By Eric Wolfe
On June 8, 1945, as World War II drew to a close, 103 people did something that would affect the lives of Sierra Pacific workers for generations to come: they voted for a union.
Nevada hardly provided an ideal climate for union organizing. Historically, the state was a bastion of rugged individualism. Dreams of wealth and adventure drew people to the mineral-rich state, not the prospect of harsh toil.
But harsh toil was what many newcomers found waiting for them in frontier Nevada, especially in the mines. For miners, dreams of quick wealth were transformed into a more tangible goal: getting a fair wage for their labor. According to one 19th Century Nevada miner, the legendary William “Big Bill” Haywood, it was in Nevada that the nation’s first union of miners–the Virginia City Miners’ Union–was born in 1867, just three years after Nevada became a state.
The earliest roots of Sierra Pacific Power can be found in Nevada’s mining industry. The Eldorado Canal Co. was established in 1852 to provide ditches for hydraulic mining. Springing up alongside the ditch companies to service the mining industry in the 1860s and 1870s were various gas companies, including the Virginia City Gas Co.
In the late 1880s electric utilities were established in both Carson City and Virginia City and construction began on an electric distribution system that would benefit not only the mines but also residents. Shortly thereafter, in 1891, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was organized in St. Louis, Mo. to represent the interests of workers in this promising–and dangerous–new industry.
But the union would be a long time in coming to Nevada.
1: NEW COMPANIES SPRING UP
Right out of the gate one problem facing any would-be union organizer was finding stable employers. As new water and power companies sprang up, they merged with or were taken over by others with dizzying speed.
Another problem was the step-child status of unions at the dawn of the 20th Century. Labor unions would not become legally-recognized institutions–with federally-protected bargaining rights–until the New Deal of the 1930s.
The consolidation of the electric industry in Nevada took a big leap forward in 1899 with the establishment of the Truckee River General Electric Co., which completed construction of the Farad hydroelectric plant on the Truckee River the following year.
To bring power from the plant to the mines of the Comstock area, a 37-mile, 22,000-volt transmission line was constructed.
2: HORSE TEAM AND WAGON
As electricity’s vast potential became increasingly apparent, more plants were built on the Truckee and more line was strung.
In 1911, pioneers of the lineman’s craft built a line to Yerington from the newly-constructed plant at Verdi. Their supplies were packed in by mules; horse team and wagon were used to drag poles across the rugged terrain. Rivers were forded by raft, poles were set by hand.
In 1923, linemen undertook another great project: construction of a 60,000-volt interconnect across the Sierra’s to allow the newly-renamed Truckee River Power Co. to tap into power from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on the other side of the range.
During this period, consolidation of the industry continued apace and in 1928 the Sierra Pacific Power Co. was incorporated, absorbing the Truckee River Power Co., the first step on a long journey to becoming the dominant utility in the area.
3: SIERRA EMPLOYEES CHOOSE IBEW 1245
Sierra Pacific presented an organizing target to working people, but most unions of that era were not yet organizing on an industrial basis. In fact, unions across the nation in the late 1920s and early 1930s were in retreat. But over the next few years, conditions changed.
The passage of the National Labor Relations Act under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 gave labor unions the right under federal law to petition for representation elections. Six years later, IBEW Local 1245 was chartered to organize workers at PG&E. Workers at Sierra Pacific, which received much of its power from PG&E, were almost certainly aware of these events to the West.
However, the final catalyst for bringing the union to Sierra Pacific was one nobody could have envisioned in early 1941: the coming war with Germany and Japan. To help insure a stable labor force during the war, the federal government established the War Labor Board, which pressured industry to enter into collective bargaining agreements with labor unions.
Against this backdrop of federal support for the institution of collective bargaining, physical and clerical workers at Sierra Pacific on June 8, 1945, voted to be represented by Local 1245.
Out of 127 eligible voters in the physical unit, 76 voted for the union and 11 voted against. The new bargaining unit included linemen, apprentice linemen, watchmen, operators, substation operators, ditch tenders, repairmen, laborers, groundmen, servicemen, electricians, metermen, fitters and fitters helpers, mechanics and apprentices, meter readers, assistant bookkeeper and blacksmiths.
Out of 42 eligible voters in the clerical unit, 27 voted for the union and 10 voted against.
By daring to put themselves on the line and vote yes, these 103 physical and clerical workers set in motion a train of events that would bring new union-negotiated wage and benefit standards to future generations of Sierra Pacific employees.
4: ‘PAY ME TWICE’
But major progress doesn’t happen overnight. It happens one step at a time. At Sierra Pacific, progress depended on the willingness of workers to throw their energies behind the union cause and make the union work for them.
One of the early union activists at Sierra Pacific was a powerfully-built young worker named Orville Owen.
Owen began work with Sierra Pacific in 1949, assigned to a gas crew.
