In The Beginning

Cleveland was a hub of electrical energy in the late 19th century. In 1884, the first electric railway in the country began its journeys in Cleveland and brought more than 50,000 workers into the city each day. Cleveland’s first telegraph line in 1847 and telephone in 1877 made instant communication possible. Electrical lighting in 1879 transformed Cleveland, and the entire country, into a “day and night” society drawing a need for experts who could install and keep these modern day conveniences up and running.

To share in the prosperity these new technologies promised, companies needed linemen to erect 40-foot wood poles, string electrical wire, handle “hot” power lines and dig ditches for the miles of cable needed to electrify the city. New construction companies relied on the expert craftsmanship of wiremen and fixturemen to safely wire buildings and install equipment and fixtures.

Over one million skilled and unskilled workers had entered the electrical trade nationally. In 1890, electrical workers traveled from all over the country to wire the new electrical “wonders” of the century at the St. Louis Exposition. As workers gathered to talk during breaks in the day, they discussed the state of their trade. They complained about low wages, dangerous working conditions and untrained workers who lowered the reputation of skilled workers. The men realized that the electrical trade would not be able to demand higher wages without some type of organization that could develop new standards of safe practices, training and quality workmanship.

The National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (NBEW) was organized in a room over Stolley’s Dance Hall in 1891. A week later, it received a charter and jurisdiction over all electrical work at the American Federation of Labor Annual Convention.

In 1892, the representatives from the Brotherhood arrived in Cleveland. Local 16 was chartered as a linemen’s local and Cleveland hosted the Third Convention of the NBEW in 1893.

The financial “Panic of 1893” caused a four-year economic depression. Industry stopped growing and investment in the electrical industry came to a standstill. Many electrical companies folded and General Electric was near bankruptcy. Local 16 folded that same year.

Economic growth eventually rekindled in Cleveland. On August 8, 1895, 19 linemen became charter members of Local 38, marking a new beginning for the NBEW in Cleveland. Local 38 led the nation in negotiations for an eight-hour day, wage increases and new standards for apprenticeship training.

The Turn of the Century...