After the First Convention adjourned, President Miller traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where the AFL was holding its annual convention. On December 4, 1891, the Brotherhood received a charter from the AFL with jurisdiction over all electrical work. In a letter written to J.T. Kelly dated December 5, 1891, Samuel Gompers, AFL president, said, "I am more pleased than it is possible for me to give expression to you that your National organization has been brought into existence."
Brother Miller continued traveling and organized locals all up the East Coast. T.J. Finnell of Chicago, elected Grand Organizer at the First Convention, concentrated his organizing efforts on the Midwest. A year after its founding the Brotherhood boasted 45 locals.
The second national convention of the Brotherhood was held in Chicago in November of 1892 amid great optimism. With 26 delegates representing approximately 2,000 members from around the country, Henry Miller had reason to feel secure. He said, "From present indications the continued growth of the Brotherhood, both in local unions and in large membership, is well-assured." Both Kelly and Miller were reelected; The Electrical Worker was founded; the death-benefit payments, which went out to members and their spouses, were doubled; and the future looked promising.
The optimism of 1892, however, soon gave way to the "Panic of 1893." The national economy went into a tailspin; investment in electrical plants, which had seen tremendous growth in the past five years, dried up; companies folded -- even the recently founded giant, General Electric, barely avoided bankruptcy. The Electrical Worker noted in August 1893 that the national electric trade was at a standstill and that it was "going to be a very hard winter."
Between July and November of 1893, the Brotherhood lost around 600 members; and the attitude of those who remained was rapidly deteriorating. There was feuding among locals over jurisdiction in the New York and Chicago areas. There were also problems with unauthorized strikes.
By the Third Convention, held in Cleveland in November 1893, the Brotherhood was in trouble. The union was in debt, morale was low and tensions were high. Brother Q. Jansen, a lineman from Local 2, Milwaukee, was elected Grand President; and Henry Miller became Third Grand Vice President and Grand Organizer. J.T. Kelly was reelected Grand Secretary. The delegates voted to raise the per capita tax and assessment for The Electrical Worker and to hold the Convention every two years in an effort to regain financial stability.
Only eleven delegates attended the Fourth Convention in 1895 in Washington, D.C. Times were hard. Secretary Kelly went as far as to mortgage his house and personal possessions to ensure the Brotherhood's operating funds. But things were turning around. Belt tightening by the union and a general economic upturn gave the Brotherhood a positive balance in the treasury by the Fifth Convention held in Detroit in 1897. New locals were signed on, and strikes were held to a minimum.
The Convention of 1897 paid special tribute to Brother Kelly, who stepped down as Grand Secretary after bringing the union through one of its hardest times. The delegates adopted a resolution thanking him for his "unsullied and valuable services," and he returned to St. Louis where he remained until his death a vocal and active member of Local 1. The Convention delegates also formally praised their former Grand President, Henry Miller. Like so many of the early linemen, Henry Miller died young -- on July 10, 1896, in Washington, D.C., after sustaining a severe electric shock and falling from a utility pole. He was 38 years old. In 1897 the delegates voted to have his grave appropriately decorated.
J.T. Kelly wrote of Henry Miller, "He was generous, unselfish and devoted himself to the task of organizing the electrical workers with an energy that brooked no failure...." That devotion to the task of organizing, that capacity to turn plans into action, to change a dream of unity and bargaining power into the reality of the Brotherhood, the delegates observed, indebts all union members to the legacy of Henry Miller. And through J.T. Kelly's extraordinary efforts, that legacy lives on today.
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Excerpt by - Carl D. Cantrell, 10th District