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The Birth of NEMA

On September 1, 1926, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association was created by joint resolution of the directors of the Associated Manufacturers of Electrical Supplies and the Electric Power Club. Modeled on the constitutions of its predecessors, the NEMA constitution established three divisions: an Apparatus Division, a Supply Division, and a Policy Division; all three divisions, composed of sections representing specific product or interest groups, established working committees to encourage the exchange of technical and economic information within the association.

NEMA established working relationships with Underwriters Laboratories, the Edison Electric Institute, a number of insurance associations, and agencies with regulatory authority at the federal, state, and local levels. All of these measures were taken to empower the organization to make lasting technical and policy decisions, a significant departure from the advisory role that had been played by the Electrical Manufacturers Council.

NEMA’s first challenge as the representative of a unified electrical manufacturing industry came shortly after the organization’s constitution was ratified. In New York City (where NEMA was then headquartered), Local No. 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) adopted a policy of refusing to purchase or install electrical equipment that was not assembled by union workers.

In a bold gesture, the IBEW sent a letter of warning to NEMA member companies, informing them that any finished electrical products shipped to New York City without a union certification or stamp would be excluded from use in contracting work. Additionally, Local No. 3 advised NEMA that the union had secured the cooperation of electrical wholesalers, many of whom refused to sell products that were not so certified.

This situation was brought to the attention of the NEMA executive board in early 1927. NEMA President Gerard Swope swiftly responded by organizing a labor committee to explore the association’s options. After consulting with state and federal officials and legal counsel from several member companies, NEMA forwarded a series of letters to the IBEW’s leadership, challenging the right of the union to disrupt business in this manner.

As legal wrangling began between the two sides, the IBEW offered a compromise: electrical products could be shipped to New York City in disassembled form, be finished by union workers, repackaged, and forwarded to distributors for resale. Discussions of this proposal were short-lived in NEMA circles as dozens of objections were raised to such an arrangement.

In mid-1927, NEMA initiated legal action, bringing the union’s activities to the attention of federal regulators and forcing the union to rescind its threat. With the assistance of the New York Contractor’s Association, NEMA obtained guarantees that member products sent to New York City would be sold and installed without interference. Although more union troubles lay ahead for NEMA, this was an early victory that demonstrated to manufacturers the value of a well-organized trade association. The showdown also gave legitimacy to an association that was suspected by many of being the public face of a new—and illegal—manufacturing cartel.

In many ways, the showdown with the IBEW defined NEMA’s course in the years to come. The legal dispute in New York had given NEMA’s labor committee and executive committee cause to forge ties with regulatory authorities, and these relationships continued to evolve in the decades that followed. The association had shown its willingness to protect the commercial interests of both member companies and consumers, thereby broadening the appeal of membership to electrical manufacturing companies of all sizes. Perhaps most importantly, NEMA had proven its unwillingness to make compromise agreements that violated the guiding principles of the association.

NEMA’s ranks swelled after 1927, and the association expanded in both size and function as the pool of available talent grew. New committees were formed, including a tariff committee (1928) established to evaluate and comment on federal trade policy. New divisions were created to supplement the Apparatus, Supply, and Policy Divisions chartered with the 1926 constitution; these included a Radio Division (1928) and an Appliance Division (1929).

Dozens of new product sections were also formed, and the range of activities undertaken by the divisions and sections included consulting on political and policy matters; the Radio Division became involved with the National Association of Broadcasters and the American Radio League, providing advice as both groups approached Congress with their views on radio spectrum allocation and regulation. This kind of activism evolved into formal promotional efforts, administered by NEMA and funded by member companies, to advance the message and goals of the association in specific areas of manufacturing.

NEMA’s first promotional campaign was organized in 1929 when it co-sponsored the “Safe Electrical Cord” Program with Underwriters Laboratories. The campaign consisted of an outreach effort linked to the technical standards adopted by the flexible cord manufacturing section. The costs of the campaign were borne by the manufacturers, who collectively acknowledged the value of safety advertising in national product promotion. Sales information provided to NEMA by participating companies confirmed that the promotional campaign had improved the visibility of technical standards, highlighting the differences between cord produced by NEMA members and non-members.

From this early success came a formal electrical Business Development committee whose purpose was to identify and create promotional opportunities that would increase sales across product sections. As new companies petitioned to join NEMA, new product sections and standards committees were established. These sections were supported by the activities of new Business Development committees. Much of NEMA’s work during this early period was dedicated to widening the scope and appeal of membership in the association by linking the benefits of NEMA standards and outreach support with product sales potential.

NEMA’s enthusiastic forays into new technical, political, and business arenas were interrupted on October 24, 1929, when the New York Stock Exchange crashed. Although the financial losses from “Black Thursday” exceeded fifteen billion dollars, the crash seemed to have little effect on the electroindustry; only manufacturers of heavy power generation and transmission equipment felt the immediate effects of the market collapse, as product orders were canceled and civil engineering work around the country was stopped.

Within the ensuing months, however, the sales of electrical products had plummeted, taking a heavy toll on NEMA’s membership. Dozens of member companies, unable to meet their obligations to the association, dropped from NEMA’s rolls as they filed for bankruptcy protection or otherwise ceased to function as manufacturers.

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