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ELECTRICAL WORKERS' UNION MARKS 100TH YEAR

At first, only industry and the wealthy could afford the new technological marvel. Then the wires of progress began to sprout in the homes of an increasingly affluent middle class.

The year was 1897, and the high-tech marvel was electricity. The transformation of electric power from a novelty into a household commodity helped create one of Buffalo's oldest labor unions, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 41.

The union will celebrate its 100th birthday on Saturday with a gala event at the Buffalo Convention Center. Organizers expect the party to draw about 800 people, including political leaders, officers of the international union and generations of electrical workers.

"Originally, when electricity first started to come in, workers were known as 'outside linemen' " said James Voye, business manager of Local 41. They strung wires from poles and were represented by the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or NBEW, which was formed in 1891.

As more and more Buffalo homes were wired for power, a growing number of "inside linemen" were put to work, he said. On Sept. 18, 1897, they broke off from the parent, NBEW Local 45, and formed Local 41. Their first president was Alfred Keane.

The former parent organization isn't around anymore, but Local 41 has grown to one of the region's largest unions, with 1,000 members. The "wiremen," now called electricians, mainly install wiring in construction projects.

Although it's not the region's oldest surviving union -- railroad unions and some building trades like the carpenters are older -- the IBEW has played a major role in labor history, said Alex Blair, director of labor programs at the Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo. "It was one of the stronger unions in the American Federation of Labor and in the forefront of the eight-hour day movement," Blair said.

The IBEW also played a leading role in the abolition of convict labor, Blair said. States would hire out prison inmates to work on building projects, a practice that hurt employment prospects for union workers.

Although it started as a craft union, the electrical workers were among the first to begin organizing the growing ranks of factory workers, making it a rival of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Blair said.

Later, the IBEW pioneered the development of certified apprenticeship programs, Blair said. Apprentice training and refresher courses for members are designed to keep craft skills up to date in a changing industry.

Electrical workers in Buffalo helped wire the Pan-Am Exposition in 1901, which showcased the new technology by setting its 324-acre fairgrounds ablaze with electric light.

In 1903, Local 41 weathered a strike at one large employer that left it with 17 members, the union said.

But in the 1920s, relations improved with the Electrical Contractors Association, as a professional understanding grew into mutual respect, the union said.

As the modern age advanced, the IBEW secured benefits for members such as a health care plan in 1960 and pensions in 1962.

Today, strikes are non-existent among electrical construction workers, Voye said. If contract negotiations stalemate, a Washington, D.C., board made up of company and labor representatives decides on a package of wages and benefits, a process that's binding on both sides.

Local 41, headquartered in a 22,000-square-foot complex in Orchard Park, includes within its ranks motor shop, factory and telephone workers as well as electrical construction workers and residential electricians.

But it was the entertainment industry that propelled Local 41 into the national spotlight. The union in 1995 became the representative for the Buffalo Jills, the National Football League's only unionized cheerleader squad.

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