On January 1, 1947, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District bought an antique from Pacific Gas & Electric–the electric distribution system serving Sacramento. Some
of the equipment included in the deal dated as far back as 1895.
Transforming this antique into a reliable source of power for a growing community would be a big job. A job for skilled linemen.
However, the lineman’s skilled labor wasn’t fully appreciated by the employers of that era. Wages were low. Benefits were few. Linemen could be called out to work days on end without hot meals, without rest breaks, without overtime pay.
But even back in 1947 SMUD linemen had something that eventually would empower them to achieve the wages, benefits and conditions they wanted and deserved.
They had a union.
1. INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNING
Leonard Williams remembers well the night SMUD took over Sacramento’s electric system from Pacific Gas and Electric.
The transfer was scheduled to take place at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, January 1, 1947. Some PG&E workers, including Williams, had hired on with SMUD a month earlier to help with the transition.
“I was a troubleman,” Williams recalls. “We were over here ready to go to work when SMUD took over at midnight.”
Williams didn’t have to wait long for trouble.
“The first call we got was a SMUD call–their own office,” Williams relates with a chuckle. “Down at the California Fruit building where they had set up their office. They had one of the old panels in there and it blew up. They started to work, then boom, they blew their fuses.”
What could any self-respecting troubleman do?
“We got a red tag hung on it,” Williams remembers. “Made them very unhappy. Had the city condemn the board. First call.”
2: A JUMBLED SYSTEM
SMUD managers knew they had a challenge on their hands when they took over PG&E’s electric distribution operations in the Sacramento area. But without a crystal ball, there was no way they could know just how big that challenge would prove to be.
The physical system itself was in poor condition and poorly integrated. It included a jumbled assortment of distribution voltages: 2200, 2300, 2400, 4160, and 4800 volts. An independent distribution system acquired from hop ranches ran at 6,900 volts.
Some equipment dated back to 1895. On the first day of January, 1947, SMUD found itself in possession of an antique–and with a backlog of 3,000 applications for service.
During the first decade of operation, through 1956, the number of electric customers would double. Peak demand would increase 228%. Distribution substations would grow in number from 24 to 96.
Bringing the electric distribution system–and Sacramento County itself–fully into the 20th Century was a big job.
A job for linemen.
3: LOSING ITS GRIP
If the system was in bad shape, it was because PG&E had had little incentive to maintain it.
PG&E first began to lose its grip on the Sacramento electric franchise on July 2, 1923, when Sacramento citizens voted 6,378 to 978 to create the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
Public ownership of utilities was not a new issue, of course. In the 1890s, the People’s Party, a national political uprising of farmers and workers, called for public ownership of America’s utilities, railroads and banks. Commonly known as Populists, the People’s Party peaked in 1894 when it captured several governorships and many seats in Congress. The Populists fell into decline in 1896, after the defeat of People’s Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
But the dream of public ownership of utilities persisted into the new century, spurred by dissatisfaction with high rates, poor service, and a general distrust of giant corporate monopolies, which some private utilities were in the process of becoming.
The creation of SMUD in 1923 was a local expression of that Populist tradition: SMUD’s founders sought to put the area’s water and power resources under the control of the people. To do so, they knew they had to acquire the electric distribution systems of PG&E and Great Western Power Co.–the existing suppliers of light and power in the District.
4: TOOTH & NAIL
PG&E fought the takeover tooth and nail.
Before SMUD could acquire PG&E’s property through the process of eminent domain, the state Railroad Commission had to determine the compensation to which PG&E would be entitled. In 1934, and again in 1938, SMUD directors pressed their case with petitions to the state Railroad Commission.
Acting on the 1938 petition, the Railroad Commission in 1942 finally set a monetary award for PG&E’s properties. PG&E rejected it.
SMUD followed with a condemnation suit in 1943, which SMUD won in Superior Court in 1945. PG&E appealed.
A year later, the judgment was affirmed in the Third District Court of Appeals. Finally, on March 21, 1946, the California Supreme Court put the matter to rest by denying PG&E’s petition for further review.
Through all the years of litigation, PG&E had let its Sacramento system fall into a state of disrepair. When SMUD took over in 1947, it was up to men like Leonard Williams to begin putting the system back together again.
