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October 2021

Grounded in History
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Preserving the IBEW's Past

In 1948, IBEW International Secretary J. Scott Milne oversaw the creation of an Archives Department at the International Office in Washington, D.C. In an article published in The Electrical Worker that year, Milne called for members to donate items they thought were important to the IBEW's history. Among his suggestions were "old constitutions, receipts, transfer cards, convention badges, pictures, and any historical data pertaining to the beginning of the locals." Once enough items had been obtained, Milne envisioned that a room would be set aside at the International Office for the perpetual display of the collection. "The archives will not only provide a graphic history of the growth of the brotherhood," he wrote, "but will also capture something of the substantial benefits that have come to labor through the efforts of the trade union movement and a few enlightened political leaders sympathetic to its cause."

To understand what made these benefits "substantial," he said, one first had to understand the harsh beginnings of the brotherhood. "Our pioneers blazed a trail against abuse, ridicule, courts, and jails," Milne wrote. "They went through the days of the injunction judge, the blacklist, tear gas, mounted state police and armed company guards." It was important then, as it is now, that we take stock of the struggles of the past so we can better appreciate the benefits of today. The importance of this effort was understood by all and the response to Milne's article was overwhelming.

In the months that followed, the International Office was flooded with donations of historical artifacts. Gaps in our catalog of The Electrical Worker were filled, panoramic convention photos thought lost were found and tools from every industry of the trade were gathered under one roof to show the diversity of electrical work. Some donated items had belonged to our founders themselves, old receipt and membership ledgers dating back to 1891. A small space in the building was created to display some of these priceless items but it wasn't until 1974, with the opening of a new International Office, that the archive was given a proper exhibit hall. This new space was located on the ground floor, allowing visitors to walk through and admire our collection. In 2005, the archive was expanded yet again with the opening of the current International Office. The building features a museum, the first of its kind in a union headquarters, with five rotating exhibits, interactive multimedia displays, and a story booth for IBEW members to leave video testimonials. A fully climate-controlled storage area was also built, which houses the bulk of our collection, now numbering 3,500 items, and is carefully conserved by professional staff. A research room is also available for visiting labor historians.

In 2016, the Henry Miller Museum opened in St. Louis, the result of decades of work to identify and preserve the neglected boarding house where the IBEW's founders met in 1891 while creating the brotherhood. The museum in the IBEW's birthplace is a collaboration between St. Louis Local 1 and the International Office and is open to visitors by appointment. Its collection is maintained in conjunction with the IBEW Museum staff.

The mission of the IBEW Museum is to preserve the history of our union and to tell the story of its members. Only through the tireless efforts of our early pioneers to organize local unions, develop apprenticeship training, and fight for a place at the bargaining table did the IBEW secure the respected place it holds today within the labor movement.

An understanding of that fraught history and the sacrifices our founders made is key to developing a true appreciation for the benefits we enjoy today and a commitment to defend them. It is why history is important to a union. And it is why the IBEW Museum honors the words of Brother Milne and remains in "perpetual display" for IBEW members and members of the public alike.

For more on how to support the IBEW's preservation of its history, visit Have an idea for this feature? Send it to


IThe IBEW museum in Washington, D.C., safeguards the union's history and helps today's trade unionists learn lessons from the past.