17. SUSPICION AND HOSTILITY
Despite impressive victories at the Divisional level, the IBEW and the UWOC were nowhere near organizing one union on the entire PG&E system. In fact, following World War II, the forces pulling the union movement apart at PG&E were probably as strong as the forces drawing it together. While both the IBEW and the UWOC continued to claim that a single union for the entire system was their ultimate goal, each union regarded the other with great suspicion, if not outright hostility. That left PG&E plenty of room to make mischief.
For example, the company might tell one union it must bargain for certain working conditions already granted to the other union. Or the company might use the issue of transfers to stir the pot. Mitch Mitchell believes the company enjoyed the friction that resulted from mixing CIO members with AFL members:
If they sent a CIO crew in there [to an AFL area], that didn’t affect the company a bit. But it affected us. There was turmoil for us. But the company could stand that. They always had hopes that the union would go bust, that it wouldn’t last. The company was trying to stir up trouble all the time.”
Compounding the problem, Mitchell notes, was the fact that each union now had something to lose and did not want to give up what it had fought so hard to gain:
Each was protecting its own. The status quo is preferable to the unknown, so once they had become established there wasn’t any real effort to, you know, to put it back together again. The dues were coming in. You see, there was an enormous amount of money spent by both the AFL and CIO in organizing to begin with. So they wanted to recoup that; they didn’t want to have to spend a lot more, because organizing costs money.”
Continued competition between the two unions could have left the workforce in a state of permanent discord. However, political events in the nation at large following World War II brought about a crisis in the organizing drive on PG&E.
18. ANTI-RED CRUSADE
The Soviet Union, a major US ally during World War II, became a rival following the war. Right-wing forces in the United States used this rivalry–the Cold War–to attack political opponents within the United States. Those with whom these right-wing fanatics disagreed were branded as communists, whether there was evidence to support such a charge or not. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin brought this practice of red-baiting” to new heights–or depths–when he conducted hearings intended to besmirch the reputation of law-abiding Americans.
But McCarthy, later proven to be an outrageous liar, was only one player in what had become a national hysteria. Just as colonists in Massachusetts in the 17th Century conducted witch hunts” and burned innocent women at the stake, the American public was led on a witch hunt for communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Labor unions were a principal victim of the anti-red” crusade. In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other provisions, required union officers to sign affidavits swearing they were not communists. Many American trade unionists protested this anti-red requirement as an infringement upon the civil liberties of union officers. Unfortunately, some unionists began to use the anti-red hysteria to jockey for power within particular unions.
Shortly after the war, the independent Utility Workers Organizing Committee, chartered nationally by the CIO in 1938 as an organizing vehicle, affiliated with the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), a newly-chartered International union within the CIO. When Ron Weakley and a delegation of West Coast utility workers attended the founding conference of the UWUA in Atlantic City, they were disturbed by the red-baiting atmosphere. One provision of the proposed UWUA constitution would require every worker to sign a non-communist affidavit in order to be admitted into the union. The West Coast delegates believed this provision to be undemocratic.
The Bay Area UWUA group became even more upset when the national UWUA began to clean house.” Among the victims of this house-cleaning were the UWUA regional director and two national UWUA representatives on the West Coast who had provided valuable assistance to the organizing drive on PG&E.
19. DEFECTION IN THE MAKING
As the rift between the Bay Area locals and the national UWUA organization grew wider, and with the government’s Taft-Hartley Act tightening the screws on labor unions in general, the dream of one union on PG&E seemed to be drifting out of reach. Recalls Don Hardie, at that time chairman of the UWUA Local 169 grievance committee:
It became obvious that we were falling apart ourselves, irrespective of all the outside pressure from the Taft-Hartley bill or anything else. It was a mess.”
The UWUA, as a vehicle for organizing one union at PG&E, had run out of steam. The company, sensing the union’s disunity, became tougher to deal with, according to Hardie. Clearly a new strategy was needed, some bold act that could break PG&E workers out of the logjam they were in and get the organizing campaign moving again. A defection was in the making.
In January of 1948, Local 169 (Contra Costa County) passed a resolution warning that unless the UWUA amended its policies the loss of the workers’ support for the CIO on PG&E would be the price.” It was about this time that Hardie got a telephone call from Ron Weakley. Weakley had decided it was time to get out of the UWUA. As Hardie recalls the event:
Almost out of the blue, Ron called me about exploring the idea of saving what we could and getting out. We were both on our days off at the time, so we went over to [IBEW] Local 595 in Oakland. Ron’s stepdad was a member of that local and friends with the business manager, man name of Rockwell. So we asked to see the business manager there and we went in to talk to him.”
An International representative was also present at that meeting and got on the telephone with Oscar Harbak, the IBEW vice president for the Ninth District in San Francisco. By that afternoon, Hardie and Weakley were in San Francisco meeting with Harbak.
