Bob Choate loved line work. Even when he was just starting out as a PG&E groundman in the mid-1960s, he avoided taking sick leave because he was afraid he might miss something new.
Choate, who died suddenly on March 1 at the age of 70, gave the next 40 years of his life to the trade, first as a lineman for PG&E and later as a union representative. He earned widespread respect for his knowledge of line work, but even more so for his commitment to his peers.
“There is nothing he wouldn’t do for a union brother or sister,” said IBEW 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell. “He gave his all to Local 1245, and we are better for it.”
Choate worked for nearly three years in General Construction at PG&E, then moved over to Division, working in Richmond, Walnut Creek and then Concord, where he was a foreman. He served on two bargaining committees in the early 1980s, and his grasp of union principles and his commitment to the cause impressed then-Business Manager Jack McNally, who hired him as a business representative in 1984.
Choate’s early mentors included Business Representatives Sam Tamimi and Joe Valentino, who schooled him on union mechanics. But Choate didn’t need a lot of coaching on the principles of unionism and solidarity. When Valentino died suddenly in 1993, Choate sat with him all night.
People looked up to Choate, and it wasn’t just because of his expertise. Choate was a big man who towered over the crowd in any room. When Choate was hired onto the union staff, the late Roger Stalcup called him “that T-man from Concord who’s big enough to burn diesel.” Choate was mostly a gentle giant, but his size could be a factor when it came to keeping order at meetings. Disagreements over contract proposals could get heated. The presence of Choate, along with “Big Ed” Caruso, helped keep the discussion focused, according to Tamimi.
But you don’t get far on size alone, and Choate quickly established himself as an expert on PG&E’s line department, and a strong advocate for the union members who worked in it. Having come “out of the tools” Choate understood the system, knew the contract and spared no effort when it came to enforcing it.
“He had a strong work ethic. He had a strong desire to represent members,” McNally said at the time of Choate’s retirement from the union staff, in 2011. “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.”
As a business representative Choate established himself as the union’s resident expert on call-out procedures, and 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.
Being an assistant business manager posed a new set of challenges. He had more responsibility for bargaining, including negotiations at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, and became involved in arbitrations. He also took on responsibility for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Program and served two stints as the union’s top official in the PG&E grievance procedure.
In Choate’s last years on the union staff, Dalzell promoted him to Senior Assistant Business Manager. When Choate decided to retire in 2011, Dalzell persuaded him to stay on long enough to assist with negotiating one more Physical Agreement with PG&E.
One measure of the respect that Choate commanded among his peers was the election for delegate to the IBEW International Convention. Out of more than 60 candidates in 2011, Choate finished third. In 2006 he finished second. He was also elected as a delegate in 1991.
Choate wasn’t just a serious student of the line craft; he was a serious student of the union craft. He held 14 Labor Studies Certificates from the University of California Berkeley, from 1977 to 1992, and eight AFL-CIO certificates in industrial relations and contract negotiations from 1980 to 1992.
Choate was initiated into IBEW in June of 1965, a member of Unit 2316 in Concord/Walnut Creek. Choate served as a shop steward from 1976 until he became a member of the union’s staff in 1984. He represented members in Ukiah, Ft. Bragg, Eureka and Geysers Power Plant from 1984 to 1998, and during the same period represented members at Davey Tree in the North Bay.
He served on the union’s general bargaining committee at PG&E in 1979, 1981, 1983, 2003, 2006 and 2011.
Choate once said his knowledge of the job came from the job itself and the crews he worked with. He never went to apprentice school; he just practiced climbing on his lunch break. “The more I practiced, the more lunches I didn’t eat,” he said in 2011.
“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 said.
Nobody ever ran Choate off. He was a lineman, and a union brother, to the end.
Choate is survived by his wife, Janie.
For those who wish to pay their respects, the viewing will take place on Sunday, March 6th, between 2:00 – 6:00pm at Daneri Mortuary, 415 Broadway, Jackson, CA. The service will be on Monday, March 7th, 11:00am at Immaculate Conception Church, 125 N. Amelia St., Sutter Creek, CA.