Puerto Ricans and the Unions-The IBEW

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers combined a variety of skilled work categories and work sites drawn from different industries.  Its core components were Division A, the electricians who worked mostly in construction sites, and Division Y which covered a mixture of workers in New York’s massive electrical components industry.  The world of Division A, which was entered through strict apprenticeship and training programs, was a father-son transmission belt so common to the construction trades and skilled trades.Needless to say its member where nearly completely white through the early 1960s. Division Y was where all the factory workers were organized and even though many of these jobs were highly skilled and high pay, it was where most of the expansion of IBEW took place during the post-war years and where they ended up recruiting most of their Puerto Rican members. By the mid-1960s Puerto Rican membership in IBEW increased and came to include other divisions as a small but growing number of Puerto Ricans gained access to electrician training in the construction industry.

IBEW President Harry Van Arsdale was committed to changing the practices of racial exclusion within the construction division, probably the only labor leader who had anything to do with skilled construction trades who pushed anti-discrimination work. Van Arsdale was also President of the city’s Powerful Central Labor Council and also from there pushed for various reforms including the fight to organize the mob-controlled unions that operated in factories in which so many Puerto Ricans worked.

By the late 1950s IBEW had trained hundreds of Puerto Rican and other Latino low-level plant leaders and business managers. Some of these leaders would go on to become civil rights and labor leaders both within IBEW and in many other organizations inside and outside the Puerto Rican community The Santiago Iglesias Society organized in 1957 by Puerto Ricans within the IBEW was not the first Spanish speaking organization within a major industrial union, but it was the most successful, autonomous and long-lasting, with a familiar presence in the yearly Puerto Rican parade. By the mid-1960s 20% of IBEW Local 3 IBEW members were Puerto Ricans (about 6000 Puerto Rican members). Local 3 played a critical role in promoting young Puerto Ricans as construction electricians and helping move workers to higher-pay categories within the factories. It also offered courses, services and cultural events to its members.

Continue to The Garment Unions