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April 2022

Grounded in History
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How Locals Get Their Numbers

The IBEW has 831 active local unions within the United States and Canada as of March 1. But there have been more than 4,700 locals over the course of our 131-year history.

So, how do locals choose their numbers and what happens to the numbers used by all those inactive locals? The history of local numbers is something the International Office monitors very closely — and for good reason. A local's number can be a mark of immense pride and a symbol of its culture. Within the brotherhood, members often use their number to identify where they're from instead of using their city or state.

When the first IBEW Convention adjourned on Nov. 28, 1891, our 10 founders immediately began the work of chartering locals. The delegates from St. Louis, primarily Henry Miller and J.T. Kelly, were first out of the gate by organizing Local 1, followed by Milwaukee delegate E.C. Hartung, who organized Local 2. The next 5 locals were all chartered by Miller during his travels to the AFL convention which met in Birmingham, Ala., that December. These included Local 3 in Birmingham, Local 4 in New Orleans, Local 5 in Nashville, Tenn., Local 6 in Memphis, Tenn., and Local 7 in Louisville, Ky. Toledo, Ohio, Local 8 Toledo was organized by delegate F.J. Heizleman, then Chicago Local 9 by delegate T.J. Finnell. Finally, Indianapolis Local 10 was chartered by Hartung during his trip home.

These first locals were numbered sequentially, with each given the next available number based on when their charter application was received. There were no gaps or skipped numbers. This sequential numbering system continued until our Second Convention, convened in Chicago on Nov. 12, 1892. At that point, 45 locals had been chartered by the founders, with Miller responsible for the lion's share at 35, followed by Finnell with 5, Kelly and Hartung together with 4, and Harry Fisher with 1. Of those first 45, seven are still active today: Locals 1, 8, 9, 17, 22, 23 and 26. But when the second convention drew to a close, the purely sequential numbering system ended as well.

This was because Birmingham, Ala., Local 3 became the first local to go defunct in November 1892. This was followed by Locals 14 and 29 the next month. Barely a year into its existence, the IBEW had to make a fateful choice: should local numbers be retired or reused? If they were retired, it would maintain the sequential order but could result in future locals receiving exceedingly large numbers. Note that the IBEW has had over 4,700 local unions, but there is no Local 4700. The highest number ever assigned was to Valejo, Calif., Local 2376, and that was nearly 50 years ago. Instead, the early officers of the IBEW decided that local numbers could be reused, allowing any newly chartered local to take a free number as its own.

By March 1893, the three defunct numbers had been reassigned to newly chartered locals, starting with New York Local 3 on Dec. 13, 1892. The trend continues to this day. When a local goes defunct or amalgamates with another, its number is placed back in the pool. Newly organized locals can then choose any unused number in the pool or simply select the next sequential number, which today would be 2377.

When an unemployment crisis hit the United States in 1894, the IBEW lost over half its membership and with it, nearly half of its locals. As organizing picked back up, defunct numbers were reused only to be lost again in the next financial panic. This boom-and-bust economy was typical of the era and resulted in many numbers being used over and over again. For example, Local 3 was reused twice more before coming back to New York on Feb. 7, 1900, where it remains today. There are more than 1,150 numbers that have been used more than once. The distinction for the most recycled number goes to 119 and 410, which have each been reused by 9 different locals. Interestingly, 119 remains available while 410 was chosen in 2017 by the newly-chartered local for Baltimore Gas & Electric workers after their organizing victory there. This also answers a frequently asked question from members. How can young locals have a low number? The answer is simple: the number was available and the organizing members chose it.

There are currently 1,545 unclaimed numbers that have been returned to the pool. The lowest number available is 27. So, for anyone out there involved in a new organizing campaign, Local 27 is yours for the claiming.

For more on how to support the IBEW's preservation of its history, visit NBEW-IBEWMuseum.org. Have an idea for this feature? Send it to Curtis_Bateman@ibew.org.

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An original IBEW charter issued in 1900.