5: RECRUITING TALENT
SMUD advertised far and wide to recruit a labor force for its newly-acquired electric system. But many of its new employees were PG&E workers in Sacramento who simply crossed over to the new owner when SMUD took control.
Although upper management at PG&E and SMUD had been locked in a decades-long battle for ownership of the system, a more cooperative relationship prevailed among the workers.
“When we came over, SMUD had no hammers, no testers no rubber glove bags. We didn’t have very many rubber gloves,” Williams recalls.
“When we left, my superintendent down at PG&E says, ‘Here’s a hammer, here’s a rubber glove bag, here’s a tester.’ I still got the tester that says PG&E on it. We took them with us… We were friends with the people over there.”
PG&E did, in fact, agree to let SMUD have access to some PG&E office, garage and warehouse facilities during the first 18 months after the buyout. PG&E also agreed to sell or lease spare construction equipment, service trucks, tools, materials and supplies. And PG&E agreed to help the District in securing experienced personnel.
Nonetheless, there were times during the transition when the two employers competed for workers. PG&E was finding places for its employees elsewhere in the PG&E system, presumably trying to hang on to some of the company’s talent. SMUD hoped to keep some of those same people in Sacramento.
Elmer Klassen, for example.
6: HAVING TO CHOOSE
In late 1946, when SMUD was nearly ready to take over the system, Elmer Klassen had been a PG&E lineman in Sacramento for about a year. The PG&E general foreman asked Klassen if he’d be interested in staying on with PG&E. Klassen was agreeable, but he didn’t want to turn down a possible job with SMUD unless he was assured that PG&E really had a job for him.
The PG&E general foreman was supposed to confirm the job with Klassen by Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving came and went with no word from PG&E.
“So Hank [Baumer] from SMUD came by,” Klassen recalls, “and he said, ‘Hey, what are you going to do? You going to stay with PG&E or are you going to come with me?’
“I said, ‘Well, Hank, it looks to me like I’m going to go with you because Harry was supposed to notify me by Thanksgiving whether he wanted me or not for sure and he hasn’t said anything about it.’”
When the PG&E general foreman learned that Klassen was now planning to go over to SMUD he came running. As Klassen recalls it:
“He said, ‘Elmer, what in the world are you going to do, let us down?’ And I said, ‘No, Harry, you told me you’d let me know for sure [by Thanksgiving].’
“‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I did, didn’t I? Well, we want you. You can tell Hank to go peddle his apples. You stay with us.’
“I said, ‘OK, as long as I have a job.’ Then Hank, he come along and said, ‘I hear you went and let me down again.’”
However, this time Klassen’s mind was made up. He stayed with PG&E. The contest was over. Almost.
A year later, Klassen changed his mind one last time. In December of 1947 he paid a visit to Hank Baumer and hired on at SMUD.
7: TO HELL WITH THAT NOISE”
Not all of SMUD’s new recruits came directly from PG&E, however.
In 1948, while SMUD was still actively gathering its labor pool, Kenneth “Slim” Ambrose was working for PT&T, the local telephone company. A storm, not a SMUD recruiter, convinced Ambrose to give the new public utility a try.
“They had a big storm up in the mountains,” Ambrose recalls, “and a big old snowplow went down over Donner summit and he hit the equalizing guy… It took down about twenty poles down the hill and twenty poles uphill. All those poles were down. Every one of them sonofaguns.
“So, we gathered all our stuff and jumped in the back of a line truck and away we went.
“We got up to Truckee about three o’clock in the morning. At six o’clock in the morning we were back on the top of that damn Donner summit. Oh, that sonofabitch was cold! Every time you would touch anything metal with your leather gloves, it’d freeze. You’d just pick off little pieces of leather.
“We were on that job, I think, two weeks. We had to pull the old stuff and highline the poles down there and set the sonofaguns. So we got that all fixed up.
“Well, we figured we was going to go home. It was Christmas. And they said, ‘No. What you’re going to do, you’re going to go revamp the line between Truckee and Tahoe City.’
“Now it was still winter. Us poor bastards were up there on that line. After we got that job fixed up, I said the hell with that noise. You can bust your ass up on that hill, you know, then they send us on a little chickenshit job for eleven miles in Truckee and Tahoe City.
