DETROIT – IBEW Local 58 billed their April 12 gala at Cobo Center as “A Celebration Of 100 Years of Brotherhood.” And with an evening program that included a nicely choreographed combination of music, images, video, and messages of solidarity, along with good food and drink, the celebratory mission was accomplished.
More than 1,500 Local 58 members and guests attended the event in the newly re-purposed Cobo Arena, an iconic venue on the riverfront that was transformed by the building trades last year into banquet and meeting space. The party took place a century (minus one day) after IBEW Local 58’s charter was signed by the International Union on April 13, 1914.
“We are so fortunate to have so many members and supporters who have pride and passion for this local union,” Local 58 Business Manager Michael Richard told the gathering. “We’ve had some good old days in the past 100 years; now we can shape the good new days together.”
Richard and Local 58 President Andy Dunbar lauded the work of numerous volunteers who have spent the last few years compiling historical information about the union in preparation for the 100th anniversary party. Their work yielded a commemorative booklet, recorded verbal histories, and a collection and catalogue of all manner of documents, photos and artifacts that will be of value to present and future generations of Local 58ers.
“So many people to thank for their work over the past five years, gathering information, photos and conducting interviews,” Dunbar said. “The 100th Anniversary Committee – you guys rock.”
That history – compiled in Local 58’s new history book, Celebrating 100 Years of Brotherhood – reveals that the roots of the IBEW began in 1891 with the formation of the NBEW (National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). The InternationalBrotherhood of Electrical Workers came into being in 1899 with the organizing of the first Canadian local.
Detroit “was not particularly fertile ground for union activity” through about 1905, IBEW Local 58’s history book says, in part because of an economic depression and “vigorous opposition” by Detroit’s business community to unionization. Detroit, the book says, was “hardly an influential center of manufacturing or commerce” and “demand for skilled electrical workers was not unusually high.”
Then came the car – and a century ago it changed everything in Detroit. Manufacturing plants were built, as were office buildings and residential areas.
“The rapid construction of the new plants required the employment of many electricians, as the scale of the city rapidly grew,” said Local 58’s history book. “Detroit experienced an extraordinary burst of construction of all types – factories, office space, and residential neighborhoods. All of the new construction required the installation of electricity.”
The history of the labor movement in Detroit and elsewhere is filled with local unions that came into being a century or so ago. Scores of unions subsequently became defunct over the years – the Cigar Makers, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the Boot and Shoe Workers Union are a few examples. But some, like Local 58, have been survivors.
IBEW Sixth District Vice President Lonnie Stephenson recognized the deep labor roots that are found in the Detroit area, both in and out of the building trades. “It’s amazing the number of local unions that have been chartered out of Detroit,” he said. “It’s a testament to the strength of the brotherhood in this area.”
Stephenson was among several speakers that night who pointed out that the current political situation for organized labor – witness Michigan as a right-to-work state – is one of the worst ever. Sitting back and saying “woe is me” is not the answer, Stephenson said. “We need to mobilize and support politicians who support our causes,” he said.
IBEW International President Edwin Hill said that today’s conservative attacks on organized labor are similar to what Local 58’s founders fought, and overcame, a century ago.
“Tonight is your night,” Hill said, “but we can do more than just mark the passage of time. We carry on the ideals and the passions of those who founded Local 58 by coming together. They set an example for those who came afterward. We must re-light the fires of activism so that we do not passively accept what is happening to us.”
On hand to remind the audience of “what is happening” to organized labor politically were two members of Congress, Sander Levin (D-9th District) and Gary Peters (D-14th District) who is a candidate for the open Michigan U.S. Senate seat this fall.
Levin pointed out that one of the issues currently near and dear to the construction industry – extending federal jobless benefits – is currently going nowhere in the Republican-led U.S. House. “We have two-and-a-half million people unemployed over the last six months, and we can’t get Washington to extend unemployment,” he said. “They deserve a helping hand.”
A labor attorney in the 1960s who helped write the state’s labor laws, Levin noted that electricians and other union labor built Cobo Hall – “and you also built the middle class.” He said he hoped the party’s attendees would “leave here with a renewed determination” to stand up for themselves and urge their lawmakers to stand up for issues important to working people. “The people who would destroy the labor movement have not heard from you,” Levin said.
Gary Peters also pointed to the beautifully renovated Cobo Center as a symbol of union skill. “Look at this hall, look at the lights, this is part of Local 58’s incredible record of accomplishment over the past 100 years,” Peters said. Local 58, he said, came into being at a time when there were “deplorable working conditions, with no minimum wage and no child labor laws.
“But people came together,” Peters said. “They said we’re going to organize, we’re going to create the middle class. And Local 58, you have been there every step of the way. You have fought for a fair day’s work for a day’s pay. You have fought for health care. You fought for the ability to retire with dignity. And that’s what unions do: make those things a reality for Americans. Thank you Local 58 for standing up for the American middle class.”
IBEW PRESIDENT Edwin Hill, left, presents a 100-year anniversary plaque to Local 58 Business Manager Michael Richard and President Andy Dunbar at Local 58’s gala. At right is IBEW Sixth District Vice President Lonnie Stephenson.