July 10, 2021 will mark the 125th anniversary of the death of the founder and first president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Henry Miller.
|Henry Miller, a travelling lineman and union organizer, was elected the first ever president of what would become the IBEW in 1891.
Miller was working as a lineman in Washington, D.C., in 1896 when he suffered a fatal fall from a utility pole, which is why we celebrate July 10 as National Lineworker Appreciation Day today.
The IBEW, along with the Edison Electric Institute and the National Electrical Contractors Association, are pushing Congress to permanently designate July 10 as the U.S.’s official day of thanks and remembrance. A bipartisan coalition in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have introduced resolutions to officially recognize July 10 as Lineworker Appreciation Day.
A similar effort has been underway in Canada.
The IBEW, EEI, and NECA have also joined together to encourage everyone to show their appreciation and support for our lineworkers by signing this petition.
In honor of Miller’s remarkable life, we reprint a story that originally ran in the Summer 2008 issue of the IBEW Journal that uncovered previously unknown details about Miller’s biography and all he did to build the IBEW and North America’s labor movement.
Nearly 117 years ago, a young lineman’s vision of a national union of electrical workers became a reality. A small handful of delegates elected Henry Miller, only 33 at the time, president of the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at the union’s first convention in St. Louis in 1891.
Without Miller’s drive, it is unlikely the IBEW would have become the largest union in the electrical industry. But very little is known about him. The information that exists is fragmentary: a copy of his death certificate, a list of some of his addresses, a few firsthand accounts of him in the pages of IBEW publications, a newspaper article about his death and a handful of photos.
But new research done at the IBEW’s archives in Washington, D. C., is shedding more light on both his life, and his untimely death at the age of 38, in 1896.
“We’re using what we have to try to fill in some of the gaps about Miller’s life,” said International Representative Michael Nugent, who maintains the museum and archives.
According to an 1896 issue of the Electrical Worker – the IBEW’s first publication – Miller was born in 1858 on a ranch in Gillespie County, Texas – 70 miles west of Austin in the central part of the state. Henry Hatt, an early IBEW member and a co-worker of Miller at the time of his death, reported that both of his parents were German immigrants.
|Cover of the first ever issue of the Electrical Worker showing the founding delegates.
“They crossed the river Rhine in marriage, they crossed the ocean in emigration, and they landed on the chivalric plains of Texas where Henry Miller was born,” he wrote in an 1896 issue of an IBEW publication.
Many German immigrants anglicized their names so it is possible that Miller may have originally been known as Heinrich, Nugent said. He was born in the United States, but still spoke with a German accent.
Texas Hill Country was a major center for German immigration in the 1840s and ‘50s. Many of Gillespie’s newcomers were exiles fleeing political repression in the wake of failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany. The “48ers”, as they were known, were young and educated idealists who had hoped to establish a unified, democratic republic in their homeland, and they brought their political passions with them to America.
Labor historian Bruce Laurie wrote: “Forty-eighters created boisterous free thought societies and a forceful press … their nation’s legendary fondness for beer and song along with a radical mentality … stood in sharp contrast to the insularity and parochialism of previous German immigrants.”
On almost any night in the ranch houses and the beer halls across the hills of central Texas, you could find a debate on philosophical and political issues – sometimes times in Latin, the language of academia at the time.
According to writer Michael Lind’s book, Made in Texas: “The German Texans did not despite leisure or learning. Their beer-gardens rang with the melodies of their singing clubs, and scholarship, journalism and the composition of verse in German and English were valued in a society founded by surplus nobles and refugee professors from Central Europe.”
Opposition to slavery was particularly strong among the Germans. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the county voted to stay loyal to the union.
Many of the immigrants were artisans and craftsmen whose commitment to defending the prerogatives of skilled labor could be found in Miller’s comments that an electrical worker “had to be first class or he is of little use.”
There are no accounts of Miller’s early life in Texas, but one can assume that the progressive political ideas and values of the Texas German community – which included trade-unionism – had lasting influence on him, as it did for many other early leaders of the American labor movement who were of German descent.
“Texas Hill Country … came as close to an egalitarian society as any in the United States … Labor was not considered a dishonorable activity to be carried out by helots of a different race or class,” Lind wrote.
