Sometimes it pays to give a guy a break.
Way back when 20-year-old Bob Choate was pumping gas and trying to figure out what to do with his life, a PG&E heavy line driver came in and asked for $3 worth of gas, promising to pay next time.
“The following week he’d come in and pay the $3, and again get another $3 worth of gas on credit,” Choate recalled. “One day he didn’t come in with his $3 and my boss at the gas station said, ‘Don’t give him any more credit.’ ”
Days later the PG&E driver showed up again, saying he was broke but needed gas. When Choate hesitated the driver told him he’d bring him an application to work for PG&E if he’d just advance him another $3 worth of gas.
“I put $3 in for him and I thought, ‘That’s the last I’ll see of him.’ But he showed up the next day with an application to PG&E.”
Choate turned in the application, got a call to come in and be tested, “and the next thing I know I’m hired on in General Construction.”
It was the beginning of a long ride. Choate hired on as a groundman in Danville in 1965, became an IBEW business representative in 1984, and retired this year as Senior Assistant Business Manager.
“Choate is an expert when it comes to the PG&E line department,” said Sam Tamimi, a retired Senior Assistant Business Manager. “He and Howard Stiefer and Larry Pierce were the gurus—they took care of the linemen, all the technical part.”
It was a role Choate seemed born to.
“I love the work. It was great work. I also liked the guys. You didn’t want to take sick leave off because you thought you might miss something, something new,” Choate said.
He worked for nearly 3 years in General Construction, then came over to Division, working in Richmond, then Walnut Creek, and then Concord, where he was a foreman.
He served on two bargaining committees in the early 1980s—“back when he had black hair,” Tamimi said. Choate’s knowledge of the contract impressed Tamimi and another business rep, Joe Valentino. They became his mentors, and in 1984 he was hired by Business Manager Jack McNally.
“He had a strong work ethic. He had a strong desire to represent members,” McNally recalled. “He was a very energetic guy and did a lot of work. You’d ask him to do something and he’d get with it.”
“Came Out of the Tools”
It wasn’t just Choate’s energy that McNally valued. It was his knowledge.
“He knows the system, he knows the contract, he came out of the tools,” said McNally. “That is a big advantage in understanding our members. He’s been there, done that.”
Choate had another quality that came in handy: his size. Even if you’re six feet, you’re going to be looking up at Bob Choate.
“He was proficient as a baseball player,” said Tamimi. “When Choate came on staff the IBEW baseball team had a much better chance.
“Because the rest of them were the worst players,” Tamimi added. “But don’t print that.”
Size also helped when it came to keeping order at meetings. Disagreements over contract proposals could get heated, but the presence of Choate and “Big Ed” Caruso helped keep the discussion focused, according to Tamimi.
But Choate didn’t need to intimidate anybody to win their respect. He earned it with his knowledge of the job and his knowledge of the contract. He was the union’s resident expert on call-out procedures. In the late 1990s, McNally promoted Choate to assistant business manager, a position he continued to hold under Business Managers Perry Zimmerman and Tom Dalzell.
Climbed on Lunch Time
Choate’s knowledge of the job came from the job. His first 2-1/2 years at PG&E were as a groundman in General Construction.
“I never went to apprentice school,” Choate said. “They had no test. I climbed on lunch time, practiced. The more I practiced, the more lunches I didn’t eat.”
He says he learned the trade from the crews he worked with.
“GC, when you hired on in those days, if you were accepted by the crew they took care of you. We had boomer linemen on the crew who did the teaching, then you had the other linemen who’d take care of you—if they liked you. Of course if you weren’t worth a s**t they’d run you off.”
Choate wasn’t afraid of work so they took him under their wing. In particular he credits Jack Baker and Larry Beck with helping him make it as a lineman. And he credits Tamimi and Valentino as being his role models as a business representative.
Members responded to Choate’s style of leadership. “I had good stewards, had good members who supported me, believed in me,” Choate said.
Becoming an assistant business manager in the late 1990s posed a different set of challenges.
“There’s more responsibility—bargaining contracts, more authority to settle certain things.” He had responsibility for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Program, became involved in some arbitrations, handled negotiations at Diablo Canyon, served two stints as the union’s top official in the PG&E grievance procedure.
This year Choate knew it was time to move on. Though his official retirement date was June, at the request of Business Manager Dalzell he stayed on to assist with negotiating the PG&E Physical agreement.
Even as he heads out the door, he’s keeping an eye on new developments at the union.
“I like the idea of the youth group. It’s a good idea, a good thing to do, get ’em energized,” he said. He hopes the younger members are “in it for the long haul” because it’s demanding work that sometimes crowds your personal life and your family.
He doesn’t speak of regrets, but he does get a little wistful when reflecting on the people who built the union, the old-timers he saw around the union hall when he first came on staff in the mid-1980s.
“I wish I’d had an opportunity to work (for the union) going back to the Weakley days, maybe 15 years earlier. That would have been fantastic to watch how all this unfolded. I think we’re the caretakers of what he produced, we need to take care of it.”
Choate said he never did get back that last $3 he advanced to the PG&E heavy line driver for gas in 1965. But he’d be the first to say the job application the old line driver gave him has paid off that debt many times over.