History of Local 716

By Jessica Faz Franklin

On March 12, 1912, organized electrical workers in Houston were granted the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 716 charter. A significant achievement, the charter marked the beginning of one of the city’s strongest institutions. However, the history of Local 716 did not begin in 1912. The charter was the culmination of actions taken years before. It was the result of demonstrations, meetings, and organizations spurred by a labor movement that took the city by force.

As phone and electrical lines began to flourish around Houston in the late 1880’s, so did the city’s labor movement. At this time, the electrical industry was in its infancy and being new and exciting, it attracted men of vision and courage. These men however, were subjected to some of the worst conditions prevailing in any industry at the time which included long hours, unsafe working conditions, seven day work weeks, no training programs, and an average wage of ten to twenty cents per hour.

There was a desperate need for the formation of an organization that would squarely face and overcome the conditions prevalent at that time. The union was the answer to that need. IBEW Local 66 was chartered on January 13, 1894 and consisted mainly of linemen. Near the end of the 19th century, improvements in working conditions coincided with an increased demand for electricity in the home. The situation set the stage for inside wiremen in the city to establish a union separate from Local 66 to meet the needs of the rapidly advancing electrical industry. Local 716 was to prove equal not only to that challenge but to “carry on the battle of the working man and woman even until today,” stated John E. Easton Jr., current Business Manager/Financial Secretary of IBEW Local Union 716.

The original organizers of Local 716 were devoted men who were dedicated to attaining higher wages, safer working conditions, improved company/union relations, and increased services for their members. While the Local was establishing itself and setting the stage for progressive action in the early 1910’s, membership exploded in both Houston and across the nation.

Many factors contributed to this growth, but the most significant by far was World War I. With the onset of the war, the demand for electricity and skilled workers in the field increased exponentially. The union had workers trained to handle electricity and the IBEW could quickly train more.

However, the growth of the labor movement was stalled in 1918 when an open-shop movement misnamed the "American Plan" was adopted in the United States.  Local 716 found themselves battleing anti-union sentiments and anti-union propaganda, as well as anti-union employers who attempted to destroy the labor movement through both legal and illegal means.

Nevertheless, Local 716 emerged from the strife and conflict in the mid-1920’s ready to take its place in writing the history of Houston by helping to turn the small town into a big city. In April 1927, Local 716 gained national recognition for its role in the construction of the Neils-Eperson building. The highest structure south of the Mason/Dixon line at the time, the building stood 32 stories high. Two hundred and fifty 500 watt lamps lit the building, and the structure was hailed a monument to the industry and skill of Local 716.

In July 1929, Local 716 topped its record with the completion of The Gulf Building, Houston’s first 35-story structure. Now known as the JPMorgan Chase building, it remained the tallest building in Houston until 1963. The structure stood as a direct indication of the growth of the city and the Local.

To accommodate the growth, Local 716 moved into a new home in December 1929 located at 700 Bell Avenue and years later the Local moved to 2501 Crawford. Although Local 716 was enjoying relative prosperity, the Great Depression of the 1930’s lurked just around the corner.

The Great Depression created serious financial difficulties and a period of unprecedented economic stress for not only Local 716 but for the entire IBEW. Across the country, wages sharply declined, banks failed, businesses nose-dived, and unemployment soared. During these times, Local 716 tightened the ranks and urged members to help turn the political tables, “When will the depression end, is more than the writer will attempt to say, but one of the best helping hands toward ending it is for the laboring man to get a poll tax receipt and use it intelligently,” said Lee Burnett, staff member of IBEW Local Union 716, in the November 1931 edition of The Electrical Worker.

Help came in March 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and immediately proposed New Deal legislation to launch the United States on the road to recovery. First came the National Recovery Act, later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court after bitter opposition from big business. Then came the Walsh-Healy Act and the Wage-Hour Law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 ensured government protection to union organizers and to organized workers and led to rapid increase in union membership in Houston and across the nation. Other legislation beneficial to U.S. workers was passed in the late 1920s and throughout the 1030s, including the Social Security Act, United States Housing AAct and Norris-LaGuardia Act.

Surviving one of the longest and most severe depressions of our time, Local 716 picked up speed again in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. With the onset of World War II, the demand for electrical work and skilled electrical workers dominated all phases of the war effort. The electrical industry was booming, and Local 716 was on the ground floor. “We had more work here in 1941 than in the history of Local 716,” IBEW Press Secretary W. H. “Billy” Foster boasted in the February 1942 edition of The Electrical Worker.

The year 1941 saw the completion of four army camps, Humble Oil Refinery and Shell Refinery in Texas City, a steel mill and a ship yard plant of the Hughes Tool Co. along with several other smaller jobs. While taking care of the men at home, Local 716 also contributed to the war effort overseas by purchasing tens of thousands of dollars in war bonds.

