Muscling into a union bigwig’s old mail

Title: Untitled correspondence of local union bigwig

Date: Early to mid-1970s

Discovered: at Overland Park estate sale

Representative quote: “Since you were the one who sponsored me when I became a member of 124, I felt I should write you and beg your forgiveness for not remaining a member.”

A couple of weeks ago, while picking through an estate sale, your Crap Archivist happened upon a surprising a trove of local history — as surprising as he has ever uncovered: a pile of ’70s correspondence to and from the headquarters of IBEW 124, Kansas City’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

At first, the stack seemed a nostalgic one: telegrams congratulating Jack Joyce for his 1969 election as the 124’s business manager; a sticker and some fliers from that same campaign; a 1974 proclamation, signed by then-Mayor Charles Wheeler, appointing Joyce to the Regional Bicentennial Committee; a recipe for blackened catfish that demands you heat the cast-iron skillet so hot that “butter may flame.”

Then came the surprise. Written across the top of a note tucked between the old newsletters and Kansas City Star clippings: “These men are to be rejected if they apply for employment until [name redacted] advises differently.”

Beneath that is an alphabetical list of 39 names. To the right of a few of the names, someone has handwritten one addition. Other than this, the only explanatory note on this blacklist is penned beside another name: “would not transfer.”

Less ominous but no less sad is a March 1970 letter to a man we’ll call “J.,” presumably the 124’s business manager before Joyce. “Dear J.,” writes “Bernard,” a journeyman wireman who by then is living in Las Vegas. “Since you were the one who sponsored me when I became a member of 124, I felt I should write you and beg your forgiveness for not remaining a member.”

Bernard is vague in his explanation: “To this day I do not quite understand how I got out or should say lost my ticket.” However it happened, Bernard needed reinstatement — or at least a letter from the IBEW corroborating his story — to prove his status as a journeyman in Nevada. “J., I have been and I always will be a good union man,” Bernard writes. “I need my ticket, and I need it badly. We are sure that a strike is coming in June, and we are also sure that it will last 2 or 3 months … . Remember, I was one of your boys and a darn good worker, and I still am, both.”

Bernard’s note is poignant, but he understood that it might not be enough. To that end, he writes, “I would pay you in cash what ever you think’s fair.”

No other letter in the stack suggests wrongdoing in the local IBEW. Still, the letters emphasize the union’s power. In 1976, a Shawnee couple writes to Joyce for help landing their son-in-law a position in the Apprenticeship and Training Program. “He is very conscientious and dependable,” they write. “He presently works for Tele Cable TV and really doesn’t have any future there, as he sees it.”

Like Bernard, they choose their words with great care; unlike Bernard, they never come right out and actually ask for assistance. “We don’t know what his chances are,” they write. “He has applied for two years. But just wanted you to know who he is if it would help.”

Two years? Maybe they should have written to someone higher up.

The life of a union boss offers more than just powerless people begging for your attention, of course. That’s clear in a 1972 letter of complaint, addressed to the IBEW’s international vice president, from a local cardholder who apparently was a candidate for Joyce’s business-manager position. At issue: irregularities in the run-up to the next election.

“Immediately outside the door of the meeting hall and on Local Union premises, large quantities of beer were present,” he writes. “Some members, obviously intoxicated and carrying cans of beer, entered the meeting room during the meeting …. During the nominations of the Judge and Tellers for the upcoming election, one member, also obviously intoxicated, continuously disturbed the meeting with alternate cries of ‘boo,’ ‘right on,’ and other remarks.”

The letter writer alleges that drunkenness delayed the voting, which dragged on past 1 a.m., and that the “explosive” atmosphere caused many members to miss their chances to cast their votes. Of 600 members present, he points out, only 309 actually voted.

So, in a small pile of old correspondence, we have suggestions that organized labor might once have enjoyed a culture of blacklists, kickbacks and drunken intimidation. The good old days. Maybe these letters are all aberrant examples, peculiar little incidents so remarkable that our bigwig hung on to them to marvel at for years. But I really don’t need any more trouble than I already have, so your Crap Archivist is figuring the latter and vows never to mention this again.

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