical program of industrial unionism. Local 1245, like so many other unions, benefited from the pro-labor legislation of the New Deal in the 1930s, and it suffered from the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1940s and early 1950s.
But Local 1245 was never just a mere product of those historical forces. Every step of the way, the union cause at PG&E was advanced by individual workers who had the courage to envision a better life for themselves and their fellow workers. Each injustice on the job that wasprotested, each election authorization card circulated, each grievance filed, was the act of an individual who cared enough to say: This is wrong, I’m going to help make it right.”
In the end, victory was achieved because those individuals realized that their only true strength was to act collectively. Through union, they could have a genuine voice in determining their own destiny. It was, at its heart, a dream of democracy–not just at the polling place but at the work place.
Individuals who believed in that dream and worked to make it a reality brought the union this far. And they are the ones who will carry it on.