Dan Tracy was a key figure during this time. Initiated into Local 716 on October 2, 1913, Tracy quickly rose through the ranks. He was elected business manager not just for his home local, 716, but also for Local 66. In less than seven years after he joined the organization, he was elected International Vice President for the district. He was later elected International President in 1933. In 1935, President Roosevelt appointed Tracy as the first Labor Delegate for the U.S. in time to attend the International Labor Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Tracy was later appointed Labor Adviser to Secretary of State Cordell Hull at the Pan American Conference in Lima, Peru. During the turbulent prewar days, President Roosevelt again called on Tracy to render service to his government, and appointed him Assistant Secretary of Labor. Tracy briefly left his role as International President to turn to full-time public service. He returned to the I.B.E.W. in 1947 and continued to lead the organization.

During this time, local union officers and members accelerated the training programs for new members to keep up with the rapid industry advances. On September 30, 1943, Local 716 launched its apprenticeship program. The first of its kind, the program offered advanced training to all apprentices.  In 1945, the Local teamed up with Pfeiffer Electric Company, a Houston contracting firm, to underwrite an innovative training class on Article 500 of the National Electric Code. Sponsored through Texas A&M’s Engineering, Science, Management War Training program of the Federal Government, the course included lectures on the code as applied to industrial or refinery installations. Those completing the class earned a certificate and were then qualified to make installations in hazardous locations.

At this junction in the industry, there was a great deal of discussion on the subject of the controlling electrical equipment by electronic devices. Recognizing that this was going to revolutionize the entire motor control field, Local 716 designed a complete course covering the fundamentals of industrial electronics and electronics control from a power standpoint. Training courses were made available to all members. Wildly popular the classes spawned several others including Electronic Circuits and Direct Current Motors and Circuits.

"The post war era demanded much more knowledge from our members," stated John Easton Jr., current Business Manager/Financial Secretary.  "As technology changes, the training of our electricians has to change as well so our members can remain the most skilled workers in the industry.  Education always has been and always will be the cornerstone of our organization."

Shortly after this, one of labor’s most instrumental figures joined the organization. Anthony P. “Tony” Bellissimo was initiated into Local 716 on February 7, 1949. He enjoyed his first organizing victory in 1949 at the Houston Westinghouse Plant where he worked as a production chief. He quickly became involved in the affairs of the organization, eventually holding every position in the Manufacturing Unit of Local 716.  In 1956, he began handling special assignments for the International and became a full-time organizer. Approximately one year later, International President Gordon M. Freeman appointed him an International Representative and assigned him to the International Office in Washington, D.C. as assistant Director of Manufacturing and Organizing Operations. Belissimo was instrumental in founding the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Collective Bargaining, the predecessor of the present Coordinated Bargaining Committee. He also held the distinction of being the first International Representative that served under five International Presidents of the IBEW. Belissimo retired in 1987 after three decades of serving the International Office. His extensive involvement in labor and political relations included work on all foreign and U.S. economic-policy matters with regard to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974, the Multilateral Trade Negotiations, and the U.S. Labor Advisory Committee. In addition, he advised many members of Congress on U.S. trade matters and testified before various government committees as an expert on trade legislation and trade-adjustment- assistance matters.

Houston Continues to Grow.

Here in Houston, Local 716 members worked on the expansion of the press room of the Houston Chronicle in 1951. The job involved the removal of four old Goss units and the installation of seven new Goss Headliner Units, two 200 h.p. G.E. group drives, and Cline High Speed Paster and Tension equipment. Also involved in the project was the removal of the old main board for the plant and the installation of a new 6000 amp breaker type board which workers accomplished in 19 hours, with no time lost for the plant. In 1963, Local 716 once again completed the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. Standing at 44 stories, the Humble Building is now known as ExxonMobil Building.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration - NASA

Local 716 members also took part in building and maintaining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, originally called the Manned Spacecraft Center, which opened in 1963.  NASA’s complex for human spaceflight training, research and flight control, the center originally consisted of 100 buildings constructed on 1,620 acres. Johnson Space Center was home to the United States astronaut corps and is responsible for training astronauts from both the U.S. and its International partners.

Houston Astrodome – Eighth Wonder of the World

In 1965, with the help of Local 716, Houston stole the world spotlight with the completion of the first domed stadium. The Astrodome excited the interest of the people from across the world and was nicknamed the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Seating up to 66,000 people, the dome originally contained over 4,500 skylights each the size of an average door.

It was the first completely covered and air-conditioned arena large enough to accommodate both baseball and football as well as numerous other large functions such as the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. With an overall diameter of 712 feet, the Stadium was a testament to the most advanced engineering of the time.