“Of course, in those days you didn’t have digging equipment,” Owen remembers. “Everything was pick and shovel and jackhammer. I can remember one day I was out running the jackhammer. I was a big kid and it was the 125-lb. Gardener Denver hammer–the biggest jackhammer they had. Most people, because it was so large, would back off of it. But it was the most balanced so it was easier to handle once you got it set.
“Well,” Owen continues, “we were cutting the blacktop just getting ready to lay some gas main. The vice president of the company–his name was Fairchild Barnett but we called him ‘Barney’–drove by in his car and saw me with my legs laying over that jackhammer, outrigging that hammer with my legs. He stopped, he backed up and he waves to me and says, ‘Hey, young fella. I’m gonna get one for your other leg.’ And I says, ‘That’s all right, but you’re gonna pay me twice.’”
Barnett probably didn’t realize it at the time, but he had just had his first sparring match with a future union negotiator.
5: OUT THE WINDOW
During those first few months at Sierra, Owen was encouraged to become involved in the union by Peter Riviera, a worker in the water department, and by George Kaiser, who served for a time as a member of the Local 1245 Policy Committee (later renamed the Advisory Council).
Owen, who went on to serve as an assistant business manager in the union’s head office in Walnut Creek, Ca., was receptive to the union message. Many in his family had belonged to the railroad brotherhoods and Owen himself had briefly belonged to the Woodworkers of America after returning from World War II.
Owen’s interest in the union was eventually tapped by the Local 1245 business representative for Sierra Pacific, Al Kaznowski. He was appointed first to the grievance committee and then to the negotiating committee, where he met Local 1245 Business Manager Ron Weakley and Weakley’s top assistant, L. L. Mitchell, two of Local 1245’s founders (See “Organizing PG&E”).
Mitchell remembers Owen as a determined negotiator, not easy to move off a position.
“He did have a temper,” says Mitchell. “If things went too awry, he expressed himself, maybe threatening to throw a fellow out the window.”
“It used to scare Mitch half to death when I’d get mad,” Owen recalls. “When I was young, I was a little quick tempered. Mitch used to say he could always tell because my neck started getting red and at that point in time he’d usually call a caucus and ask to see if I was all right. Because it wouldn’t have been any problem for me to pick one of ’em up and throw ’em out the window.”
“Of course,” Owen added, “it was only the second floor.”
Also serving the union in bargaining in the mid-1950s were Bob Newberry, on the electrical side, and Loretta Jackson, representing clerical workers.
In those days, the union often negotiated directly with Tracy, the head of the company. The union had one distinct advantage in these negotiations: the comptroller of the company, Al Peterson, was a bargaining unit member and served on the union’s negotiating team.
Mitchell remembers: “Anytime the president of the company said we don’t have enough money to give you this or that, the comptroller would say, ‘Look here, Tracy, we do too.’ ”
The Lincoln Alley Electric Line Distribution in Reno was sometimes called the “Death Trap” because of the tight quarters that Sierra Pacific employees had to work in.
6: MEMBERSHIP GROWS
Tom Lewis, another union activist of that era, got his start at Sierra Pacific the same year as Owen, 1949. Lewis had left the textile mills of the East in hopes of finding a job where there was a union to help protect his interests. He found it at Sierra Pacific, where he began as a laborer digging pole holes.
“When I first started there was about 52% union membership at the power company,” Lewis recalled. “I got active right away.”
Membership in the union grew, eventually stabilizing in the 80-90% range, a significant achievement in a right-to-work state. Lewis gives credit for this growth to union staff members through the years: “Look at the business reps we had from the IBEW. They were so good: Mitch Michell, Al Kaznowski, John Stralla.”
Lewis’s own role in that era was hardly that of a shrinking violet. He served as a shop steward, unit chair, and chair of the PAC committee, as well as a member of the negotiating team for a number of years.
Lewis remembers it as an exciting era.
“The company was growing and the time was ripe for people to get into the union. I loved it.”
7: ‘YOU NEVER CAME OFF THE MOUNTAIN’
The union had its work cut out for it in those early days. Wages provided nowhere near the standard of living that today’s wages do. Benefits were meager. Working conditions left a lot to be desired.
“We didn’t have anything,” remembers Bill Campbell, who went to work for Sierra Pacific in 1951 and retired as an overhead line foreman in 1990. “You never heard of a rest period. We worked 40 hours at a shot. We just laid down on the cement floor of the warehouse and then we’re off again.”
Weather provided constant challenges. Peter Vanni, who hired in at Sierra Pacific in 1948, remembers what it was like trying to keep the Tahoe area powered up in winter:
“Getting around in the snow, we used to have to snow shoe or ski–there just wasn’t any other way. No snowcats or anything like that. But the circuits around the lake had to be kept open. So you’d pick up your wire, jacks and ropes and you’d go do it.”
