7. THE UNION REGROUPS WITH NEW RECRUITS
It took the US federal court two years to rule on the NLRB’s cease and desist” order to PG&E. During those two years, as the nation slowly began to pull itself out of the Great Depression and war clouds again gathered over Europe, PG&E moved to keep up with the area’s demand for power. Among its new projects were the River Plants in Contra Costa County in the East Bay.
One of the workers who responded to PG&E’s recruitment drive was Ray Michael, who had been attending Cal-Poly. With some previous experience as an electrician’s helper, Michael thought PG&E might be the place for him:
They brought a carload of us up to be interviewed at Station A in San Francisco, the steam generating department. My first job was in the boiler gang. I worked in that boiler gang for maybe a month, and then they put me on a four-to-twelve shift as a janitor. I came pretty close to quitting right then because they had a lot of spittoons around that I had to clean. This was new to me.”
But Michael stuck it out, soon becoming a helper at four dollars a day. During the summer, Michael was one of several employees transferred to Station C in Oakland to be trained as operators. In the fall, the company sent Michael to the River Plants then under construction at Avon, Martinez and Oleum.
I came up to Avon about September of 1940, before the plant was in operation. They were just in the process of starting up some of the pumps to test them, starting to what they call boil out” a boiler to get it ready for operation. There was quite a group of us up there at that time that were learning the plant. We would go around and learn what the equipment was, how it operated, and what its purpose was.”
At Station A in San Francisco, union” was considered a nasty word, according to Michael, something a person didn’t dare say out loud. PG&E, after all, had decisively beaten the UE’s union drive only three years earlier and was still riding high on its anti-union horse.
But remnants of the UE lingered on the property. In early 1938, some UE supporters at PG&E aligned themselves with the newly-created Utility Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC), which was established nationally by the CIO on February 1, 1938. Utility News”, the UE newsletter during the 1937 election drive, simply added UWOC” to the publication’s banner after the election and continued publishing in 1938 as the UWOC newsletter.
The UWOC failed, however, to establish itself as a bargaining representative on any PG&E properties during the remainder of the 1930s, let alone negotiate any contracts for PG&E workers.
But by 1940, as Michael was beginning work at the Avon plant, the idea of union was beginning to pick up momentum once again. As Michael remembers it:
My feelings always were in favor of the union because I’m a very honest person and when I could see the dishonesty in a lot of things that went on around me I knew something had to be done. Supervisors would do things that weren’t right. People were passed over as far as promotions were concerned.”
8. UNION FOXES IN THE COMPANY HENHOUSE
Another of the new recruits for the Avon plant brought power plant experience with him. Don Hardie had worked as a power plant operator for seven years in Trona, California for American Potash & Chemical Co. when PG&E hired him on at what is now called the Potrero Plant in San Francisco. Like Michael, Hardie was soon transferred to Avon. PG&E probably viewed Hardie’s previous experience as a power plant operator as an asset. But Hardie brought another kind of experience that the company wasn’t likely to appreciate quite as much: he was a union man.
A native of Edinburgh, Scotland, Hardie learned unionism from his father, a woodcarver and stone cutter engaged in reconstruction work in Scotland. After coming to the United States, Hardie’s father joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) while working in Hollywood. Hardie joined the Operating Engineers and became active in trying to organize the plant in Trona where he worked
PG&E had let a fox into its henhouse at Avon. And Hardie wasn’t the only one.
On February 11, 1941, two months after Hardie came to work for the company, a 30-year-old radio operator stepped off a steam schooner and into a job at PG&E. Tom Riley, an Oakland native who had been at sea for over 10 years, was ready to plant his feet on the ground:
I went to sea as a radio operator. An individual named Mervin Rathbone, who also was a radio operator, started a little monthly letter and I signed up to join him on it. This was in 1931. It eventually became the American Radio Telegraphers Association.
I got off a steam schooner on February 11, 1941, and went to work for Pacific Gas and Electric Company down at Station C at the foot of Jefferson Street in Oakland. I was a laborer at four dollars and forty cents a day. The progression at that time was laborer, oilier, fireman, pumpman, control operator, and watch engineer. About three weeks later they shipped me up to Avon. They called me in and told me they’d give me an oiler’s job. Percentage-wise that was the biggest raise I ever got–from laborer to oiler. I went from $4.40 to $5.08 a day.”
