More than a Century of Unifying Worcester’s Electrical Trade in Serving Worcester and Surrounding Communities
(Written in 2000 by Paul Pratt for the IBEW Local 96 100th Anniversary Celebration Program)
It was January 1, 1900, when organized electrical workers in Worcester, Massachusetts were granted the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union (LU) 96 charter. The charter was a significant achievement for organized electrical workers in Worcester; it marked the beginning of one of Worcester’s strongest labor unions. However, the history of Local 96 did not begin in 1900. The charter was the culmination of actions taken years before. It was the result of demonstrations, meetings, and organizations spurred by a labor movement that managed to succeed in a city once considered a “scab hole” of the state.
As phone and electric lines began to flourish around Worcester in the late 1880’s, so did the city’s labor movement. Paramount to labor’s organization was the formation of the Worcester Central Labor Union (CLU). Labor leaders of the city met in September 1888 at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall to form the organization, which would unite different labor unions in support of common causes. Numerous local trade unions, including those of cigar makers, tailors, carpenters, tenders, typographers, and painters, were represented. It was James H. Mellen, a member of the Knights of Labor Local Assembly 2353, who officially called for the creation of the CLU and “a reading room where working men could gather and improve their conditions by reading and discussions.”
In its beginning years, the CLU supported the 8-hour-workday movement. At the time, despite a 10-hour-workday law, many workers were working 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. The CLU arranged a demonstration in December 1889 advocating the cause. Trade unions in the demonstration paraded through the city to a mass meeting at Mechanics Hall. Participants bore signs that read “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”
Although the CLU was unsuccessful in its attempts to get the 8-hour workday sanctioned, it continued its efforts to improve working conditions. In 1892, the CLU held a series of demonstrations supporting a 54-hour-workweek bill, which was pending in the Massachusetts legislature. After one such demonstration, union members gathered for a meeting in Mechanics Hall. The President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers, addressed the meeting, which critics said was poorly attended. Responding to the criticism, Gompers stated, “I think it’s an excellent, well-attended meeting. The reason there are not more here tonight is that the people who would be here tonight had to work too long.” The legislature eventually heeded Gompers’ words and passed laws that restricted the number of hours in the workweek.
There are clear indications that electrical linemen and wiremen in Worcester were affiliated with the CLU and contributed to the CLU’s efforts. In 1899, the CLU, in remembrance of those who supported labor, wrote the Illustrated History of the Central Labor Union and the Building Trades Council. This history boasts of the Worcester Electric Light Company, its power plants (built in 1883 and 1889), and the more than 150-miles of wire in use. It also states that the Worcester Electric Light Company’s affairs were “ably conducted” and its policies “liberal and progressive.”
Before and after the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers of America was formed in 1891, linemen and wiremen in Worcester and throughout the U.S. affiliated themselves with central labor unions like the Worcester CLU and other labor organizations, such as the Knights of Labor, the Brotherhood of Telegraphers, and the United Order of Lineman. Many of these organizations came and went, as did the work from region to region. Boom-bust work cycles were frequent in the late 1800’s, as were strikes undermining the stability of work. Workers, called “floaters,” traveled to where work was plentiful. Many electrical workers became floaters, but continued to support labor’s interests and to establish ties to various labor organizations. The situation created an electrical work force that was not always organized but was as familiar with unionism as they were with travel.
Near the end of the 19th century, improvements in working conditions coincided with an increased demand for electricity in the home. For electrical workers, the combination of factors contributed to a decrease in quick boom-bust work cycles and the need to float. In Worcester, the situation set the stage for linemen and wiremen in the city to establish unions of their own.
Although this year marks the official 100th anniversary of Local 96, Worcester electrical workers organized for and were granted at least two charters before 1900. Brother Harold Magnuson, in the August 1938 Electrical Worker, sheds light on the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 47 charter, which was held by Worcester electrical workers in 1897. Magnuson claims that “[a]t the outbreak of the Spanish American War, practically all the members enlisted in the service. It was necessary, therefore, to disband the local and it ceased to exist.” In addition to the 1897 LU 47 charter, a LU 96 charter was granted on December 26, 1899. The 1900 LU 96 charter and the two previous ones hang in the Union Hall today. The 1900 charter, unlike the previous two charters, bears the classifications of “outside” (linemen’s work) and “inside wiremen.” Its formation then may have been an attempt to combine the forces of wiremen and linemen and create a stronger union. This combination of forces, along with members’ determination to uphold industry work ethics, ultimately ensured the survival of IBEW LU 96. The strength and determination of LU 96 is described firsthand in charter member Brother W. B. Patterson’s letter published in the March 1900 Electrical Worker:
“In union there is strength” and although this is an old saying, a few of us electrical workers were determined to put the old saying to the test. Accordingly, after talking for some time among ourselves, a few of us gathered together on the evening of Dec. 29,  at the Day Building, and with the assistance of our worthy Bro. P. H. Wissinger, organized a local union of eleven charter members, elected our officers, and as rapidly as possible got into working order. We are new in this kind of work; any of us can climb a pole or hunt trouble far better than preside at a meeting, but we have banded together in this order to help each other, and intend to make it a benefit in more ways than one. Our union has increased from eleven members to forty, and they are still coming in, as they seem to think that they will find a benefit not only to themselves, but to their employers; and we trust our employers will prefer union men and men who endeavor to complete their work in the right way and to work for the welfare of the man or company they are hired by. This is what we are trying to organize for, and nothing more, as we don’t believe in strikes, but go ahead with our work with a greater zeal than ever, so as to show that by organizing a union and being intimate in conversation and getting new ideas, we become better men at our business either at inside work or out.
Local 96 has put the old saying to the test. Its official 100 years of history and the many years prior to 1900 that Worcester electrical workers contributed to the success of the labor movement, serve as evidence that “in union there is strength.” Today that history and strength are cause for celebration. Local 96 can look back on its past with pride and look forward to a bright future. The union’s strength, ensured by the electrical workers’ just cause of “human justice, human rights, [and] human security” will carry the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 96 into the next century and beyond.
MASSACHUSETTS LABOR NEWS
- Monday, January 8, 6pm – Union Member Meeting – at Local 96 Union Hall
- January 20th and 21st - 15-Hour 2017 NEC - Code Update Class - Click for details
- Tuesday, January 23, 6pm – Executive Board Meeting – at Local 96 Union Hall
- Saturday, January 27th, 7pm - IBEW Local 96 Night at the Worcester Railers. $18/ticket. Families welcome. Click here for details and to order tickets.