“I says, that’s not going to happen to old Ambrose. And the more I thought about it, the madder I got. So I told the wife, ‘I’m going down to see Hank Baumer.’”
8: BONDS OF SOLIDARITY
With the likes of Leonard Williams, Elmer Klassen and Slim Ambrose, SMUD was getting more than experienced linemen. These were linemen in the union mold, men who believed in standing up for their rights. They understood that the union was a valuable vehicle for achieving what they wanted.
Leonard Williams originally hired on at PG&E on Feb. 13, 1938, three years before IBEW Local 1245 was even chartered. But other IBEW locals had a few members on the property at that time and Williams remembers being approached about the union around 1939 by a man named Glenn Larson.
There were plenty of reasons to want a union at PG&E in those days.
“You’d go out on overtime, but you didn’t get paid overtime,” Leonard recalls. “You stayed ‘til the job was done. If there was a storm, you kept going. No supper.”
And there were other problems. It was an era when utilities believed they virtually owned the workers.
“You go in there in the morning to work, where PG&E’s electric department was,” Williams recalls. “If they had some trouble and they had enough linemen at 7:30, they’d say, ‘Load it on, we’re going to take you out, we got to get this going.’
“It got so we all stood across the street at the tavern and watched the clock. Three minutes to eight we run for our truck–we wouldn’t go in the yard because if we did they put us to work early.”
Linemen were resourceful in devising ways to improve their working conditions without jeopardizing their jobs.
“They had a storm down in Oakland,” Williams recalls. “PG&E pulled us out of here to help them down there. Here we are, far as you can see, poles down and what have you. But an hour-and-a-half past quitting time we all wave at each other and come down off the poles and take our tools off: we’re ready to go out. There was no way we could work the next five hours to get the lines working. We’re ready to eat.”
Williams re-enacts the confrontation they provoked:
“Boss would say, ‘Put your tools on and go back there.’
“‘I’m here ready and willing to do the work, I just can’t cut it. I’m too hungry.’”
Williams and his co-workers used the same technique when the boss tried to get one lineman up a pole to work primary. Williams, remembering the scene, cups his hands and calls out:
“‘I’m up here ready and willing to do the work, I just can’t cut it by myself.’
“You’d never refuse to work–they’d fire you,” Williams explains.
But it was this sort of collective action that created bonds of solidarity between workers and, says Williams, “helped bring on Local 1245.”
9: “THE PENGUIN”
Elmer Klassen got his union schooling in Kansas.
He had been working on a Kansas farm when he was offered a job in 1936 on a line gang for Kansas Gas and Electric in Wichita.
By 1941 he had worked his way up to journeyman lineman for KG&E in Newton, a few miles north of Wichita. He remembers going with a few of his fellow union-minded linemen to talk with the boss about their wages. Soon they found themselves summoned to a meeting in Wichita with the line superintendent, a man named Montague.
“So we went over, wondering what was going on. And he came in. He was a great big old… We called him “the Penguin.” Big old beer-belly on him, you know. He never would smile.
“He said, ‘I understand that you guys are grumbling about wanting more money up here. Let me put it to you this way: Every morning, there’s guys sitting at my office door wanting a job–better electrical engineers than you guys are linemen. You guys can take it from there.’
“In other words,” explains Klassen, “if we didn’t like it, we could quit.”
However, Klassen later got his revenge on the Penguin. A fellow union sympathizer told him about a big powder plant being constructed in Chattanooga, Tenn. To get work there, all they had to do was immediately notify IBEW Local 271 in Wichita–a building trades local–that they wanted the work.
“That was Thursday night and we were going to leave Friday morning,” Klassen says. “So I called up the line superintendent at Newton. I said, ‘I want to quit and I’m going to Chattanooga…right now.’
“‘Oh, man,’ he said, ‘you’re kind of putting me in a bind.’
“That’s when I told him. I said, ‘Well, maybe you can have Monty send you up one of them men from Wichita, one of them electrical engineers he’s got lining up in front of his door each morning.’”
10: LIMBURGER AND SALAMI”
After coming to SMUD at the end of 1947, it didn’t take long for Klassen to become involved in Local 1245. To hear him tell it, it wasn’t entirely voluntary.
