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February 2022

Grounded in History
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One Hundred Years of Security

From its inception, the IBEW has been bound by the principle that brotherhood and benefits are inseparable. It is for that reason that our union has paid death benefits since day one, even when it nearly drove us to bankruptcy. Death benefits for electrical workers were extremely important in the early days, precisely because the work was so dangerous that no company would insure our members at any premium. Union members often passed the hat to ensure a decent burial for their brothers who died on the job. Even the funeral costs for our founder Henry Miller had to supplemented by two local unions and his employer. This month we celebrate the evolution of this important benefit and its eventual culmination in the Electrical Workers Benefit Association, created exactly 100 years ago.

In 1891, our founding convention established a $50 funeral benefit for members and $25 for their spouses, paid for by a per capita tax of 10 cents per month. This benefit was doubled at the 1892 convention to $100 and $50 respectively. In 1893, in an attempt to address our growing deficit, the per capita tax was raised to 15 cents per month and conventions were moved to every two years. By 1895, our deficit had not only grown but was made worse by an unemployment crisis which saw a loss of almost half our membership. It was determined that the funeral benefit for spouses was too heavy a burden for the treasury and it was abolished. In addition, our initiation fee was increased to $5 and the per capita tax was raised to 25 cents per month.

It was at this point that the IBEW entered an era of financial stability. Membership slowly increased, the deficit was eliminated, and benefits remained steady. At the 1909 convention, delegates took the next step and established a graduated system of death benefits starting at $100 for a member in good standing for one year and capping at $300 once they reached five years. Over the next decade, with this new system in place, the International Office began a detailed study of fatality rates and their causes within the electrical industry. The results were eye opening: More than half of all electrical worker deaths were caused by electrocution or injuries from hazards associated with the industry. The consequences of this report were threefold: it laid the foundation for a Research Department at the I.O.; it strengthened a growing movement for national safety standards; and it led directly to the establishment of the Electrical Workers Benefit Association (EWBA).

The EWBA was proposed and approved at the IBEW's 16th convention in 1921 and became effective on Jan. 1, 1922. Its purpose, as stated in the proposal, was to answer "the growing demand for insurance protection, because a large percentage of the brotherhood's members are rated as extra-hazardous risks by insurance companies and the opportunity for a member to create an estate for his family and dependents has been exceedingly prohibitive if not entirely so." Paid for by an increase of $2 to the initiation fee, the EWBA is one of organized labor's first insurance programs still in existence. Benefits started at $300 for a first-year member and capped at $1,000 once members reached five years. These amounts allowed the IBEW to compete with the growing rise of "company unions" while raising morale and loyalty amongst rank-and-file members.

The First Convention of the EWBA took place at the 1923 Convention in Montreal the first IBEW Convention held outside the United States. Delegates approved of additional benefits to the program and strengthened feelings of brotherhood between American and Canadian IBEW members. Over the next two years the EWBA would prove a financial success, ensuring that the IBEW would always have sufficient resources to provide a dignified burial when an IBEW member passed away.

The EWBA existed in this form for another 50 years. In 1966, at the IBEW's Diamond Jubilee Convention, delegates voted to strengthen the IBEW Pension Benefit Fund (PBF), established in 1927, by adding a death benefit of $1,000 for natural causes and $2,000 for work-related deaths. This was supplemental to the benefit already provided by the EWBA. And after 70 years in operation, the EWBA was merged with the PBF in 1992, by action of the IBEW's 1991 convention. By that time, the EWBA death benefit had been raised to $2,400 for both active and retired members. Combining the funds resulted in significant administrative cost savings while producing no increase in dues.

The last major change to the PBF occurred at the 2011 Convention in Vancouver where delegates raised the monthly contribution rate to $16, effective January 1, 2015. This increase ensured that the PBF could continue its mission of providing pension and death benefits, the very first benefit approved by our founders, to IBEW members and their beneficiaries for generations to come.

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