PG&E and PT&T emerged from the war years determined to run their companies as open shops. It’s no mystery why. “Closed” or “union shops” required all workers to belong to the union, which increased the union’s bargaining power. When linemen struck PT&T and PG&E in 1920, the utilities pounced.
Linemen struck PT&T on Valentine’s Day. The strike was supported by IBEW’s top International officers, but many linemen refused to walk out. Bitter memories had accumulated over the International officers’ behavior during the 1913 PG&E strike and the PT&T strikes of 1917 and 1919.
PT&T moved aggressively against the strike, part of a national anti-union strategy called the American Plan. PT&T flatly rejected the union shop and encouraged employees to form “associations” instead—associations that managers would control. The IBEW scorned the American Plan and accused employers of trying to “camouflage industrial slavery with the American flag.” But the telephone linemen’s strike at PT&T collapsed in just a few days.
Two months later, electric linemen decided to strike PG&E. It was an act of frustration by linemen who still believed in united action but had lost sight of how it is achieved. IBEW’s International officers repudiated the strike in advance. Many linemen walked out in the Bay Area and Stockton, but no one else joined in.
PG&E immediately began meeting with “employee representatives” to discuss wage issues. It was the beginning of an employee association at PG&E, and the IBEW would have no seat at this table. The linemen’s strike collapsed on April 16, just a few days after it began. The following year PG&E cancelled its agreement with the IBEW.
PG&E workers had lost their ability to bargain, and it would take a very long time for them to get it back.