The Case for the Union

Business Manager, Electrical Workers’ Union, Local No. 3

I WISH to reply to the question raised by Charles Stevenson in the January Atlantic: ‘What part did labor play in the projection of the New York World’s Fair?’ Briefly, labor played the all-important part of making possible what at night appeared to be a dream of a wonderland beyond the realm of possibility. The building craftsmen transformed what had been a swamp and an ash dump into a spectacle of beauty such as the world had never before witnessed.

Builders with more than a generation of experience were doubtful whether it would be possible for men to attain and maintain the pace required to complete such a gigantic undertaking on time. Labor paid the price with its toll of 7 men killed and 4410 injured, 113 of them critically and permanently.

The building workers of New York City are proud in the knowledge that they built in record-breaking time this edifice which stands as another monument to their skill. The insinuations and alleged complaints are picayune in comparison with this gigantic accomplishment.

The Electrical Workers’ Union installed, maintained, and operated the power, light, communication, radio, and sound systems which made the Fair such a beautiful spectacle. Mr. Stevenson endeavored to prove that the 16,500 men and women who constitute the membership of the Electrical Workers’ Union, Local No. 3, conspired to perpetrate illegal acts against the general public for the benefit of a selfish few within their ranks.

Surely if Mr. Stevenson had any understanding of the American public, or any respect for the laws of our land and the courts which administer them, he would know that such outrageous conditions could not exist even in a very small way. If he had taken time to acquaint himself with the character of the members of this organization, which is composed of educated, industrious, Godfearing family men and women, he would recognize that they are moved by the best of motives, and their sincerity and honesty would make it impossible to conduct an organization of which they are members in the scandalous manner he has represented.

If Mr. Stevenson had any evidence of illegal acts, why did he not present those facts to the proper authorities so that prosecutions could have been started to punish those responsible for violating the laws? If he has uncovered evidence of wrongdoing, why is he content to be an accessory after the fact, writing a story that attempts to discredit the Electrical Workers’ organization and its accomplishments, knowing that those responsible have gone unpunished and will be in a position to resort to other illegal and improper acts?


A knowledge of the experiences of labor at national and international expositions would make it easier to understand the problems that arose at the New York World’s Fair.

The cruel treatment which labor was subjected to at previous expositions reached such proportions that in 1938 A Study in Abuses of Labor at Expositions, written by a representative of the United States Department of Labor, was submitted to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which Congressman Samuel D. McReynolds of Tennessee was chairman, with a view to denying government participation in future expositions unless they should ‘guarantee payment of wages, and at prevailing scales with good moral and physical working conditions . . . free from Wage cheaters and chiselers.’

The New York labor unions, through collective bargaining and agreements, have established working conditions and wage scales comparable to the cost of living in New York City. Having a knowledge of the exploitation of labor at other expositions, the New York unions were determined that those employing labor at the World’s Fair should adhere to the wage standards and conditions of employment established in this area.

The Electrical Workers’ Union, Local No. 3, is composed of 16,500 men and women engaged in all branches of the electrical industry. Since I was elected business manager on October 16, 1933, we have nearly tripled the membership. This union has pioneered in the establishment of insurance benefits for the dependents of its deceased members. It has established pension funds, sick funds, unemployment funds, and has made serious efforts to solve the unemployment problem.

More than eleven years ago it established the five-day, forty-hour week. In 1934 it established the seven-hour day, thirty-five-hour week, and in 1936 it was the first union in the building trades to establish the six-hour day, five-day week, towards which the American Labor Movement as a whole has yet to struggle. Today Local Union No. 3 is one of the largest and most responsible unions in the country and has more members than thirty-two of the eighty-eight national and international unions within the American Federation of Labor.


Mr. Stevenson interviewed Dr. Raphael Ernesto Lopez, the Venezuelan Commissioner, who charged: ‘They wouldn’t complete our building unless we paid union men $26 a day to turn our lights off and on. I can’t touch a switch. I couldn’t plug in an electric razor to shave without violating union jurisdiction.’ This statement is fantastic, as the facts will bear out. The electrical installation work on the Venezuelan Pavilion was performed by an electrical contractor, and no union electrician was employed to maintain the Pavilion. The cost of electrical maintenance labor to the Venezuelan Pavilion for the entire 1939 Fair season was $2.50, as the World’s Fair records will show.

Dr. Lopez further states: ‘Mr. Grover Whalen requests us to exhibit again next year. But I ask him: how can I justify these expenditures to my government?’ Dr. Lopez stated publicly that the Venezuelan Government would not participate in the New York World’s Fair in 1940 because of high labor costs, but was repudiated by his own government, which announced that Venezuela would participate. Dr. Lopez corroborated his government’s announcement by tendering his resignation.

