In 1912, a group of 15 Chattanooga electrical workers came together to form the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 175, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month. Local 175 is comprised of more than 3,000 members, all contributors to the landscape of Chattanooga and the surrounding areas. And those members are proud.
“I decided to become an IBEW member because my father was a member and I was raised in a union household,” said Tommy “Fuzzy” Clark, now 75, who served as the union’s assistant business manager from 1991-95, and recently received his 55-year pin.
The reach of the union extends far into the Chattanooga community and beyond. Three of the more noteworthy collaborations in recent history have been with the Electric Power Board, Tennessee Valley Authority and the new Volkswagen plant.
Electric Power Board
When the Electric Power Board was created by a private act in 1935, IBEW Local 175 was already 23 years old. But the relationship between the two entities has grown into a significant partnership. EPB now serves more than 169,000 residents in a 600 square-mile area that includes greater Chattanooga, as well as parts of surrounding counties and areas of North Georgia. And when EPB needs quality work done, it calls on IBEW members to do it.
When EPB moved into the fiber-optic business, it was primarily IBEW members the company called on for installation. The union’s professional craftsmen install the system, and as the fiber-optic network continues to expand, the job continues, giving rise to Chattanooga’s national reputation as “Gig City.”
Tennessee Valley Authority
In the depths of the Great Depression, with one in four Americans out of work, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act as one of the first of the “New Deal” projects created in the first 100 days of his administration.
The Tennessee Valley, which includes parts of seven states—Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi—was also one of most economically disadvantaged in the South. TVA was one of the most ambitious projects of the New Deal in its overall conception and was given the assignment to improve the economic and social circumstances of the people living in the river basin. TVA was also taxed to bring electricity to thousands of people at an affordable price.
Sixteen dams and a steam plant were constructed by the TVA between 1933 and 1944. At its peak, a dozen hydroelectric projects and a steam plant were under construction at the same time, and design and construction employment reached a total of 28,000 workers, including many members of IBEW Local 175.
In the 1930s, only 10 percent of the nation’s rural population had access to electricity. Private utility companies, which supplied electric power to most of the nation’s consumers, argued that it was too expensive to string electric lines to isolated rural farmsteads.
But the Roosevelt administration believed that if private enterprise could not supply electric power to the people, then it was the duty of the government to do it. As TVA began to provide the power so desperately needed, families cherished their first fuse boxes as magical talismans, symbols of a better future. And as noted in the documentary “Built for the People: The Story of TVA,” “TVA created jobs—but labor unions taught the workers their craft.”
Years later, without the power produced by TVA dams, Oak Ridge could not have advanced the work on the nuclear bombs that ended the war in Japan. Post-war, TVA began to look at nuclear power as a major source of domestic electricity—and IBEW Local 175 workers were vital to the work needed on its three nuclear plants: Browns Ferry, Sequoyah and Watts Bar, particularly during the 1960s and ’70s.
Today, TVA ranks as America’s largest public power company, with a generating capacity of 31,658 megawatts. Seventeen thousand miles of transmission lines deliver power through 158 locally owned distributors to 8.5 million residents of the Tennessee Valley.
On July 15, 2008, at the Hunter Museum of American Art, Volkswagen officials chose Chattanooga as the site of their new assembly plant—and IBEW Local 175 members were among those excited about the new job possibilities.
In addition to the other factors considered, a deciding component of the German carmaker’s decision to locate its new plant in Chattanooga was that, “The area has a deep base of well-trained labor.” And this labor included, of course, the skills of Local 175 members.
Volkswagen eventually ended up with 180 electricians working on the site—with no time to waste due to Volkswagen’s commitment to be up and running by 2011.