The Electrical Worker online
February 2014

Portland Local's History Gleams in Stirring Exhibit
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The 100th year anniversary of Portland, Ore., Local 48 was still a year away. But, in 2012 — with only a few boxes of memorabilia in their hall — the local's leaders knew they needed help to truly honor the legacy of one of the IBEW's most influential and powerful local unions and their signatory contractor partners.

So the city's IBEW-NECA Barnes-Allison Labor Management Cooperation Committee hired Alan Guggenheim, a local freelance writer and historian, to research the history of Local 48.

Guggenheim's months of research led to a popular, well-publicized exhibit viewed for six months by visitors to the Oregon Historical Society's Museum. Now it's finding a permanent home in the electrical apprenticeship training center.

"We're very proud of our history. The exhibit is important to show apprentices the results of the IBEW's creativity and forward thinking," says Rod Belisle, director of the NECA/IBEW Electrical Training Center, which donated artifacts and tools to the display, including six to eight varieties of voltage testers going back 100 years. "We see how tools and technology have evolved over the years. And we establish a baseline to demonstrate our effectiveness and learn from our mistakes."

Business Manager Gary Young said he relishes the opportunity for visitors to the apprenticeship center — including political leaders and potential customers — to better understand the history of pride in workmanship that is close to the heart of the local's history.

As apprentices enter the building and pass the displays, Young said he hopes they will appreciate the achievement that is expressed in every project.

"Something as simple as a light switch needs to be installed level and square and perfectly-installed, exposed pipe work is an art form," he says.

Seventeen panels illuminate the history of union electricians in Portland. They highlight early critical contributions to economic development from installing elevators in early skyscrapers to taking the vanguard introducing hydropower. One panel shows some of the 21,000 members who labored in six Portland shipyards during World War II. Moving into modern times, other displays focus on community service projects and the construction of massive computer chip fabrication plants in the state's so-called "silicon forest."

The NECA-IBEW sign headlining the display is composed of rigid electrical pipe expertly bent by Local 48 retirees, who also erected a display showing the progression of materials used in residential electrical construction over the years.

What one sees in the Portland area is emblematic of the history of the Northwest — urbanization, street cars, bridges, transmission lines and the advent of the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, which featured pavilions fully lit by apprentices who went on to become contractors employing Local 48 electricians, says Guggenheim. "The contractors and electricians were and are very much of a family. It was an uncommonly harmonious relationship," he adds.

"The display of 100 years of partnership was fantastic," says Timothy J. Gauthier, executive manager, Oregon-Columbia NECA, who presented a paper on the history project to the Academy of Electrical Contracting and is commissioning Guggenheim to produce a book from his research. Gauthier says he enjoyed learning about unique people, like the electrician who traveled across the U.S. selling a pair of box cutters he designed out of the back of his Ford.

While surprised by the parties' scarcity of original historical documents, Guggenheim understands the constraints on recovering history from days long before Facebook and Instagram.

"Most union locals and electricians didn't go to work with cameras and notebooks. They didn't note down day-to-day events," says Guggenheim, who knew he couldn't rely upon accounts from the Oregonian, the 163-year-old daily newspaper and today's paper of record, because of its anti-union orientation. He went to the Oregon Historical Society and combed through their files but still came up short.

Then Guggenheim contacted Curtis Bateman, IBEW's archivist and museum curator at the International Office. Bateman suggested that the Portlander review past volumes of The Electrical Worker, the IBEW's first periodical, which launched in 1893.

"I looked at a picture in volume 1, number 1 of The Electrical Worker and I said, 'This is where we start,'" says Guggenheim. In time, he reviewed all 100 years of the union's publications, observing how Local 48 press secretaries would come and go, but in their "chatty and conversational" styles, relate important kernels of their local's history. Sometimes references were embedded in the history of other local unions, like Portland's outside construction Local 125. "The Electrical Worker," says Guggenheim, "gave me the first cut, the first draft of Local 48's history."

As luck would have it, Guggenheim found a centerfold photo in the 1914 issue that became the starting point for the exhibit. The photo portrayed a crew from W.A. Kraner, a signatory contractor, erecting illuminated arches over Third Street in downtown Portland. To his delight, the names of the crew, all members of Local 48, were listed under the photo, valuable clues to begin a wider history.

Guggenheim has uncovered humorous stories. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he says, the Portland public schools encouraged students to enter apprenticeships. Students sometimes missed classes because they were tired from working too many hours, but were still required to turn in written excuses. In one, Guggenheim recalled an apprentice who claimed he was run over by a dump truck on his way to class. He was excused.

As Local 48 — like the labor movement as a whole — grapples with changing demographics, the 100th year display speaks to a time when many workplaces and local unions were more inclusive and sleeves were rolled up in a common cause.

One of the panels shows a photo of 29 wartime shipyard workers that included several women. Fully one-third of the IBEW members in the yards, who worked 60-hour weeks and paid their dues at windows that were open 24/7, were women and minorities.

"Employment in the shipyards, where apprentices making $.95 per hour could advance to journeyman status and make $1.20 an hour was a signal event, a door of opportunity for tens of thousands that would change Portland forever," Guggenheim said.

The National Brotherhood of Electrical Worker's first woman organizer was Local 48's Mary Honzik, hired in 1896.

Journeyman Mark Smith was a wartime shipyard electrician who, in 1952, was appointed deputy state labor commissioner — the highest such position ever achieved by an African-American at the time. Another shipyard electrician, Marie Gleason, retired in 1982 to become the first woman in the nation among 17,000 men to earn full IBEW pension benefits.

"The exhibit will continually impart a sense of IBEW culture to young workers whose world is so visual and close," says Clif Davis, a former Local 48 business manager, now an International Representative, who helped plan the local's 100th anniversary gala. "It's all about a heritage and an educational opportunity that few apprentices will realize through other means."


Volunteer efforts by retirees are represented by pipe bending in the exhibit's NECA/IBEW sign.


IBEW Local 48's rich history is portrayed in an exhibit at its apprenticeship training center.

IBEW's Archives Assist Local Union Anniversaries

Not every local union marks that big 100-year anniversary by hiring a professional historian for a deep look into their local union's roots. Luckily, they don't have to.

"Anniversaries, whether celebrating 50, 75 or 100 years, mark a local union's success, longevity and its clear significance to the community," says IBEW archivist and museum curator Curtis Bateman, who has assisted many locals — including Portland Local 48 — seeking to rediscover their own histories.

First, local unionists are directed to the IBEW website, which contains digital directories and International Convention roll calls. These tools help them research their local officers, meeting places, classifications, convention delegates and membership numbers at the time of each convention.

Next, Bateman searches the file of each local and scans articles from IBEW publications that have been preserved, sending a computer file to the local union.

Finally, local unions are encouraged to speak with some of their most senior members for stories and to research the area's newspapers at municipal libraries.

Anniversary celebrations often include brochures promoting the local's history. And many local unions have developed small exhibits, mostly comprising a few display cases at their union halls. Some, like Local 48, have produced more extensive displays.

However others choose to preserve their history, says Bateman, they can learn from Local 48. "The exhibit is very professional, educational, and engaging for members and the community. The displays, artifacts and installation are focused and pertinent to the story it tells."