Weakley and Hardie were, of course, not alone in their feelings about the UWUA. Much of the UWUA’s local leadership at PG&E was prepared to jump ship. But they weren’t prepared to just walk into the embrace of IBEW Local 1245. With some 5,000 members in eight locals, the UWUA in the Bay Area was a substantial political force, and as long-time CIO activists they had their own ideas about how a union should operate. They worried that the IBEW, which for six decades had operated primarily as a craft union, might concentrate too much on the interests of linemen at the expense of other classifications. Hardie recalls:
This was probably our main concern, that whatever we got out of the IBEW it would be something that would function democratically and not discriminate because some are journeymen and some aren’t. We wanted to get some kind of a framework that we thought would work and would ensure solidarity and democracy at the same time.”
The IBEW, on the other hand, had its own concerns. Some people in Local 1245 genuinely believed that the CIO philosophy was too radical. For years they had looked upon the UWUA people virtually as the enemy. Coming to some kind of accommodation just wasn’t going to happen over a friendly cup of coffee.
20. LOCAL 1324: THE BRIDGE TO ONE UNION
Perhaps one man more than any other grasped the historic opportunity contained in Weakley’s and Hardie’s proposal. That man was J. Scott Milne, who in the late 1940s was IBEW’s International secretary in Washington D.C. A former utility worker himself in the Pacific northwest, Milne was a firm believer in industrial organizing. Before assuming the post of International secretary, Milne had served as IBEW vice president for the Ninth District in San Francisco, where he was instrumental in securing the original charter for Local 1245 in 1941. Obviously he realized that the IBEW, however successful it might be in the more rural areas, had virtually no support in the Bay Area. Now suddenly the way might be opening for the IBEW to organize a system-wide election that would bring all PG&E workers under one union.
First, of course, the rest of the UWUA leadership in the Bay Area had to buy the idea of switching over. In June of 1948, delegates to the Bay Area Joint Council, representing the eight UWUA locals in the Bay Area, authorized a meeting with IBEW officials to negotiate the terms for a system-wide election on PG&E. The San Jose delegate opposed the talks and Oakland was split, but the talks were supported by delegates from all other areas.
To give members of these UWUA locals a vehicle to switch over, the IBEW agreed to charter a new IBEW local. In October, the IBEW petitioned the NLRB for a system-wide election on PG&E and the following month chartered IBEW Local 1324. To prevent friction with Local 1245, whose cooperation would be needed in the coming campaign, the IBEW put both locals under direct International supervision.
One of the great American labor organizing campaigns of modern times was about to begin.
21. NO OTHER WAY OUT
When the great cross-over began, the UWUA had some 5,000 members in eight Bay Area locals, working in four PG&E divisions. Just because Weakley and other local leaders believed the switch should be made, not all of the members necessarily agreed. The various UWUA locals in the Bay Area, after all, had a contract with PG&E through the UWUA joint council. They had the authority to process grievances and conduct other union business. The newly-formed IBEW Local 1324 could offer workers nothing concrete–only dreams of future unity, of one union on the system.” Don Hardie remembers:
Those of us who refused to belong to the CIO any more and had changed our status were for all practical purposes without any power at all. In this Concord-Martinez-Oleum area, the leadership had all gone to the AFL. They said: ‘This was it–we’re going to make this move.’ You had the likes of Weakley, Stan Dahlin, who was the line shop steward, the shop station operators, the steam plant–everything in this jurisdiction was solid. We’d gone [over]. So we had to suffer. There was no other way out.”
The Contra Costa County PG&E workers weren’t alone in their unhappiness. Throughout the Bay Area, discontent with the national leadership of the UWUA had been growing. In the South Bay, one of those ready for a change was Mert Walters.
Walters went to work for PG&E in 1944 as a groundman in Redwood City, on the peninsula. Joining the union had been an easy decision for Walters, who came from a union family. His father and a brother belonged to the newspaper pressman; another brother was a wireman. Soon after being hired Walters was signed up in UWOC Local 137 by a union lineman named Thomas J. McKay, more popularly known as Old Iron Head.”
But Walters began to have second thoughts about his union after the UWOC became part of the UWUA. He remembers national officers of the UWUA addressing the local membership at a state UWUA conference in Santa Cruz early in 1948:
The national officers tried to tell us how we had to run affairs. We didn’t buy it. We had tried to set up a strike fund and they told us we couldn’t. I remember I told them it was my money and I’d do with it what I wanted. I was young and feisty then. But they didn’t believe in strikes.”
By November of that year, when IBEW Local 1324 was chartered, Walters was ready to cross over. So ready, in fact, that he devised a plan to take a lot of other UWUA members with him:
A guy named Manny Ferrera and myself took three days off on the UWUA payroll–got a three-day leave of absence from PG&E. That was in the Peninsula District, San Jose Division. We went out and pulled the guys off the poles and out of the ditches and signed them up in the IBEW. We signed up more members than we had in the UWUA. We signed up everybody but one individual.”
