The Electrical Worker online
April 2021

Grounded in History
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Birth of The Electrical Worker

On Jan. 1, 1893, the first issue of The Electrical Worker was published. The iconic photo of our 10 founders graced its cover. It had a publication run of 5,000 copies, two of which are held in the archives of the International Office. The Worker has been published monthly for the 127 years since, making it one of the world's oldest labor publications. But it wouldn't have been possible if not for the tireless effort and dedication of our first Grand Secretary-Treasurer, James T. Kelly.

Kelly began his electrical career as a wireman in Towanda, Pa. He moved to St. Louis in 1890, where he met Henry Miller, a lineman from Texas. The two men proved to be a powerful team in the cause of unionism. In September of 1890 they chartered American Federation of Labor Local 5221 for St. Louis electricians. In November of 1891, they founded the IBEW, with Miller elected president and Kelly as secretary-treasurer. With Miller traveling the country organizing locals, Kelly was left to manage the books. In the first year of operations, he drafted our constitution and ritual book, maintained per capita receipts, and oversaw the engraving of all charters. In 1892, at the 2nd IBEW convention, Kelly submitted a motion to create a monthly journal paid for by advertising space and a 25-cent dues assessment. The vote in favor was unanimous and Kelly added yet another title to his resume, editor-in-chief of The Electrical Worker.

In the very first issue, Kelly set an ambitious goal for the IBEW's new publication.

"The Electrical Worker, edited and published by men who have devoted the best years of their lives in the hazardous work of their craft, who understand the needs and requirements of the electrical workers, will be a fearless champion of their rights and ever watchful of their interests."

The concerns of the working class were often drowned out by the power of gilded-age newspaper bosses. The Worker was determined to change that. The first issue featured a column from AFL founder Samuel Gompers, tips for locating troublesome arcs in power stations, and a description of a security camera prototype called a "photo-electric detector." And at the back of the issue, comprising only two pages, were 11 articles submitted by locals from around the country, representing a quarter of the 45 locals in existence. This was the earliest appearance of Local Lines, a feature Kelly believed would unite our membership in common cause for it was where the voice of the worker was paramount. Henry Miller believed this as well and stressed the importance of the role of Press Secretaries in the first issue:

"The Press Secretary is the local representative of The Electrical Worker and should furnish the paper with all the latest electrical news in his vicinity; the condition of trade, new work, extension of plants, etc. We should aid our grand secretary-treasurer in every way we can to make The Electrical Worker a success by sending from time to time an article on some practical subject."

But the goal to unite members from across the country soon come under threat with the financial panic in the fall of 1893. Unemployment rates skyrocketed and the IBEW lost over half of its membership and with it, a primary source of its funding. With the IBEW close to collapse, Kelly chose to mortgage his household effects and sell his building association stock to keep the organization afloat. Thankfully, it was enough for the IBEW to weather the storm. The Worker stayed in publication and by the 1895 convention, the IBEW balance sheets were in the black. It was Kelly's belief that the Electrical Worker was what kept the IBEW going through those troubled times. He stated at the 1921 convention, "We could not have managed to keep our Brotherhood intact through these early years if it were not for our magazine."

While our world has changed in the 127 years since the Worker's first issue, certain themes have always run through its pages. Each issue seeks to keep members informed of the latest in electrical technology and safety, to emphasize the importance of political action by labor, and to give voice to each local union. One of those voices came from A.M. Ryan, press secretary of Cleveland Local 16, who submitted this inspiring message in the first issue:

"Looking into its future, I cannot refrain from making a prediction that the Worker will pave the way and make the rough places smooth for many an organizer. Through it, workmen of our craft who are not yet with us will see that the Brotherhood is not a dream, or a passing shadow but an organization founded on principles beneficial to the working class in general and the electrical worker in particular."

Let us hope that Brother Ryan would be proud of what The Electrical Worker has become today: A testament to the perseverance of our brotherhood, and a celebration of its members who keep the dream alive.

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Founding Secretary-Treasurer James T. Kelly, 1891-1897