James J. Reid was IBEW’s prophet of industrial unionism. An immigrant from Scotland, he was witty and soulful, a charmer of men and women alike. He was a fiery speaker, a methodical organizer, an effective negotiator—and a bitter critic of industrial capitalism. If capitalists could set the price of commodities they sell, Reid argued, then workers should control the price of the one commodity they had to sell: their labor. The way to do that was industrial unionism.
He worked as a tramp lineman in Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania, but was eventually black-listed as a “union agitator.” He worked briefly as a reporter and ran for local office, unsuccessfully, on the Socialist ticket. At the IBEW’s International Convention in 1905 Reid was elected First Grand Vice President, serving under Grand President Frank McNulty. In his first year in that post, Reid recorded 28 strikes in his territory, of which about 20 were settled successfully. Local union leaders sang Reid’s praises, calling him a “rip snorting crackerjack A1” who can “liven things up.”
Reid urged Grand President McNulty to call a general strike against Bell Telephone throughout the United States and Canada, a strategy that McNulty rejected. But IBEW members were increasingly attracted to Reid’s message of industrial-scale unity and action. And no local seemed more ready for action than IBEW Local 151 and the other locals in the IBEW’s Pacific District Council.