Around the Bay Area the drive was on to bring UWUA members over to the IBEW. During the early months of 1949, units of Local 1324 were established in Martinez, Santa Rosa and Ukiah, along with a unit covering San Francisco, San Mateo and Redwood City. In large part these units were composed of employees who had simply come over to the IBEW from the UWUA. In cases like UWUA Local 169 in Contra Costa County or Local 137 on the peninsula, the switchover to the IBEW was rapid and massive, which raised an interesting question: Who did the union treasury belong to?
22. WHO OWNS THE TREASURY?
The national UWUA believed it had a claim to the funds, since they were collected in the name of the UWUA. But the members of those locals saw it another way. If there was money in the union treasury it was because the members had put it there. If they now chose to switch over to the IBEW, they believed their money ought to come with them.. Just to make sure that it did, they devised some creative security measures. In the South Bay, as Mert Walters recounts:
They come looking for the money. But they couldn’t find it. Manny Ferrara was secretary of Local 137. He hid all the money in tin cans in his back yard.. When it was time to actually go into the IBEW, we took all the money we had and paid membership dues for six months for all the people that were in the unit.”
Ray Michael recalls that Local 169 in Contra Costa County employed a similar approach. Stan Dahlin, given the local treasury for safekeeping, hid the money under his house. As with Local 137, by the time the UWUA came looking for the money, it had already been spent buying block memberships in the IBEW.
23. PG&E COUNTERATTACKS
Despite this creative money management, the growing band of Local 1324 members faced significant obstacles on three fronts:
First, they had to keep the peace with Local 1245, which was none too happy about having another IBEW local organizing on PG&E.
Second, they had to convince more UWUA members to come over to the IBEW. Understandably, the UWUA national leadership was extremely hostile to these efforts. And despite losing control of some local treasuries, the UWUA was still able to collect union dues from IBEW supporters through a dues checkoff provision in the contract. That meant that IBEW members were still having to pay dues to the organization they were trying to oust..
Third, there was PG&E to think about.
The company employed several strategies to combat the union election drive. For starters, PG&E continued to honor the UWUA dues checkoff in the hope that the IBEW would be provoked into filing unfair labor practice charges. That in turn would delay the election, something that PG&E wanted to do at all costs. But the IBEW didn’t fall for it.
Next, early in 1949, the company attempted to have 51 classifications eliminated from the proposed bargaining unit. If the company succeeded in this maneuver it would blow an enormous hole in the IBEW’s dream of one union on the system.” The UWUA mounted token opposition to the company’s proposal, but by this time the UWUA was more concerned about fighting the IBEW than fighting PG&E. It was up to the IBEW to keep the 51 classifications in the bargaining unit..
Ron Weakley and Don Hardie testified on this issue at great length during the NLRB hearings. According to Stanley Neyhart, the union’s attorney, these union men were subjected to violent red-baiting by the company. The company’s behavior prompted Neyhart to declare that, in all his years of hearings before the NLRB up to that time, he had never seen a corporation display such a vicious and vindictive attitude toward its employees.
24. THROWING GAS ON THE FIRE
PG&E, of course, knew exactly what it was doing. By red-baiting the witnesses, the company was simply throwing gasoline on the firefight that was already raging between the two unions. National UWUA officials had already been using red-baiting in an effort to discredit their IBEW opponents. That prompted the following remarks from C. P. Hughes, an IBEW International representative in charge of the organizing drive, to UWUA national representative Edward Shedlock:
Administrator Shedlock, by his irresponsible red-baiting is casting a shadow on the loyalty and Americanism of every honest PG&E union man who now considers himself an IBEW member… It is high time that these malicious attacks cease. I therefore demand that Mr. Shedlock either make public a list of all PG&E personnel accused of communistic connections together with specific charges against each, or stop this slander.”
The UWUA was apparently unable to produce such a list.
And the UWUA had other problems. Many of the members of IBEW Local 1324 continued to hold membership in their old UWUA locals. When they attended UWUA meetings, they naturally tried to convince the UWUA loyalists to come over to the IBEW. This tactic infuriated the UWUA.
On February 8, 1949, for example, an IBEW supporter named Al Tiegel attended a meeting of UWUA Local 133 in San Francisco. Edward Shedlock, the UWUA national representative, challenged Tiegel’s right to be there since Tiegel was known to support the IBEW. Tiegel responded that he was still a paid-up member of Local 133 because of the dues check-off enjoyed by the UWUA. Shedlock finally allowed Tiegel to stay, but said that he wouldn’t be permitted to speak.
That tactic didn’t work either. The members called for a vote and promptly voted to let Tiegel speak. Shedlock set aside the vote on the grounds that his rights as a national representative superseded those of the membership. Shedlock then declared a parliamentary emergency” and adjourned the meeting. Refusing to leave, the members elected a new chair and continued the meeting long enough to condemn the previous chair’s actions.