Grand President Miller
Miller gave up life on the ranch at the age of 14 to work as a water boy for the federal government, helping to build a telegraph line from San Antonio to Corpus Christi, connecting the military forts built on the Rio Grande River. It was the beginning of Miller’s career as a lineman, and he would travel across the country stringing lines for Western Union.
Miller would end up moving to St. Louis in 1886, finding work with the municipal power company. It was there he helped organize the first recognized union of electrical workers: Wiremen’s and Linemen’s Union No. 5221, American Federation of Labor. According to the union’s first secretary, James T. Kelly, it was Miller who pushed for it to expand and become a national union.
“[He] would tell us at each meeting that unless there was a national organization of electrical workers, we could never hope to accomplish much and any advantage gained by an isolated union could not be permanent, while the great masses of electrical workers were unorganized,” Kelly wrote in the program book of the IBEW’s 1921 convention.
Delegates elected him the first “grand president” on the fourth round of balloting at the first convention of the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1891, beating out Fredrick J. Heizleman of Toledo, Ohio. The union would change its name to international at its convention in 1899. Miller was defeated at the union’s third convention by Queren Jansen, but would go on to serve as grand organizer for another year.
Miller stopped playing a leading role in the union sometime around 1894. The financial panic of 1893 led to one of the greatest economic depressions ever experienced by the United States and it devastated the labor movement. The NBEW lost more than 290 locals in only two years. Miller received some of the blame for the decline in membership and he resigned as a union officer though he continued to organize wherever he went.
According to Hatt, Miller was “six feet tall and 43 inches around,” and “could do as much work in one day as two ordinary men and read novels half the night.” According to the now-closed Washington, D.C., newspaper, the Evening Star, he was “an extremely well-built man, having a splendid physique and weighing about 225 pounds.”
Little is known of his family. According to an account by a member of Washington, D.C., Local 26, who reported Miller’s 1896 death in the pages of the Electrical Worker, the local unsuccessfully tried to locate them after his death. Miller’s death certificate lists his marital status as a widower, but nothing is known of his wife.
What is known is that throughout his union career he was a confirmed bachelor. “He was married to the union,” Nugent said. Miller, like many linemen, traveled from city to city to follow the work.
Home for Miller was usually a boardinghouse – often above a tavern – in whatever city he found himself. He spent his last hours at a Georgetown boardinghouse he shared with five other linemen.
The building still stands today as J. Paul’s restaurant in a ritzy neighborhood that is more likely to cater to tourists and Georgetown University students than itinerant linemen. (Note: J. Paul’s closed in 2018.)
While making a normal family life nearly impossible, his career as a “floating” lineman was an ideal occupation for someone looking to make contacts with electrical workers in other cities – contacts that became the basis for the union.
An Untimely End
Miller’s last job was for the Potomac Electric Light and Power Co. in Washington, D.C. The night he died, he was trying to restore power after a storm when, according to an 1896 issue of the Electrical Worker, “he came into contact with a high-tension wire carrying 2,200 volts and received a shock knocking him off the pole.”
Washington’s Evening Star reported that Miller fell headfirst to the ground, striking his co-worker on his way down.
By consulting the records of the U.S. Naval Observatory, Nugent found out that there was a new moon that night; Miller was likely laboring in near pitch blackness without the benefit of moonlight, using only a kerosene lantern for illumination.
An organizer in the years before labor law protected the right to collectively bargain, Miller was often a target of management and an obvious choice for difficult assignments.
Hatt said that the company often picked Miller for the most dangerous jobs. “His efforts on behalf of the electrical workers created a momentum around which a corporate resistance occurred,” he wrote. “He was the loser.”
Despite his fall, he remained conscious, complaining of pains in his back. Miller, accompanied by his doctor, rode the Georgetown streetcar back to his boardinghouse. He put Miller to bed, where he was found dead the next morning. According to Miller’s death certificate, the cause of death was a concussion, a condition that would have been treatable today.
Only 38 when he died, the coroner incorrectly reported his age as 43, an error repeated by the newspaper.
Unable to locate any relatives, Kelly asked members of Local 26 to make sure Miller had a proper burial. Despite his efforts on behalf of the union, Potomac Electric paid his funeral costs. In 1941, the IBEW placed a special memorial at his grave – still located in Washington – that credited his role in founding the IBEW, which is maintained by the Brotherhood today.
There is still so much we don’t know about Miller, Nugent said, but he hopes that ongoing research at archives will continue to provide more information, enriching our understanding of Miller and the union he founded.