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May 2022

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Convening the Brotherhood

This month the IBEW will convene its 40th International Convention. Nearly 2,000 delegates from local unions across the U.S. and Canada will gather in Chicago to conduct our union's highest form of governance. Resolutions will be submitted, constitutional amendments will be debated, and executive officers will be elected. While the sheer size and scope of the conventions has changed over the years, the basic format remains the same as laid at our founding 131 years ago.

On Nov. 21, 1891, 10 delegates met in St. Louis to convene our founding convention. For the next seven days they worked to establish the guidelines that would govern our union. They created operating rules for local unions and their officers, responsibilities for executive officers, rights and benefits for members, initiation rituals, policies for conducting and resolving strikes, procedures for holding conventions and a dues structure to finance the organization. On Nov. 28, 1891, the delegates codified these rules into a constitution and the IBEW was born. The last order of business was to choose the time and place for the next convention. The vote was for Chicago in one year's time. At the conclusion of the event, the minutes were collected and published in a "proceedings report." This 12-page document, currently held in the IBEW Museum at the International Office, recorded all business that was brought to the floor. It has served as a template for every convention proceeding that came after, the most recent of which totaled just under 500 pages in 2016.

The Second and Third Conventions were held annually in 1892 and 1893, at which point they were moved to every two years. Some notable events that occurred at these include: admission of women members (1892); creation of the Electrical Worker newspaper (1892); three-year on-the-job apprenticeship (1893); Mary Hoznik becoming the first woman organizer (1895); and the NBEW becoming IBEW with the admission of Canadian members (1899). The conventions continued to be biennial until 1905 when it was decided to move to a four-year rotation.

It proved to be a costly decision. In 1908, with just a year to go until the next convention, First District Vice President James Reid and an organizer, James Murphy, convened a "Special Convention" during which the leadership of the IBEW was voted out and Reid and Murphy were elected president and secretary. The actual president of the IBEW, Frank McNulty, refused to recognize their legitimacy and thus began the Reid-Murphy Split. The legitimate IBEW held its next convention in 1909, but decided to switch back to a biennial system in order to better address the crisis. That's how in 1911 there were two IBEW conventions held in Rochester, N.Y., at the same: one led by McNulty and the other by Reid. Thankfully, a court decision in 1912 by the Ohio Supreme Court effectively brought an end to the secession movement, and at the 1913 Convention the IBEW was once again under one roof with nearly all locals readmitted.

The conventions continued with their biennial rotation until 1929. Some notable events included: creation of the Council of Industrial Relations (1919); selection of Washington, D.C. as the location of a permanent International Office (1919); establishment of the IBEW Pension Plan (1921); first convention held in Canada (Montreal, 1923); establishment of the Electrical Workers Benefits Association (1923); and creation of the Pension Benefit Fund (1927). A month after 1929's 20th Convention, the stock market crashed, kicking off the Great Depression, and IBEW delegates wouldn't come together again for more than a decade. During that time, administrative action was done by referendum every two years.

In 1941, the year of the IBEW's 50th anniversary, the 21st Convention was finally convened in St. Louis, beginning a tradition of holding conventions in the brotherhood's founding city every 25 years to celebrate milestone anniversaries. One month after the 1941 Convention, the U.S. entered World War II and administrative action was once again done by referendum during the war years. The 22nd Convention was held in 1946 and continued with the biennial rotation until 1950, at which point the delegates voted to hold the gatherings every four years.

The first on the new schedule was the 25th Convention in Chicago. More than 5,000 delegates attended, making it the world's largest labor union convention ever held at the time. It was so large, in fact, that the IBEW had to restructure how delegates were allotted to local unions. Before 1954, each local was allowed 1 delegate per 100 members. After 1954, it was 1 delegate for the first 250 members, and an additional delegate for every increase of 250, followed by every 500, and then every 3,000 with a maximum of 15 delegates. This is the ratio still used today and has maintained an average of 3,000 delegates at subsequent conventions.

The 27th Convention in 1962 was held in Montreal, beginning another tradition of holding conventions in Canada every 25 years, with Toronto hosting in 1986 and Vancouver in 2011. The gatherings continued their 4-year rotation from 1954 to 1986. At the 1986 Convention delegates voted to hold the events on a 5-year rotation in order for the next to fall in 1991 for the IBEW's 100th anniversary. This rotation was followed until 2021 when restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic forced postponement of the 40th Convention to this month.

St. Louis still holds the title for hosting the most conventions with seven, while Chicago is preparing to host its fifth.

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The IBEW's 25th International Convention in 1954 was held in Chicago and welcomed 5,000 delegates, the largest labor convention in the world at the time. Its size prompted a change in delegate allocation to reduce the size of future gatherings.