Like Hardie, Riley’s background made him receptive to the union message. Like many other employees, Riley believed workers could do something about unfair treatment. The anti-union heyday of the 1920s and 1930s was over. The labor movement had made enormous strides in industrial organizing: workers could no longer be counted on to simply do as they were told and take whatever pay they were offered. Despite frequent setbacks, many workers now believed they had a fundamental right to organize to protect their interests on the job. Some even believed that unions could remake the world, change it into a place where individual workers were treated with respect, where democracy would reign in the workplace as well as in the political sphere.
9. FANNING THE FLAMES OF DISCONTENT
To PG&E, of course, such thinking was akin to treason. In its arrogance, PG&E continued to threaten union-minded workers and thumbed its nose at the NLRB’s order to cease and desist promoting company unionism. The company’s attitude angered many of its workers. But wanting a union, believing in a union, even speaking out for a union, was not the same thing as having one. The IBEW, at the dawn of the 1940s, had only a handful of members scattered among seven different locals in the PG&E system. The UWOC had yet to materialize as a real force on the property.
Still, as the Great Depression dragged on and a second world war approached, worker discontent smoldered at PG&E. All that was needed was a spark to start the fire and individuals who would–in the old Wobbly phrase–”fan the flames of discontent.”
On March 25, 1941, the US Ninth District Circuit Court of Appeals provided the spark when it upheld the NLRB order that PG&E must cease and desist promoting company unionism. Mindful that PG&E had scorned the NLRB order during the two years since it was issued in 1939, the Court stated in its decision:
In the future the Company must live under an injunction and must be tried not by the NLRB but by this court, for violating the injunction, and that it is restrained from committing any acts whether like or unlike the acts referred to in the record.”
The spark had been struck. The following month, two events separated by only a day signaled the beginning of the fire.
On April 17, the CIO chartered Local 169 of the Utility Workers Organizing Committee to organize PG&E workers in Contra Costa County, site of PG&E’s new River Plants. On April 18, the IBEW brought several locals together to form one new union for the purpose of organizing system-wide on PG&E: Local 1245.
One of the charter members was Mitch Mitchell.
10. EMPLOYEE ASSOCIATIONS VS. REAL UNIONS
There was no such thing as an apprenticeship when Mitch Mitchell began work for PG&E as a grunt in Modesto, California in 1935. New workers, he says, started climbing almost from the beginning:
I had done some climbing in the woods and so I had some experience. I didn’t know anything about line work, but everybody on the crew climbed: the truck driver, the groundman, everybody climbed. It just depended on what was needed. For example, if we were doing a line construction job, the grunt would always dig the hole, the lineman framed the poles, and so on, but once the poles were set and you were stringing wire, the grunts would climb and lay up wire. So they were the menial people. They did what anybody else didn’t want to do. I went up for fifty cents an hour.”
But his ability to climb wasn’t what landed Mitchell a job at PG&E. It was his ability in handling the bat and ball. Mitchell’s skills as an infielder were needed by the company baseball team.
In the early 1920s, when unionism was still a threat in the immediate post-war period, many companies organized employee associations” to siphon energy away from legitimate unions. This anti-union strategy was at the heart of the open shop American Plan”. At PG&E, this phony union took the form of the Pacific Service Employees Association (PSEA).
Just as Pinkerton thugs provided the stick for anti-union employers to scare workers away from unionism, employee associations” provided the carrot. Through these associations, which were in fact organized and dominated by the company, workers could obtain a number of benefits, such as health and life insurance. Of course the company didn’t pay any of the premiums; workers had to pay their own. But employee associations like PSEA sometimes made it possible for workers to obtain group rates.
The PSEA also sponsored sporting events, like baseball teams and bowling leagues, presumably in the hope that if a worker is having a good time bowling or playing baseball for the company team, he’ll be too busy to think about a union. During the 1920s and early 1930s, this tactic enjoyed some success. But as time went on, many employees were thinking union. The only trouble was, not all workers were thinking about the same union.