“They had a big meeting,” Klassen recalls, and the union business agent “was giving out what he had done in the way of assignments and he was telling about the stewards. He had made half a dozen stewards.
“And I thought: Whew, I got by this. I won’t get assigned to none of that stuff.
“But then he said, ‘And the chief steward over all of them I’m going to make it Elmer Klassen.’
Klassen shakes his head ruefully. “And I’m there thinking, ‘Oh no, oh no.’”
Within about six months Klassen was chairman of the unit. The recording secretary was Slim Ambrose, who also was elected to what is today known as the Local 1245 Advisory Council.
Klassen and Ambrose agree that the unit wasn’t as spirited as it ought to have been.
“We weren’t getting much of a crowd coming out at night,” Klassen recalls. “We decided to get a little more action out of that local union, to get some more attendance.
“Between the two of us we made up a deal where we would serve them sandwiches and beer–two bits apiece, wasn’t it?” Klassen asks.
“Something like that,” Ambrose agrees.
“We had Limburger cheese and salami and everything. Oh man, I’ll tell you,” says Klassen. “It got the attendance up.”
11: “NOT WORTH SHOOTING”
Ambrose and Klassen both served stints on the union’s negotiating team during the early 1950s. At that time the union was fighting for many of the things that SMUD linemen today take for granted–like decent gloves and the opportunity to enjoy a hot meal.
“They did have gloves” back in the early ’50s, Ambrose is quick to note. “Canvas-backed.”
“Yeah, we got those old Jack and Jerry–leather front and canvas back,” says Klassen, remembering along with Ambrose. “And boy, after a rain guys would come in, you know, and say, ‘Look at them gloves. I can’t wear them.’ And they were throwing them away and getting new ones.”
“We’d go out in a rainstorm and we’d take whole boxes,” says Ambrose. The gloves were provided by the District, Klassen acknowledges, “but they weren’t worth nothing. Anyway, I still kept after them with our negotiating committee. We finally managed to get leather gloves out of them, regular Koontz gloves.”
Ambrose remembers another problem linemen faced in that era: “There were no rest periods.”
“Like we’d have a storm,” Klassen explains, “would last two or three days. They’d call a crew out and they’d just leave that crew working for the whole period. And that would be, sometimes, three days and three nights, see. And, boy, after that you aren’t worth shooting, so we decided that they got to give us a rest period.”
“And then,” Klassen continues, “we were always negotiating for the price of meals. They were going to send us out and give us cold-cut sandwiches. We kept a’battling until they had to give us an hour to eat, [time] to go into a restaurant and eat.
“We got up to where they had to feed us every four hours,” Klassen adds. “Which for some of these guys who always ordered a steak, why, they got pretty well built up.”
Another negotiating victory was the addition of a second grunt to a light crew.
“Used to have only one,” says Klassen. “We’d have two linemen, truck driver, and a foreman and one grunt. We said this was unsafe to have that kind of work without an extra man. And we got two grunts on there. That irritated a lot of personnel,” Klassen recalls.
12: “ECONOMIC ACTION”
As with any negotiations, the possibility of a strike strengthened the union’s hand at the bargaining table.
“Of course, we had to threaten economic action. We had to do that,” Ambrose recalls. “Every time we had to threaten economic action. We didn’t say we were going to strike, it was just ‘economic action.’”
Ambrose remembers one bargaining session with SMUD General Manager James E. McCaffrey at a SMUD office located at 21st and K in Sacramento.
“Old McCaffrey said, ‘Well, tell you what, you guys, you go to dinner and you come back and we’ll meet at seven o’clock and you tell us just exactly what’s the minimum you’ll take.’
“So we says fine. So we went to dinner. Come back and–I think it was ninety-six dollars–we told him, we said, ‘Ninety-six dollars minimum for journeyman lineman.’
“No trouble. He said OK,” Ambrose recalls. “And that was his negotiation.”
SMUD management had one sure way of getting under the skin of union negotiators, says Klassen.
“Our officials here would try to compare us with the PG&E linemen. “They’d say, ‘Well, the PG&E men are not getting the benefits that you are.’
“So we finally had to get up and tell them, ‘Listen, we don’t want to hear no more about PG&E. Let’s just deal with us and you fellows.’”
