The Electrical Worker online
October 2021

Grounded in History
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to
The Birth of the TVA at Norris Dam

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Norris Bill on May 18, 1933, creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, he freed more than 600,000 horsepower that had been lying idle at the hydroelectric plant in Muscle Shoals, Ala. With a massive investment of $60 million in federal funds, the TVA was to bring thousands of good-paying jobs to rural Appalachia, an area of the country that had suffered years of neglect even before the Great Depression. And the IBEW was there from the beginning to ensure the job was done with union labor of the highest standards.

The TVA traces its origins to World War I, when Congress ordered the building of a dam and powerplant at MuscIe Shoals to produce nitrates for explosives. After the war, private interests lobbied Congress to take control of the plant but were continuously blocked by Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who eventually drafted the Norris Bill to expand the public utility program. The bill took on national importance when Roosevelt, upon his inauguration in 1933, stated that "the potential public usefulness of Muscle Shoals transcends mere power development; it lends itself to national planning for a complete river watershed involving many states and the future lives and welfare of millions." This belief served as the purpose of the TVA, to usher in a new age of public building programs to help America climb out of the Depression. Congress approved the TVA just four months into FDR's first term and the first construction project chosen by its administrators was the appropriately named Norris Dam.

Located on the Clinch River in Tennessee, 25 miles upstream from Muscle Shoals, the new dam fell into the jurisdiction of IBEW Fifth District International Vice President G.X. Barker. In September 1933, IBEW President Dan Tracy wrote to Barker stressing the importance of this project to the union. "The IBEW is happy to take part in this great adventure under the auspices of the federal government and you, as field marshal, are directed to exercise every talent and resource to make this great enterprise a complete success. We know that the general staff can do very little without our well-trained brigade of skilled men. And if complete success is achieved, we will enter upon an era unparalleled in its usefulness." Tracy's message was clear: It was all hands on deck for the IBEW.

Construction of Norris Dam began in October 1933, and as reported by The Electrical Worker, 1,000 reservoir clearance men and 1,544 hourly workers that were employed there, nearly 500 of whom were IBEW members. But our presence was not limited to hard labor. Built into the TVA was a labor relations department, the first of its kind in a government agency, and was led by an IBEW member and former international representative, Clair C. Killen. His office was called upon to formulate and maintain the labor policies of the TVA. "The whole TVA project has a social purpose to directly benefit the worker," wrote Killen in The Electrical Worker. "Not profits, but a larger life, freedom from economic fear and insecurity, and wider opportunities for the men's cooperative capacities." To that end he ensured that "decent living wages and working conditions above the average will be provided" to all members at the Norris Dam. In addition, the Tennessee Valley Workers Council was created by IBEW members working at the dam to address grievances and enforce collective bargaining agreements. Its purpose was "to prove that labor can take part in the problems of management and administration in an effective, positive way." It proved to be a successful partnership, and one that continues today with an innovative multi-trade Code of Excellence in place across the TVA.

More than a dozen local unions associated with the TVA submitted articles in The Electrical Worker from 1933 to 1936, but none more so than Local 558 in Florence, Ala. The local had over 300 members working in TVA projects, over 100 at Norris Dam alone. In an article from January 1936, leaders discussed hiring their first full-time business manager due to the growing number of job opportunities, how Norris Dam was 100% union as was a new project at Wheeler Dam, and how over 200 of its members were enrolled in TVA electrical training courses, many of which were being taught by IBEW members. In an article from August of that year, it reported the first successful test of the Norris turbines as well as the success of the labor relations department. "With the help of IVP Barker, President Tracy has reached an agreement with the TVA whereby all grievances and working conditions are to be handled by a labor panel presided over by International Representative Freeman." Gordon Freeman would later become international president, serving from 1955 - 1968.

Norris Dam was completed 85 years ago in July 1936. In an article celebrating its completion, International Secretary G.M. Bugniazet wrote, "The mighty impounded waters are pressing against turbines and generating nearly 100,000 kilowatts of power. With its completion, the Tennessee Valley development enters a second phase. It is no longer an experiment. It has become an established institution." True to his words, IBEW members were called upon again and again for new projects along the Tennessee River. In the same month that Norris Dam was completed, four more were already underway, all 100% union.

Norris Dam continues to generate electric power, at a maximum of 126 megawatts. In 2016, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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



Union workers, including many IBEW members, at the Norris Dam build site in the mid-1930s.