The original founders of UBEW initially met in 1880 as workers, contractors, and designers building the electrical infrastructure for the first electrically lighted city in the world -- Wabash, Indiana. The group met nightly in the public house above Stolley’s Dance Hall and referred to itself as "The Brotherhood" (though even then, it contained at least one woman lineman). However, UBEW wasn't officially started until 1887 as a response to efforts to build a power plant at Niagara Falls.
|Early UBEW Members, Niagara, NY|
The Brotherhood worked for numerous early electric companies and municipalities, including the notorious Edison Electric Light Company. The group frequently found that electrical workers were disenchanted with not only their wages and unsafe conditions, but in the quality of the work they were required to produce.
UBEW focused on the West Coast of the United States in response to ill-treatment of workers by companies building up the West. Many strikes, work slow-downs, sit-ins, and work place sabotage were organized by UBEW in an effort to improve worker's wages, hours, and conditions. While other technical unions focused on the East Coast and Midwest, UBEW was an effort to band together the locals and independents scattered about California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada frequently vulnerable to merciless companies and cruel bosses.
|Jesse B. Cook, UBEW Pres.|
Members of UBEW designed and built the Hollerith electric tabulating machines used for the first time in the 1890 census. Later Herman Hollerith would go on to found International Business Machines with the help of UBEW.
In the early days, UBEW worked closely with the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), a radical union with a reputation as no-nonsense tough-as-nails fighters for worker's rights. UBEW worked with the WFM and other unions to help found the International Workers of the World in 1905. IWW leader and anarchist organizer Big Bill Haywood was an honorary member of UBEW.
UBEW headquarters was on Market Street in 1902 during the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. As a result much of the early history of UBEW is lost, as many of the original records for the United Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were destroyed. UBEW members worked tirelessly and without pay to help rebuild this great city after the disaster.
In 1919, in response to the women's suffrage movement in the United States, UBEW introduced language into its bylaws prohibiting "discrimination against women and Negroes," an unprecedented move for a labor union in the early 20th century. Within a decade the union boasted a 25% membership of skilled women laborers. During the civil rights era, UBEW was one of the first labor organizations to adopt an employment equality policy welcoming members of any race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or class. In 1924, in response to long-standing criticism about the inclusiveness of "The Brotherhood," at it's annual meeting the membership voted to change the name, and became the Union of Benevolent Electrical Workers retaining the abbreviation UBEW.
|Hollerith Calculating Machine used in 1890 Census|
During the 1930s, while work was hard to find, UBEW members looked after each other, forming bonds of friendship and trust that held them tightly during the lean war-years and the relatively prosperity of the 50s. During World War II, UBEW members helped with the war effort, working at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, England designing computational machines used to decrypt Axis communications.
|Felker and Harris program TRADIC|
In the 1980s and 1990s, as political repression of unions rose, the Union was temporarily eclipsed by the generous salaries of the silicon technology boom. For a generation of skilled technical workers, labor unions were an unneeded anachronism, a position that worked against many tech workers in the austerity at the turn of the twenty first century.
Meanwhile, UBEW members worked both to create new innovations and question the role of technology in our lives. UBEW members pioneered technological advances in cryptography, internet communications, open source software, and computer privacy. Encouraged by union member John Perry Barlow, UBEW was an early supporter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Today, the strong roots of the Union of Benevolent Electrical Workers grow deeper and broader than the original sapling planted in 1887. UBEW still embraces the principles of equality, cooperation, and solidarity, as well as the unspoken values of curiosity, innovation, and integrity that guide an electrical craftsman. But today, UBEW is also guided by topical principles of freedom, equality, and resistance that go beyond the values so long ago argued over passionately above Stolley’s Dance Hall.