14: REBUILDING THE G & H ALLEY
Work became something of a living theater, where managers and workers played out their roles, where relationships were defined in the course of the day-to-day jobs, where mutual trust was sometimes created and sometimes undermined.
Sometimes those work relationships could take on a comic air.
Klassen remembers jockeying with Baumer over rebuilding the G and H alley.
“Oh, I’ll tell you, you get in some messes there,” Klassen recalls. “You see, that’s old construction down there. A lot of it’s old Great Western.
“And Hank, he come out after he was about through with his job, and he’d say, ‘Well, let me see, I got the G and H alley here to rebuild.’
“That is,” Klassen explains, “from downtown clear out to Alhambra Boulevard. Rebuild the G and H alley. Poles on each side of the alley, and PG&E and Western construction on one side and two circuits of primary on each side.
“And we drove to that and looked at it a time or two. But old Baumer, he said, ‘I’m not going to give you that job. I’ve got another job over here.’
“So he’d give me another job for about two or three weeks, maybe a month. And then we’d get through with that and then [Baumer would say] ‘Well, Elmer, what am I going to do with you? I got the G and H alley.’
“We’d shudder, you know,” Klassen recalls, smiling. “I didn’t want that durn job.”
Then one day Baumer came out to where Klassen was finishing another job.
“He said, ‘Well, Elmer, I don’t know what I’m going to give you for a job.’
“I said, ‘Give me the G and H alley.’
“He said, ‘You mean you’re asking for that?’
“I said, ‘I don’t want you holding it over my head the rest of my life. I’m going to get it anyway.’”
15: TANGLING WITH HANK
Confrontations came and went. People learned what they could expect from one another.
“I’ll tell you,” says Klassen, “I tangled with Hank. We were banging our fists on the table and getting mad and old Hank would say, ‘Well, if you can get mad, I can get mad.’ Then he’d start banging the table.”
Baumer “had a fist on him like that,” says Ambrose, holding his hands about a foot apart. “But he never held a grudge.”
“No, he never held a grudge,” agrees Klassen. “If it made common sense, he was all for it.”
Like Horton, Klassen and Ambrose eventually were promoted out of the bargaining unit. Ambrose served a stint as assistant line superintendent; Klassen retired in 1974 as acting line superintendent. Leonard Williams, who went on to work as a senior construction inspector and a fault locator before retiring in 1979, hung onto a Local 1245 “B” card throughout his career.
All credit the union with creating a better work environment and a better life for the employees.
“Oh yes,” says Klassen. “Before we organized they’d call out a heavy crew just to go to remove a kite off the line. Stuff like that. They’d take advantage of you. And they’d take you out and work you ’til you’d drop and not even bring you a cold sandwich. They said, ‘You hired out here to work; let’s work.’ That’s the way they were. There was no heart at all. No compassion.”
“I think every year it got easier for the lineman,” says Ambrose. “All your tools were furnished right down to your gloves, everything. Your rain suit was furnished. I can’t think of a damned thing you had to buy. And the working conditions: you had rest periods, you had your meals.”
16: “GOOD PEOPLE”
Even as managers, these are men who remembered where they came from.
“My heart has always been with the lineman,” says Klassen. “I always did think that he got the brunt of all the line work, you know. He took quite a beating–weatherwise, customerwise, and supervisory, and everybody was always on the lineman. So my heart’s always been with the lineman. They’re good people.”
“I remember one time in early SMUD days,” Klassen continues, “I had a crew out here by Fair Oaks. We were working in an easement back in there and it started raining. A fellow came out of a house there and he said, ‘What are you fellows doing in the rain? You don’t work in the rain, do you?’
“I said, ‘Not unless it’s an emergency.’
“He said, ‘Well, where do you get out of the rain?’
“I said, ‘Well, we’ll get in the back of that truck, find an old garage or something.’
“So a little later he came out and he said, ‘You know, my wife and I are going to town, we’ll be gone all day. If you fellows have got to get in out of the rain, here’s the key to the house.’
“He gave me a key to the house. And he said the wife set out a coffeepot there and we could make coffee and make ourselves to home.
“We appreciated it. We even took our boots off,” Klassen says, smiling. “Set them out on the front porch and went in there barefooted. People were like that. They liked the linemen.”
(For the People: The Story of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, is a source for some of the information in this history.)