There weren’t any radios for communication back then, either, Vanni said, so linemen would tap into phone lines in order to communicate.
Campbell remembers working on a river line during a particularly nasty winter storm:
“The wind was coming at 80 miles per hour. You could hear trees busting off and everything. I remember one tree busted about two spans away and rattled everything when it came down. It must have been about midnight. This one kid came off that pole and quit. He said, ‘I ain’t staying up that damn mountain.’ ”
But Campbell stayed because, he says, that’s what linemen did. “You never came off that mountain until that job was done.”
8: A TIGHT GROUP
Of course some aspects of linework will always be difficult and will test the mettle of those who choose to do it. But in those early days linemen were expected to put in an effort that bordered on the superhuman. Both Campbell and Vanni believe the union had a lot to do with improving those conditions.
“The union did a lot of good for our benefits, working conditions, hours, meal time–we didn’t have a lot of that at first. You’d eat when they wanted you to eat,” said Vanni. “The union has done a lot of good. I think those who don’t belong, should!”
Getting people to join the union in a right-to-work state, and keeping them, has been no small challenge over the years. Most people, once they see how the union benefits them directly, are willing to do their part by joining and paying dues. But the voluntary nature of union membership in Nevada has given companies like Sierra Pacific an opportunity to stir up mischief over the years.
Orville Owen remembers a time, after the union had signed up members on payroll deduction cards, when the company forced the union to go back and have them sign up all over again.
“At that time the attorneys advised us–our attorneys and the company’s attorneys–that the form had to be revised to make it more in compliance with the law,” Owen recalls. “All those people who had previously signed those cards, we had to go back and re-sign them. I think the company was hoping that the guys would [be irritated] and say ‘No.’ ”
Owen continues: “Roy Murray, who was then our business representative, gave me all the cards. He says, ‘Orv, we have to re-sign everybody,’ and I says, ‘Okay.’ So we went to all our stewards, gave them cards for each one of their guys. As a result of that we picked up twenty-five more members than we had prior to the re-signup. We had a real tight group up there.”
One big factor in keeping that membership together during the last quarter of the 20th Century was Business Representative John Stralla. A Nevada native, Stralla proved his abilities on the grievance and negotiating committees in the late 1960s before being hired as a union business representative in 1971.
Sierra Pacific changed a lot from the time Stralla hired in as a laborer in 1964 and his retirement as a union business representative in 1998.
“The company didn’t have the equipment that PG&E had. We’d be out there with pick and shovel. People worked harder. And because you were working together, you became friends. There was more camaraderie,” Stralla said.
Union meetings in those days were sometimes tumultuous affairs. “People were angry about everything,” Stralla recalls, and they’d pack the union meetings in Reno to speak their minds. When the Musicians hall, which seated 60, was no longer big enough to hold everybody, Local 1245 began meeting at the Carpenters hall, where the numbers often topped 100.
Over the years, of course, working conditions improved. By doing their homework, and by maintaining the support of the members, union negotiators have been able to persuade the company to come up with more at the bargaining table over the years. In some ways, Stralla believes, the union may have become a victim of its own successes.
“We’ve made employers smarter by doing too good of a job. We beat them and they figured they’re tired of getting their a– kicked,” Stralla said.
As a result, collective bargaining has become much more complex. The days of the company president sitting down and negotiating the union contract are long gone. Bargaining has become a science.
“People used to negotiate with calculators–you know, those old mechanical adding machines. Now they use computers,” said Stralla. “These utilities pool all their information through their institute [Electric Power Research Institute]. That information gives them ammunition.”
But the union has managed to hold its own at the bargaining table in recent years. A contract ratified in May brought a wage increase of 12.5 percent spread over three years, increased employer matching money to 401k plans, and preserved medical benefits, among other improvements.
10: A VOICE FOR EMPLOYEES
Sierra Pacific has benefited from its relationship with the union. Having a unionized workforce that is highly-skilled and motivated has allowed the company to respond to the challenges it has faced through the years.
One of the largest of those challenges was a disastrous fire in 1960 that devastated the Donner Summit interconnect with Pacific Gas & Electric, disrupting service for several days. This natural calamity made it clear how vulnerable Sierra Pacific was made by its dependence on other utilities for power.
Over the next several years, the company added several gas and oil-fired units: three steam generating units at the Tracy plant and two units at Fort Churchill. These power sources were supplemented in the 1980s by the addition of two 250-megawatt coal-fired plants at Valmy.
Sierra Pacific has clearly come a long way from the era when linemen’s supplies were carried by mules and when poles were transported by horse and wagon.
If Sierra Pacific’s employees have been able to share in the company’s growth and prosperity, it is largely because they learned a long time ago that the union gives them a voice with which to press for what they have rightfully earned.
(Some information for this history was obtained from a special issue of Sierra Pacific’s “Pipe & Wire”).