Mr. Stevenson’s statement, ‘A $3600 New England contract for electrical “maintenance,” which prevented any but union men from touching a fixture, did not at first even provide for replacing a burned-out light bulb on less than thirty-six hours’ notice,’ is ridiculous. The New England States exhibit is located in the Court of States, which was maintained free of charge by the World’s Fair electricians.

The official records of the New York World’s Fair prove the charges concerning Nevada are false in every detail. This state never submitted its final plans for the construction of an exhibit. The model was never brought to New York, nor was it ever officially discussed by any representative of the Nevada State Government with the officials of the Electrical Union.

Armando d’Ans, Argentina’s architect, complained of the cost of installing a neon-lighted wall map. The electrical neon sign company that had the contract to install this map of Argentina received specific orders from the architect to complete the job before the opening day of the Fair. The sign was shipped from Argentina, and the neon tubing was broken into many pieces. The services of skilled neon tube benders working day and night were required to repair and make new parts for the sign. The members of the union cannot be held responsible for glass tubes that are broken in transportation.

Mr. Stevenson, in commenting on the agreement between the Building and Construction Trades Council and the World’s Fair authorities, states: ‘It will be observed that nowhere is there mention of the promised and legalized rights of the foreigners to bring in their own specialists.’ The Electrical Workers’ Union in no instance interfered with the specialists of any foreign exhibitor. The members of the Electrical Workers’ Union worked more than one shift on maintenance; in fact, worked as many shifts as the employer required. There were no strikes of electrical workers caused by jurisdictional disputes. Whenever a question of jurisdiction arose, the question was referred to and decided by the Executive Committee of the Building Trades Employers’ Association.

Mr. Stevenson says: ‘The first of these strikes was engineered by the electrical union . . . because a General Motors road-show preview had operated momentarily with its own electrical system.’ This strike was caused by the employment of non-union men in violation of the agreement with the World’s Fair.

Mr. Stevenson refers to a telephone strike. Had he adequately investigated this situation he would have found that the Telephone Company contracted with the New York World’s Fair to make this installation; that an agreement between the New York Telephone Company and the Electrical Workers’ Union was signed more than thirty years ago; that it has always been recognized that on all installation jobs on private property and private roads where members of the building-trades unions are employed the Telephone Company will employ members of the Electrical Workers’ Union to do the telephone work; that the union asked the Telephone Company to live up to its understanding; that the Electrical Workers’ Union and the Building Trades Council negotiated with the officials of the World’s Fair and the Telephone Company in an effort to adjust the situation peacefully. When the Telephone Company refused to arbitrate and brought crews of non-union men into the World’s Fair to perform the work, this left the union mechanics no other alternative except to withdraw. In the final settlement, the union was upheld in its contention that World’s Fair roads were private roads and that the work should have been done by union men.

Gerard Swope, President of the General Electric Company, declared that the union obstructed the use of General Electric equipment and boycotted other electrical manufacturing equipment. The purchase orders of the World’s Fair and the electrical contractors will show that over one million dollars’ worth of equipment and materials were purchased from the General Electric Company for installation at the Fair. Mr. Stevenson refers to a letter that Gerard Swope wrote to Mr. Whalen alleging a boycott. The letter was written for the purpose of introducing it in the records in the suit brought by the electrical manufacturers against the union. Charles E. Wilson, Mr. Swope’s successor as President of the General Electric Company, testifying in the electrical manufacturers’ suit on January 5, 1940, could not name an instance or a job where the union boycotted General Electric Company’s products, as the records of the case will show.

This claim was also made by Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, whose charge of boycotting equipment at the Fair can be best answered by an announcement which appeared in the March 15, 1939 issue of the New York Times:

Power and lighting equipment for the World’s Fair is being largely supplied by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, the company announced yesterday. Contracts already in force involve expenditure of over $1,400,000 and in addition the company will have a $1,000,000 exhibit of its own.

The repeated pleas of the union to the World’s Fair officials to plan the work so as to provide employment for some of the thousands of unemployed building mechanics and to avoid a last-minute rush were ignored. As April 30 approached, everyone became frantic in an effort to have the exhibits completed for the opening day. To meet this emergency the union sent for more than twelve hundred skilled electricians from other parts of the country, as far west as Chicago. At no time was there a shortage of electricians, in spite of the fact that other large building projects were in progress simultaneously with the construction of the World’s Fair.

The members of this union do not receive double time for overtime as stated by Mr. Stevenson, but receive time and one-half on construction work and straight time on all maintenance work, regardless of shifts.