11. FISTFIGHTS ON THE DOCKS
As the 1940s approached, competition between IBEW and CIO unionists sometimes grew fierce. When Mitchell was transferred from Modesto to Stockton in the late 1930s, he discovered that the workforce was evenly split between the IBEW and the CIO:
You’d have fistfights on the docks over it. In those days, if you were a CIO member you were [considered a] commie. It was just that simple. This would lead to all sorts of trouble on the docks. The crews in the morning would all come in and of course they all left from a single place. And in those days the crews were much larger than they are now. We had eight, 10, 12, 15 people on a crew, large crews…And you’d have one crew that would be solid CIO. One crew would be solid AFL. And in some cases you’d have a split crew, and that would really create problems. It was just not pleasant at all.”
About the time that IBEW was chartering Local 1245 in 1941, Mitchell got an opportunity to become a lineman by transferring to Humboldt. The IBEW existed in Humboldt but it wasn’t very strong. The UWOC was non-existent. The lack of a strong union presence in Humboldt made itself felt very quickly to Mitchell when he arrived from Stockton. It became an opportunity for him to grow into his role as a union man:
That was an isolated place when I moved up there. You could shoot a cannon down the street and never hit anybody. Grass growing, boardwalks, and the whole bit. There were very few linemen.
In Stockton, we didn’t work when it rained; we came in and played cards. When I went to Humboldt, hell, that was just another day. We went out and worked in the rain.
The first time was when we were going out to what they called the ‘high line.’ It was the line between Eureka and Junction City, which is on the other side of the mountain, over by Redding. We were going out there and it started to rain. Everybody jumped out of the truck and started getting tools and stuff. You had to walk in there because that was across rough country. You couldn’t get within a mile or so of the pole line, so you’d have to pack all your stuff in on your back and do your work. I just refused to get out from under the canvas. So the foreman told me if I didn’t get out he was going to can me. ‘Well, to can me you’ve got to take me back to the hall then.’ So it just went from bad to worse and finally when they saw I could get away with it, it was just follow-the-leader.
As punishment, they tried to force me to clean the toilets. I refused again. ‘I’m not a janitor. I’m a lineman; I just don’t do that. If you want that done you hire a janitor.’
12. ESTABLISHING THE UNION IN RURAL CALIFORNIA
During the summers, line crews working on a high line used mule trains to pack in everything they needed, including equipment for raising poles. Out in the middle of nowhere, the crews worked seven days a week straight through the summer. No Saturdays or Sundays off. No holidays off. And no overtime pay, although they got compensatory time off once they got back to town.
Although they worked under a union contract, clearly it afforded the workers only limited protections. In fact, sometimes the best protection was simply to have a steward who wasn’t afraid to speak up for what he thought was right. Under such conditions the steward pretty much was the union. In Humboldt, Mitchell was that steward:
When we were in town, they had this mule barn where they kept the mules. There was one fellow I remember in particular who had been working for a big lumber outfit. He came to work for PG&E,came into Eureka. Not having six months they could lay him off because he wasn’t a permanent employee. He didn’t get the benefit of the rainy-day clause. So when it rained [the foreman] would hide him out in the mule barn, make him stay out in the mule barn. That way he still got paid.
Well, it was colder than a welldigger’s nose out there. I didn’t know what was going on, but I discovered it one day. I told the foreman, ‘Look, if the guy’s going to get paid, bring him in here. What the hell difference does it make whether he’s here or out in the barn? It’s just insane to keep him out there in the cold.’ We had a big round of that until finally they let him come in.”
Sometimes Mitchell was able to protect workers’ interests by invoking the contract’s savings clause.” Even if a specific condition–like company-provided gloves–wasn’t spelled out in the contract, if the company had traditionally provided the item then the company had to continue providing it. Sometimes Mitchell was able to get unfavorable decisions by the local boss overturned by appealing to the division manager, with whom he made it a point to become acquainted.
In this way, employing five parts tenacity and five parts common sense, men like Mitchell in the early 1940s established the union in rural areas of California–from Humboldt to Sacramento, from Drum to DeSabla, and in General Construction.