HVA Biography

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Labor's Champion" -
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"Harry Van Arsdale Jr.
Labor's Champion" as
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January 2004 ILRR
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Harry Van Arsdale Jr. was an advocate of workers’ rights. His influence was so powerful that he not only inspired organized labor in New York, but the entire U.S. labor movement. Much of the source of that power was Harry Van Arsdale Jr.’s reputation for honesty. In 1933 he became Business Manager for Local 3, IBEW.   Historically, unions have unfortunately gotten bad press because of mishandling of money. Harry Van Arsdale Jr. instituted real democratic policies in unions. One way he did this was by establishing a policy of mailing detailed financial statements on a quarterly basis to each union member. He also required honest handling of union funds by seeing to it that union members were informed of union expenditures at all monthly meetings. Honesty was hallmark of Harry Van Arsdale Jr.

Van Arsdale’s Vision

In 1933, Harry Van Arsdale Jr. started to implement his vision of organizing the whole New York City electrical industry. The first crafts to be organized were Switchboard, Marine and the Fixture Divisions. Displaying an astute business sense, he turned Local 3 into a multi craft branch of the IBEW. Under Harry Van Arsdale Jr.’s leadership as Local 3’s business manager, union membership flourished – it rose from 7,000 to 30,000 members.

Nowadays, a feature of a "good job" which many employees take for granted, is a quality pension program. Harry Van Arsdale Jr. was the first one to devise a pension plan in the construction industry. He also set up a work-sharing program which guaranteed that qualified skilled electricians would be hired instead of just "helpers" who had no particular skills. In addition, he improved the apprenticeship program so there would be better qualified electricians for the industry. Thus, a real career ladder was created, making a bright future for electrical workers and the society they served.

Humane Work Schedule and Rights for Seniors

As we approach the 21st century, most workers enjoy an industry standard work week. Back in December of 1934, Harry Van Arsdale Jr. was successful in arranging for a seven-hour work day. This enabled more electricians to work and to work under more humane conditions.

Harry Van Arsdale Jr. also succeeded in achieving more rights for senior members by instituting a program whereby workers 60 years old with 20 years of service would be free from paying union dues because they were most likely to be unemployed. In addition, older members who might become jobless would not lose their pension benefits. Eventually a provision was added into bargaining agreements which stipulated that employers had to hire one member above 55 years of age for every 10 workers.

Further, in 1935, after the Social Security Act was passed another provision was included in union bargaining contracts which required that employers pay their employees’ part of the Social Security Tax. These forward looking measures were revolutionary, and planted early seeds in the struggle against age discrimination.

Education as Key Priority

Education was at the top of Harry Van Arsdale Jr.’s vision. Van Arsdale was famous for his slogan "if you produce more I can get you more." That’s exactly what he did for his union members with his educational programs.

He instituted training programs making Local 3’s education plan to teach the much needed skills to Local 3’s work force a model for the labor movement. His plan provided the opportunity for his members’ children to acquire a college education through college scholarships. This came to fruition when, in 1949, the Joint Industry Board set up college scholarships for members’ families.

Always alert to educational needs, Van Arsdale convinced the employer trustees to purchase what is now known as Bayberry Land  in 1959, in Southampton, Long Island. Originally Bayberry Land. was to provide a place for injured electrical workers to convalesce.  The focus changed to education and the course of study was "Critical Thinking in Human Behavior," Local 3 members could attend this course for a week without worrying about not being paid while studying.  Camp Integrity was added for the children of Local 3 members.   It was kept affordable so that the children could enjoy two weeks in the summer at a sleep away camp that fosters the value of integrity and instills the virtues of Harry Van Arsdale Jr. in them.  The members of Local 3 also enjoy the use of the Family Solidarity Center at Bayberry Land. where family picnics are held throughout the summer.

Social Justice for All

A strong proponent of equal opportunity for all, Harry Van Arsdale Jr. opened the doors for minorities within the electrical industry in 1961, when he started an Affirmative Action program which enabled minorities to come into the industry. The program decreased nepotism in the union, and 1,000 new apprentices were hired.

Soon after the establishment of the Louis Howard Latimer Program Association and Santiago Iglesia Education Society, Local 3 formed an assembly which would meet to help find solutions to minority problems within Local 3.

Benefits for Workers

Harry Van Arsdale Jr. succeeded in winning many benefits for union members. He developed a policy whereby workers who did not receive at least 25 cents an hour above the minimum wage were exempt from contributing to union dues. He was also one of the first to negotiate jury duty benefits for his members. He felt that this would encourage the members to carry out their citizenship responsibilities as long as they didn’t suffer a loss of wages when they were summoned to jury duty.

Because of his perseverance an Education and Cultural Trust Fund was set up in 1964. This fund opened the doors for members and their families to take part in the scholarship program, receive college tuition reimbursement benefits, and to have the opportunity to participate in various cultural events.

After 12 years he succeeded in orchestrating the passage of a New York State Legislative law which allowed the employers in the electrical industry to provide higher compensation and disability benefits to Local 3 members without their having to pay burdensome premiums.

When Harry Van Arsdale Jr. became Financial Secretary of Local 3 and Treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in 1968, he continued to inspire more programs to benefit Local 3 workers.  In fact, in 1971 he had a summer camp, Camp Integrity built for the members’ children at Bayberry Land. Furthermore, it was due to his efforts, that the Labor College was established in New York City. In the succeeding decades, thousands of electricians obtained degrees in labor studies and in related fields.

The Work Goes On

Harry Van Arsdale Jr. was a model of integrity and honesty whose life became an inspiration for aspiring workers, and a beacon for those who thought they could never achieve their goals in life.

And so, in 1988, Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Vocational High School was opened in his honor, and to further the ideals for which he strove. This school, located in Brooklyn among the working class neighborhoods loved by Harry Van Arsdale Jr., receives generous support from the Harry Van Arsdale Memorial Association in carrying out the mission of providing the young workers of tomorrow with the skills that are necessary to succeed in the world.


This legacy was written by the students of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. High School as a Project of Mrs. Rosen’s 7th Period Desktop Publishing 2 Class. Based on "Harry Van Arsdale Jr.: A Man For All Seasons" from the Electrical Union World, March 7, 1996, and with editorial assistance from Mr. Alex Hamilton, Assistant Principal, Dr. Bruce Billig, Principal and the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Memorial Association.