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.

In the next decade, electrical workers met the feverish pace of a rapidly growing demand for electrical lighting and power.  Commercial use of electricity, for telegraphs, telephones, light bulbs and eventually a whole host of new machines, took off.  And at the same time demand also grew for electrical workers to string the wires and build and maintain those machines.

Early UBEW Members, Niagara, NY
Most of the men and women who answered the call to work with electricity worked in small groups. They traveled frequently as jobs ended one place and new ones started someplace else. There were few opportunities to speak to more than a handful of workers at a time—and even then, speaking about building a union was cause for instant dismissal and loss of the small wage the workers felt lucky to get. These conditions made organizing a union difficult and dangerous.

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. 

In 1887, the Brotherhood came together at the site of a hydroelectric power plant at the falls in Niagara, New York. The union membership brought worker complaints about labor conditions, hours, pay, and concerns about environmental impact of a large hydroelectric project at the scenic falls.  "While the generation of electrical power can serve as a boon to mankind," the group argued, "the treasures of Mother Nature should not be taken for granted.  The natural resources of this unique landmark include its tremendous natural beauty."  The group organized a town hall meeting and rally which culminated in a strike.   The group officially announced itself to the press as the United Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. 

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.
Jesse B. Cook, UBEW president from 1889 to 1894, helped built the union and expand its mission.  UBEW not only fought for the rights of its members, but established standards for safety and quality of electrical work, many of which are still used today in the Uniform Building Code.  UBEW electrical engineers founded Underwriters Laboratories, an independent product safety certification organization

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 heyday of the unions in the mid 1920s, UBEW locals existed in most large- and medium-sized cities throughout the United States west of the Mississippi River.  It was said during the 20's that no one plugged in so much as an electric toaster without UBEW being involved.  In the late 20s, an electrical journeyman working in Oregon, Washington, or Idaho made the same salary as a member of the United States Congress.  Thanks to UBEW and other big unions working elsewhere, it was a time of progress and soaring living conditions. 

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
During the 1950s, semiconductor devices gradually replaced vacuum tubes in digital computers.  Visionary UBEW President J.H. Felker from Bell Labs moved the union in a different direction, including not just skilled electrical tradesmen but highly-skilled technical workers.   Early computing technology was pioneered by UBEW members first at IBM and Bell Labs, then later in smaller groups centered in the South San Francisco Bay area, later called Silicon Valley.  Early internet research was done with the help of UBEW at ARPA and NASA.

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.