Two years after the construction of the Stadium, the Local turned their attention to a project of their own. On February 4, 1967, IBEW Local 716 President D.E. Neal and George Sumrow, manager of the Southeast Texas Chapter of NECA, broke ground on a new training center for apprentices and journeymen.

The Joint Apprentice and Journeyman Training Center was built on the property of IBEW Local Union 716 Electrical Workers Educational Foundation, Inc. at 106 Covern Street. The facility made it possible for the Local to expand and to continue training programs. In addition to the four-year training program that was already in place at the time, 10 different subjects developed by the International Office and a number of locally developed subjects were made available for advanced training to IBEW members. With the addition of the facility, the Join Apprenticeship Committee was able to train up to 500 journeymen and apprentices in the most modern facility and with the best laboratory equipment available at the time. To this day, the education offered at the center enables members to stay ahead of the rapid advances in the electrical industry.

Intercontinental Airport - 1968

Late in 1968, the Local completed another notable Houston landmark, a new terminal at Intercontinental Airport. Each of the original two terminals’ main floor was lighted by 312 fluorescent fixtures, each 12 feet square. The third floor was a covered parking area which was lighted by 642 fixtures and there was a 160,000 square foot parking area on the roof.

1968 Two of Houston's Fallen Heroes "In the line of duty"

That same year, the Local came to the aid of two fallen heroes. Officers Gerhart and James of the Houston Police Force lost their lives in the line of duty. In cooperation with NECA, Local 716 took up a collection of more than $2,300 to aid the officers’ widows and orphans. “Throughout our Local’s history, our members have been dedicated to helping out where we can,” current Business Manager John Easton Jr. said. “It’s important that we remain servants to the community and give to others who are in need. We are proud of events like our annual Christmas parties and our many partnerships with nonprofit organizations."

Local Union 716 New Office Building

The Local got a new home in February 1978, moving to its current location. However in the late 1970’s, the local faced another challenge as Houston saw a resurgence of the open-shop movement in construction. During this time, one of the Local’s leaders began to climb the ranks to become a champion for the labor movement.

Ronald L. Raspberry -- Initiated into Local 716 in 1964.

Ronald L. Raspberry served the Local as a member of the Examining Board from 1969-1971 and a member of the Executive Board from 1971-1974. He was elected business manager in 1974 and served in that capacity until 1989. A marine Corp Veteran, Ronnie Raspberry was and is extremely active in the Democratic Party at the local, state, and national levels.  Serving as a labor lobbyist at all levels of government; he remains a powerful voice for labor and social legislation. Raspberry also served as vice president of the Texas State Association of Electrical Workers and Executive Board member of the Texas State Building and Construction Trades Council. He was elected as an International Executive Council member from the sixth IEC District at the 33rd IBEW International Convention in 1986.

His efforts were much needed during the 1980s. The election of Reagan in 1981 brought a conservative trend in the United States in which Local 716 and the entire IBEW saw an erosion of jobs caused by anti-union sentiments, foreign competition and technological change.  Reagan's anti-union philosophy dominated labor-management relations thru his two terms of office.  However, Local 716 continued to offer its members better health and welfare coverage, improved pensions, more holidays, and higher wages.

Sam Houston Race Park

In 1994, the Local completed the Sam Houston Race Park. Opened on April 24, 1994, the park was the first Class 1 horse racing venue constructed in Texas.

Minute Maid Park Home of the Houston Astros

Local 716 also had a hand in the construction of Minute Maid Park. Formerly Enron Ball Park, the stadium opened in 2000 to house the Major League Baseball Houston Astros. The ballpark was Houston’s first retractable-roofed stadium, protecting fans and athletes from Houston’s notoriously humid weather as did its predecessor, the Astrodome, but also allowing fans to enjoy baseball during favorable weather.

Throughout the 2000’s, the organization continues to serve its members by providing them with better training and education, better benefits, higher wages, and improved safety regulations.

Looking back on 100 years of history, it is safe to say that Local 716 stands where it is today because strong, intelligent and loyal men and women created, protected and preserved the organization. Each era writes its own history. The union heritage, vibrant and strong, has been passed on to its current members. Having weathered the storm, the good ship that is Local 716 is ready for the next 100 years. In the words of Local 716 Secretary I.T. Saunders in the March 1925 edition of The Electrical Worker, “She has safely ridden over the rocks of discord and unrest placed in her course by the open shop association and other enemies of labor. She stands today firmly anchored in the safe port of fundamentals, as laid down by the American labor movement. The proud flag of brotherhood flies from the topmost mast; her crew stands united for the common cause; their faces to the enemy; praying for peace but ready for affray should it come.”

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