Our history begins on a summer day in Elgin, Illinois, one year into the brand new century. It was on this day that the young yet quickly growing International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers presented the city of Elgin with a charter for a new local union. Following brief stays in Temple, Texas and Paducah, Kentucky, the IBEW had selected Elgin as the final home for the charter recognizing Elgin's growing population, proliferation of unions and increasing dependency on electricity. Twelve employees from the local light and power company had petitioned the International IBEW for this charter. And so, on July 20, 1891, IBEW Local Union 117 was born.
From the beginning, IBEW Local 117 proved its importance to the growing city of Elgin and the importance it would have on generations to follow. Its charter membership was made up of individuals vital to the community and its infrastructure - each member worked for the company that provided Elgin with all of its electricity. As it grew, Local 117 would provide the backbone for Elgin's businesses, residents and public transportation.
Elgin the in the Early 1900's:
At this time, Elgin was a bustling city, boasting a healthy butter and dairy industry, the well-known Elgin National watch Company and an availability of electricity for commerce and public transportation. Street lighting was provided by tall towers equipped with electric arc lamps. Elgin residents made use of an electric rail line. And while electric service to individual homes was still a novelty, the trend was catching on.
Elgin was also known for its good union reputation. there was great interest in trade unions among the business and civic community. A number of unions had already formed throughout the city. And even Samuel Gompers had made a trip to Elgin to speak. In 1901, the Elgin city Council had passed a resolution that all projects implemented by the city would employ union labor.
Into this primed environment came IBEW Local 117, with its fair working rights, skilled workmanship, emphasis on training and fair wages. With a scale of 37-1/2 cents per hour and monthly dues of 75 cents, its membership experienced solid growth Gathering periodically at their first meeting hall, which was located on Chicago street near the railroad tracks, members fully involved themselves in the business and social significance of bringing electricity to the residents of Elgin.
Electrical power was something new and amazing. For the first time, people could have electric lights in their homes. The first electric motors were being installed in factories. As this burgeoning electrical industry grew, so did the Local. By 1924, IBEW Local 117 had 24 members. And by 1925, it boasted a new, larger hall over the Union National Bank.
But along with growth came the same types of problems that challenge the industry today. There was concern about members who were “twilighting”, and efforts were made in the city council to tighten the requirements for contractor licensing. The wire nut had just been invented, and while this presented new opportunities, it also presented a new hazard as well as the possibility of a reduced number of jobs. Nonetheless, progress marched forward, as did IBEW Local 117.
The Great Depression and Beyond
The years between 1926 and 1950 brought good times and bad times.
As of 1930, Local Union 117 had 55 members, and the scale was at $1.00 per hour, with dues of $4.00 per month. The Great Depression that hit America in the early 1930s took its toll on the Local 117 membership. Only three of the 55 members could earn enough resources to maintain their standing, and so the membership had to use the Local’s reserve funds to pay most of the member dues. When the funds were depleted, 15 members dropped their cards but were later reinstated. But the Local still remained active in the industry, having representatives in the city electrical commission, which examined all electrical contractor licenses, and governed regulatory issues. Members also continued to stay technically advanced, helping form the Electrical Maintenance Society, which consisted of lectures, tours and inspections of the latest in electrical equipment and installations.
The Post War Years
Following World War II, the Local’s outlook improved considerably. Work was plentiful and some of the larger projects, which members worked on, included the Illinois Tool Works, Speiss Department Store and Sunset Park. Sunset Park in particular was a significant project. It was the first modern subdivision in Elgin, located near Edison and South Street. Its homes were wired in Bx, with the homes’ basements completed in rigid conduit. This was a milestone in residential electrical construction for Local 117.
Times were good in the late 1940s, and by 1950, Local 117 had 123 members hard at work and living good lives in Elgin.
1951 – 1975
Mid Century Advancements
Union status was both pursued and respected in Elgin by mid century. In the year 1951, all electrical contractors in the city of Elgin were signatory to IBEW Local Union 117. In addition, McHenry County was granted membership in the Local, and this added 14 more signatory contractors to Local 117. During the early 1950s, the Local also added four neon sign contractors, and organized Kinney Electrical Manufacturing Company, Inc.
The year 1951 marked Local 117’s first full-time Business Manager. C.L. Stanley served from 1951 to 1954, initiating the new full time standard which as been followed to this day. Besides the dues at $5.60 per month, the Local implemented an additional 1% to help pay for the full time Business Manager’s salary.
Benefits for Members
During the 1960s and 1970s, Local Union 117 continued to grow and to keep up to date with providing benefits for its members. In 1963, the Local established a Health & Welfare fund to take care of the medical needs of its members and their families. In 1971, it established the Pension Fund to enable a comfortable retirement for retirees who had devoted year of service to the Local.
Education and training, too, continued to gain in importance. By 1968, Local 117 had 22 apprentices enrolled in its apprenticeship program and the program was offering such advanced classes as solid-state logic control.
1976 - 2001
Technology Speeds Ahead
The final quarter of the 20th century ushered in advanced technology at a phenomenal rate. And IBEW Local 117 kept up with the advancements, implementing new and improved techniques, and updating its training program so as to stay ahead of the industry.
As technological installations made great strides, so, too, did the everyday business of operating the Local. IBEW Local 117 introduced computerized systems into its offices and the administration of Local business greatly benefited.
Members benefited, too, from wise investments made by the Pension Trust and Vacation Fund during the early 1980s. And while residential work decreased due to rising interest rates in home purchases, industrial and commercial projects continued to provide a source of work for IBEW members. But times were not as good for the local in the early 80s, and with work slowing down because of the economy, members experienced a staggering 20 percent rate of unemployment. A few large projects such as Spring Hill Shopping Mall and Byron Station kept the members working.
By this time, IBEW Local 117 represented workers in five divisions – Inside Wireman, Sound, Line Clearance and two Manufacturing divisions. And whether in good times or slow times, contractor negotiations with the National Electrical Contractors Association continued to strengthen the joint labor-management cooperation between IBEW and NECA.
Entering the 21st Century
The 1990s saw a quantum leap in telecommunications, which the Local membership wholeheartedly embraced and provided to its customers throughout the Elgin area. As telecommunications became more common for both businesses and residences, Local 117 worked to bring voice and data systems to the residents and companies of Elgin.
Membership continued to increase -- both in the number of electricians/technicians, and new signatory contractors – and the training program attracted a diverse population of apprentices from different backgrounds.
As the Local entered its second century, its membership brought with it a rich heritage of patriotic unionism, strong work ethics and constant innovation. The future looks bright for IBEW Local 117 and its members. The Charter that was signed so many years ago still bears witness to a continued striving for quality of life, technological progress and community growth. The spirit of the Charter lives on today in the members of IBEW Local 117.