May 2011

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IBEW Pioneer Celebrates Centennial Milestone
Editor's note: We regret to announce that James Elsenheimer passed away April 29. The IBEW extends its deepest condolences to his friends and family.

Surrounded by friends, family and his IBEW brothers and sisters, Traverse City, Mich., Local 498 charter member James Elsenheimer celebrated his 100th birthday April 19.

"Brother Elsenheimer is one of the last founding members of Local 498 and we want to honor the long life of this IBEW pioneer," says Local 498 Business Manager Jeffrey Bush. "He has lived quite a life."

The son of a Traverse City farmer, himself the son of a German immigrant, James Elsenheimer graduated high school just as the full effects of the 1929 stock market crash were kicking in. But Elsenheimer, who studied electrical work through a correspondence course, managed—with some help from his older brother—to land a job as an electrician at General Motors' Fisher body plant in Lansing in the early '30s—a major turning point in labor history.

Nearby Flint would soon host the great sit-down strikes that gave birth to the United Auto Workers' union, and industry giants like Ford and Chrysler, once bastions of anti-unionism, would be almost fully organized by the 1940s.

It was a time of growth for the IBEW as well, as working people in nearly every industry—taking advantage of the newly passed Wagner Act, which protected the right of workers to form unions and collectively bargain—took to the streets and picket lines to take collective part in one of the labor movement's biggest organizing drives ever.

Experiencing the greatest labor upsurge of a generation would give Elsenheimer an appreciation for union solidarity that has lasted throughout his life.

"I can't remember him ever missing a union meeting," says daughter Donna Basch.

The Great Depression would soon give way to full employment as the United States' entry into World War II converted assembly lines at General Motors into centers for tank and plane production. Elsenheimer would put his electrical skills to work making vital military equipment for the Army.

When the war ended, missing the rural life, Elsenheimer—along with his wife, Virginia, whom he met in Lansing, and their two sons, Eugene and Daniel—moved back to Traverse City, buying property at nearby Glen Lake. Daughter Donna was born soon after.

The postwar period opened up new opportunities for working people and the labor movement, including the IBEW, which saw spectacular growth. As historian Grace Palladino writes in her history of the IBEW, "Dreams of Dignity, Workers of Vision:" "In the 15 years between 1930 and 1945, the world had changed dramatically for most IBEW members … Growing from 50,000 members in 1933, it counted 347,000 by the war's end."

The surge of new growth meant the formation of hundreds of new locals, including Local 498, which was chartered in 1949. Elsenheimer was among its founding members.

Living in rural Leelanau County—just north of Traverse City—he was one of the few licensed electricians in the area, and his skills were in high demand, as he installed original wiring in many homes for the first time, helping to electrify the county. Elsenheimer would often accept potatoes and meat in lieu of pay from customers going through tough times.

His son Daniel joined him in the trade. Daniel retired as a Local 498 member in 1996.

"My dad was very frugal and worked very hard every day to provide for us," says Donna. "He paid for everything in cash."

Retiring in 1976, Brother Elsenheimer and his wife moved to an old farmhouse they had bought. Long after leaving the trade, he kept in touch with his IBEW friends, joining them at monthly retiree luncheons.

Virginia passed away in 2001.

Donna says her father looked forward to meeting younger Local 498 members who continue the tradition that he and his generation helped start.

"We didn't grow up with luxuries, but the IBEW helped make sure my father was able to provide a good and secure upbringing for us," she says.

Traverse City, Mich., Local 498 charter member James Elsenheimer celebrated his 100th birthday last month.