The Electrical Worker online
October/November 2016

FOCUS: History

IBEW History on Display at
39th International Convention

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With a theme of "Our Founding, Our Future," the 125th anniversary of the IBEW was a return to the Brotherhood's roots and a celebration of its past as delegates met to determine its future.

"This story of our union's founding right here in St. Louis is one we're proud to tell to kick off this convention," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "By knowing where we came from and how we got to where we are, we put ourselves in a better position to prepare for the future."

The roughly 5,000 attendees to the convention, approximately 2,000 of whom were delegates, saw the opening of the Henry Miller Museum, the transplanted IBEW museum from Washington, D.C., and an updated book that chronicles the Brotherhood's history.

In the boardinghouse where founder Henry Miller stayed — also the site of the first gathering of delegates in 1891 — the Henry Miller Museum opened on Sept. 15, four days prior to the convention. The opening ceremony was attended by IBEW officers, local officials and hundreds of members from the U.S. and Canada.

"Our union was founded by 10 men, just up those steps," said Stephenson in his speech to the crowd. "Being able to visit this place reminds me of how far we've come. Our tool chest may have grown over the last 125 years, but our principles remain the same."

The Henry Miller museum is funded largely by donations from locals and members. To contribute, go to

Another museum was also available to convention attendees, both ahead of and throughout most of the convention. Items from the IBEW museum, housed at the International Office in Washington, D.C., made the trip to the Gateway City and were set up in the expo hall.

About 340 pieces from the museum were shipped, said IBEW curator Curtis Bateman. Tools and equipment used or built by members were on display as well as minutes from the first convention. The original charter from the American Federation of Labor, signed by legendary labor leader Samuel Gompers, was also available.

"People will see how humble the origins are, yet we're still here at this massive convention," Bateman said. "Hopefully, they can say, 'We have come a long way and we've had a lot of success. This is an organization worth protecting for the next 125 years.'"

"Dreams of Dignity, Workers of Vision," the book chronicling the history of the IBEW, was reissued with three additional chapters and distributed at the convention. The new pages, by author Grace Palladino, who also wrote the original book in 1991, examine the last 25 years of IBEW's history.

"I tried to write it in a way that the rank-and-file members can read it and understand all the decisions that have been made," Palladino said. "One of the nicest things is when I get an email from one of them saying, 'Thanks for doing this. I learned a lot.' As a historian, that's what you want."

Members could also learn a lot about the IBEW's history from one of the convention attendees, Salisbury, Md., Local 1307 retiree Tom Willey. At 88, he accepted his 70-year pin from International President Stephenson. The 39th Convention was his 14th.

A living embodiment of the Brotherhood's history, Willey's first convention was in 1954 in Chicago, and he hasn't lost his love for the IBEW.

"This is one of the best conventions I've been to yet," Willey said.

On the final day of the convention, delegates joined Stephenson for one more celebration of the Henry Miller Museum, one intended for future members. A time capsule was placed in the side of the building, to be opened in 125 years. Capsule objects included items from the International Convention and writings from founder J.T. Kelly's descendants.

Stephenson took the opportunity to remind everyone that the museum needs support from today's membership to ensure it will still be around in 2141.

"It doesn't matter if your local has 10 members or 10,000," he said. "We're all IBEW."


Delegates and guests — including International Treasurer Emeritus Thomas Van Arsdale — were able to tour a satellite version of the IBEW Museum, housed in the expo hall at the convention center.


Before the convention began, delegates and their families attended the opening of the Henry Miller Museum, the St. Louis boardinghouse where the union was born.


The 125th anniversary of the union was also Tom Willey's 14th convention, where the Salisbury, Md., Local 1307 retiree earned his 70-year pin.