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October 2021

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Remembering Henry Miller

This month the IBEW celebrates its 130th anniversary. In telling the story of our founding, no figure looms larger than Henry Miller. His role as founder and first Grand President is well documented and celebrated throughout the brotherhood. But rather than retell the story of his years in office, we'll take a closer look at the events that inspired him to take up the tools and become one of labor's strongest advocates.

According to J.T. Kelly, the IBEW's first secretary-treasurer, Miller was born on Jan. 5, 1858, in Fredericksburg, Texas. Hugh Murrin of Local 283 in Oakland, Calif., and later a close friend of Miller's, recalled that his parents were German immigrants and that Miller would occasionally slip into a heavy German accent when on the job. Miller lived on his family's ranch until the age of 16, when he left to work on a military telegraph project led by Lt. Adolphus W. Greely of the U.S. Army. The project consisted of constructing a 125-mile telegraph line west from San Antonio to Fort Clark, connecting military posts along the Rio Grande. Miller joined the project in 1876 as a water boy but quickly took up the tools of the linemen he worked alongside. After a year of this "apprenticeship," he left the project to begin his electrical career.

His first post was as a line repairman for the Western Union Telegraph Co., then for the Santa Fe Railway Co., where he was given charge of a telegraph division. In 1879, Miller became a superintendent with the Erie Telephone Co. and remained with the company until 1885. He eventually landed in St. Louis and worked for the Municipal Electric Light and Power Co., where he met J.T. Kelly. In 1890, the city hosted an exposition featuring an elaborate electric light display that had required hundreds of linemen and wiremen to install. Inspired by the sight of so many of their fellow tradesmen, Miller and Kelly met with AFL organizer Charles Kassel to create Local 5221, a local union solely for St. Louis electricians. Miller was elected president and spent the next year traveling across the Midwest and East Coast, finding work in various cities and organizing local unions along the way.

By September 1891, Miller had laid enough groundwork that 5221 felt confident in calling for a convention to establish a national organization for electrical workers. On Nov. 21, in an unassuming boarding house in St. Louis that Miller called home, the first convention was held with 10 delegates in attendance. When it concluded a week later, the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was born, with Miller elected as Grand President. With only $100 in the bank, thanks to a loan from 5221, Miller jumped straight back into organizing, chartering 45 local unions in the next six months.

Daniel Ellsworth, a member of Detroit Local 17, remembered the day Miller rode into town to organize. "He rode on the bumpers of a freight train to get here and had no funds for organizing. When we took up a collection for him, he said, 'No, boys, you will need all the money you can get together for your union. I will get along some way.' I tell you, brothers, he was a hero in the cause."

At the third IBEW convention in 1893 Miller became a Grand Vice President and Grand Organizer. One highlight of his new position was organizing the Adams Hydroelectric Generating Station at Niagara Falls, N.Y. This was the first hydro plant designed by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Sadly, given an ongoing economic depression, Miller's organization efforts stalled and he stepped down in 1895 to return to his lineman tools.

He made his way to Washington, D.C., and found work with the Potomac Light and Power Co. According to Henry Hatt, a traveling brother who roomed with Miller in Georgetown, our founder was always assigned the toughest jobs due to his reputation as a union agitator. He once witnessed Miller wire a 240-foot-high iron smokestack, working in heavy winds on the outer edge of narrow scaffolding. "He had a heart as big as a coat of mail," said Hatt. "His efforts on behalf of the electrical workers created a momentum around which a corporate resistance occurred." It was not only Miller's work ethic and perseverance that impressed Hatt, but also his ability to find time for reflection and relaxation. "He could do as much work in one day as two ordinary men, and read novels half the night," said Hatt. "He could do as much work in fun as some people could do in earnest."

On July 10, 1896, Miller was assigned to repair a lighting circuit in Washington's Cleveland Park neighborhood that had been damaged during a storm. While working on the line just before midnight, Miller received an electric shock of 2,200 volts, which threw him from his pole. A doctor brought him to his boarding house where he died at 4:30am on July 11. According to John Lloyd, a member of Washington Local 26 at the time, a special meeting was convened to "appoint a committee and see that Miller was properly buried. Mr. Purdy, the superintendent of Potomac Light and Power, and a good friend of Miller's, attended the funeral in conjunction with the IBEW members." As Miller didn't have any money of his own, Mr. Purdy paid all funeral expenses save for $16, which was paid by the IBEW executive office. In 1901, the IBEW paid for perpetual care of Miller's grave at Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, a service which continues to this day.

Henry Miller's life was not easy. His occupation as an electrical worker placed him in constant risk. It was the unregulated nature of the work that inspired Miller to found the IBEW. Faced with low wages, little-to-no training, and fatality rates far above those of any other trade, Miller understood that the only way to improve working conditions and instill dignity amongst electrical workers was to organize. In that effort, Miller's tenacity and courage were without equal. "No man could have done more for our union in its first years than he did," said J.T. Kelly. "Every movement, every organization established, has associated with it the name of some individual whose mind conceived and whose energy and perseverance established it; and thus the name of Henry Miller will forever be associated with the Electrical Workers of America."

Hugh Murrin wrote extensively about Miller in a 1916 issue of The Electrical Worker. "I know personally of the hardships he passed through while organizing the electrical workers. With no salary or money for expenses he traveled from city to city and depended upon the men of our trade to feed him. If we are to succeed in promoting the good work that this worthy brother started for us… we must all work together, and if we do this I can see for the IBEW the success that was the aim and heartfelt desire of Henry Miller."

This November, let us remember the hard work and sacrifice of Henry Miller. To tell his story is to tell the story of the IBEW.

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The IBEW's founder and first Grand President, Henry Miller, sacrificed everything to grow and promote the brotherhood. This month, the IBEW celebrates its 130th anniversary.