The Electrical Worker online
August 2013

Centenary of the IBEW's Reid-Murphy Split
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It was 100 years ago this month that the Ohio Supreme Court finally ended the Reid-Murphy split, a secession movement that threatened to tear the young IBEW in half.

A new exhibition at the IBEW Museum in Washington, D.C., explores the causes of the divisions and tells the story of its resolution through pictures, pamphlets, even badges from the rival conventions held by the two factions.

From 1908 to 1913, two organizations claimed to be the real International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. One faction was led by Frank McNulty, an inside wireman who had been elected President of the IBEW at the 1905 Convention. On the other side was a group led by Jim Reid, a former Ohio lineman who became a Vice President, also in 1905.

"By the time the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was a decade old, the membership was expanding rapidly," said curator Curtis Bateman. "The organization wasn't able to hold together under the strain of some deep divisions within the membership."

In the years before the schism, divisions had arisen over foundational issues, such as the IBEW's priorities and organizational structure. Common ground was increasingly hard to find as the disputes began to reflect not differences in opinion, but a member's branch and place of residence.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is a letter from Samuel Gompers, the founder of the modern American labor movement, who headed the American Federation of Labor during the split.

"The letter is absolutely despairing of the obstinacy and bitterness of the split," Bateman said. "It concludes with a promise from Gompers to never get involved in internal union disputes again, and [the AFL] never did."

East Coast members often disagreed with West Coast members over authority over the union. Inside wiremen from highly organized work forces supported steep membership fees and tough examinations while linemen, who had a much harder time organizing, fought for low initiation fees and traveling cards.

One of the deepest rifts was over strikes. Reid came to represent a faction that believed the IBEW should sanction more strikes, including general strikes. McNulty opposed general strikes on principle and thought the IBEW would be better off organizing workers than organizing strikes.

The dispute erupted into rebellion over a 1906 strike against Bell Telephone, led by Reid. When McNulty refused to take money out of the death benefit or convention funds to support strikers, the Reid faction accused the IBEW leadership of saving its money for the dead instead of supporting striking linemen struggling to stay alive. Each side accused the other of corruption. There were even physical confrontations.

By 1908, Reid and his supporters called for a special convention to remove McNulty and his supporters from office. Grand Secretary Peter Collins, a fierce ally of McNulty's, dismissed the calls. Reid held the convention anyway. Some locals came, others stayed away. There was deep confusion in the ranks about what to do and whether the convention was legitimate. Lawsuits were filed, freezing IBEW assets. Both sides claimed to be the true inheritors of union founder Henry Miller's mantle.

"It was a civil war driven by several deep divisions," said Bateman. "It was chaotic and bitter, but not especially uncommon."

After decades of struggle, unions began to rapidly expand after 1900. The expansion severely taxed institutions that weren't ready to operate on that scale. Secessions within unions at that time were not unusual, Bateman said.

"The IBEW wasn't unique," Bateman said. "Many unions, 10 to 15 years after their founding, couldn't hold their coalitions together, but few of those splits were as long-lasting or acrimonious as the IBEW split."

The dispute ended up in the courts.

"When the AFL could not resolve the dispute, it was seen as a tragedy at the time, and a dangerous involvement of the state, which was generally hostile to unions," Bateman said.

This was more than a decade before the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guaranteed the rights of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, collectively bargain or strike. Strikes were regularly broken up with violence and rarely did the courts bring anyone to account.

As time went on, it became clear the Reid faction acted in bad faith on several occasions. It was revealed that they told some locals who attended the 1908 special convention that it had been approved by the McNulty himself. During mediations run by Gompers, they agreed to drop a lawsuit that had frozen nearly $80,000 of IBEW funds, only to file additional lawsuits when the mediation ended. Subsequently, the AFL recognized only the McNulty IBEW and rebel locals began to re-affiliate.

The split came to an end in August 1913, when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of the McNulty IBEW and ordered Reid to stop using the IBEW name. McNulty immediately published an invitation to the locals that seceded, inviting them to come back into the fold with no repercussions and no questions asked. More than 100 locals ultimately re-affiliated with the IBEW.

"McNulty said he took a lesson from President Lincoln and his response to confederates," Bateman said. "The IBEW needed to reunify. The answer was near total amnesty."

A letter was published in the November 1914 Electrical Worker from Oakland, Calif., Local 283 member Edgar S. Hurley.

"Now we have had a grand lesson. Five and one-half years in the greatest university could not teach us what our division … should teach us." he wrote. "Here on the Coast it has taught us this that solidarity of labor is the first requirement for the advancement of the working class as a whole.

"The remnants of the Reid Murphy faction here in Oakland are now in 283 and everything is now getting along nice — everybody working for the Reunited Brotherhood … Just remember that the greatest opportunity in the history of our organization for organizing work is now at hand. Will everybody help?"


Pictures from the competing conventions of 1911 held in Rochester, N.Y., but not at the same time. The top picture shows members of the original IBEW; the bottom was taken at the Reid-Murphy faction's convention.


Frank McNulty


The Electrical Worker announces the January 1913 Ohio Supreme Court decision ending the Reid-Murphy split; President McNulty's open invitation to seceders.

New Exhibit, Online Resources from the
IBEW Museum


The cover of the first issue of the Electrical Worker from January 1893

Everyone who visits the International Office has the opportunity to travel back in time at the IBEW history museum. More than just grainy photographs, yellowed posters and antique tools, the roll calls, the antique insulators and telephone operator's switchboard symbolize the people who built this union.

But silent objects tell stories.

A new exhibit exploring one of the darkest moments in the IBEW history — the 1908-1913 secession fight known as the Reid-Murphy Split — will go on display in August. The young union mended that rift 100 years ago this month.

And now every issue of the IBEW periodical, every union directory published and the roll call from every convention is available online. The entire 113-year archive of the IBEW's periodical has been online since 2012. (The archive is available at

Anyone can read the first issue of The Electrical Worker, published in January 1893, which features a picture of the 10 delegates to the first convention of the IBEW on the front page. Other historical highlights include the special issue from September 1969 celebrating the 3,000 IBEW members who helped Apollo 11 get to the moon and back and the October 1974 issue marking the 30th convention, the largest in IBEW history.

For the first time, every local union directory since 1891 is now available for download. Informally known as "tramp guides," they include the names of all officers, classifications represented and the location of union meetings.

Also available now are the roll calls from all 37 conventions. Every local's delegation is named and, because the number of votes a local casts are based on membership, the roll calls are a snapshot of a local's size.

"With so many locals celebrating their centennials there is a great deal of interest in locals writing their own histories and this is some of the most requested data by locals," said museum curator Curtis Bateman. "This is the kind of information I have looked up for many of those locals in the past. Now they can do it themselves, hopefully, with a greater context."

Bateman said he is hopeful that the online resources and the new exhibit will deepen the connection today's IBEW members have with the union and bring alive the stories of men and women who built today's IBEW.

"It is very easy to see those old, grainy pictures and think that there was something extraordinary about them that they were able to build this union," Bateman said. "I want to get past that and show how extraordinary institutions are built by people that look an awful lot like us."