The Rumanian Government, Mr. Stevenson says, complained of the high costs of its electrical maintenance. The Rumanian Government employed an electrical contractor to do all its construction and maintenance work; if it made a contract not to its liking, the union should not be blamed. When the Rumanian Government expressed a desire to employ the electricians direct, the union readily consented.


In answer to the charge that the electricians’ union preferred to have its men work for employers who played its game, let me say that it was the established policy of the union at the World’s Fair to furnish maintenance electricians when needed to any of the participants in one of the following three ways: through an electrical contractor; through the World’s Fair Corporation; or through the direct employment of maintenance electricians by the exhibitor.

The strike on the Belgian Pavilion was started early in the month of April and was caused by the employment of non-union men. The union in no way interfered with the Belgian technicians or in the operation of the Belgian Pavilion, however; the dispute was settled and the officials of the Belgian Commission expressed their appreciation for the coöperation they received from the union.

The union experienced no difficulty or differences of any nature with the Netherlands Government, regardless of the statement issued by Dr. Neil Van Aken. The Netherlands Pavilion employed directly two members of the union to do its servicing and maintenance work. At the close of the Fair these two men received letters of recommendation and commendation for the services rendered to the Netherlands Government from its General Manager, B. W. F. Bierens de Haan. In a communication to the World’s Fair, Dr. Van Aken was repudiated by his own government, which stated that his allegations did not represent the views of the Netherlands Government.

The only knowledge the union had in reference to the maintenance on the New York Zoölogical Society’s exhibit was that the maintenance electrician was subject to call when required by this exhibitor. The story of the electric eel’s being compelled to join the electricians’ union was one of the publicity stunts of the amusement area of the Fair.

In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, Bert Kirkman, president of Local Union No. 3, denied making the statement published in the issue of June 9, 1939, that the members of the union ‘went through hell during the depression years.’ The interview took place over the telephone and was apparently garbled on the way to the city desk. What Mr. Kirkman really said was that there was so much unemployment it was easy to understand why the American workers would resent the importation of foreign labor.

As to the statement of Mr. Stevenson that the Department of Justice is preparing to go before the Grand Jury with complaints about the New York Electrical Union’s general policies, all of which were reflected at the Fair, I can only say that industry, labor unions, and the medical profession are being investigated by the Department of Justice, and, should it become necessary for the Electrical Workers’ Union to defend its actions in the courts, I am confident that it will be cleared of all charges of wrongdoing.

It is charged that the union insisted on ‘the right to rewire new electrical equipment.’ The New York World’s Fair has its code and specifications, which require certain basic standards for electrical work to prevent the hazard of loss of life and property. The insurance companies also have basic requirements upon which they will insure the property of the exhibitors. The inspectional force of the insurance companies is the New York Board of Fire Underwriters.

I ask you to visualize, if you can, the results of a catastrophe from a fire at the New York World’s Fair, which catered to hundreds of thousands of visitors daily. The union cannot be held responsible for the rejection of equipment manufactured in violation of the requirements of the insurance company, and in instances where equipment was rewired it was done because of the requirements of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters.

In the dark days of financing the Fair, when it appeared doubtful whether sufficient funds would be available, the World’s Fair officials appealed to all civic associations and labor unions to coöperate and purchase World’s Fair bonds. Mr. Grover A. Whalen, President of the Fair, appeared at one of our membership meetings to promote the sale of bonds to our members. The Electrical Workers’ Union, Local No. 3, and its members responded. The union purchased $20,000 worth of bonds, and 1460 individual members, many of whom had to borrow the money, purchased a one-hundred-dollar bond. Considering our limited resources, this compares favorably with bond purchases of the wealthiest corporations in the world.


It ill behooves those who contributed nothing to make the World’s Fair possible to criticize the union for its efforts. The World’s Fair is one of the most magnificent spectacles of man’s creation. The adverse publicity given to it by feature writers and others has caused it irreparable damage.

Ou February 9, 1940, the New York World’s Fair and Local Union No. 3 entered into an agreement for the year 1940. Mr. Harvey D. Gibson, President of the Manufacturers Trust Company and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the New York World’s Fair, signed the agreement on behalf of the Fair. Certainly this nationally known banker would not have signed an agreement with our organization unless we had proved by our actions our responsibility and ability to administer our affairs in a just and competent manner. Hundreds of our members have made known to us that they have in their possession letters of recommendation from exhibitors complimenting them on their faithful and efficient service.

We are proud to have played such an important part in the creation and development of the New York World’s Fair, which has made a lasting and permanent contribution to better national and international relations. The millions who have had the good fortune to visit it carried away an inspiring impression of the possibilities of a better world of tomorrow.