From: An Informal History of the Iron Workers
reprinted from "The Ironworker" in 1971, written by Bill Lawbaugh as presented by Local Union 401
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Our History--Part One
Part Two: Strenuous Years
Part Three: "The Crime of the Century"
In the late 1880's, steel had virtually replaced wood and stone as the primary load carrying material in the erection of bridges and buildings. This abrupt change in structural materials brought about a demand for a new type of skill required of the working man. Practically overnight, bridge carpenters became "bridgemen" and blacksmiths became "housesmiths" and "architectural ironworkers." And as soon as American Historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the end of an era for the American frontier, ironworkers became known as "the cowboys of the skies," sharing the adventure and excitement which frontiersmen and explorers enjoyed previously.
But the glamour and the appeal of the new skill had its drawbacks for the young man looking for a stable and secure profession. For one thing, natural death was looked upon with suspicion. For about $2.10 a day for ten hours work, the ironworker in 1890 was expected to climb narrow steel beams six, sometimes seven days a week in all kinds of weather conditions. The accident and mortality rates were higher than in any other trade at the time, resulting in a high turnover of workers on any one job. A young man entering the trade could expect to work alongside men more skilled in erecting timber than steel, and if he were not permanently disabled, he might live ten years in the trade, possibly longer if he were lucky.
Since steel erection attracted only the most daring of independent men, little or no thought was given to the need for formation of an effective Union for their protection. Nevertheless, many of these eligible bachelors, admired from a distance below by the "wholesome young girls" of the Gay Nineties for their feats of courage and strength, later gave thought to such things as provisions for sickness, injury, or death to protect their families. Primarily for these reasons, thirteen delegates form independent unions in the major cities met in Pittsburgh, and on February 4, 1896, the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers of America was established. After a few years of fierce struggle, this Union was fully recognized and took its rightful place among the older and prominent trade unions in America.
However, the formation of the International Union is only part of the early story of the Ironworkers. The fact that the independent unions had been in existence for some time was, indeed, an interesting part of that story. A closer look at two of these, one in Chicago and the other in New York, will illustrate some of the complexities involved.
In the early 1880's there began in Chicago the Bridge Builders' Mutual Association, a loose federation of 20 men interested in giving each other a decent burial in the event of death on the job, and supporting one another in times of sickness and injury. As they began to see the need for defending workingmen's rights against the encroachments of sometimes ruthless contractors, this mutual aid federation was no longer adequate. Also at this time a demand was created for structural iron workers, and many of the old bridgemen answered the call since they would employ essentially the same skills on building as they would on bridges. So, in 1890 they became known as the "Bridge and Construction Men's Union." One of these men, George Geary, states: "A State charter was procured and we sailed out in the water of Trade Unionism, determined to protect the rights of each member of the craft, do justice to the Employers and control the industry."
One of the first obstacles that Geary and his men encountered, however, was not some disagreeable employer, but rather, another association of workers in Chicago known as the "Architectural Iron Workers," who worked not only in the shops, but also worked on construction sites erecting the steel on the new modern structures in the Windy City. For two years these two organizations of ironworkers fought for control of steel erection working conditions, until "it finally dawned upon the members of the craft of both sides," recalls Geary, "that while we were fighting each other, the Employers were realizing the benefits of the quarrel and the members were paying the cost." Finally, in November of 1892 the two bodies of 2,700 men joined together as the "Bridge and Structural Iron Workers" and later became Local No. 1 of the International Union.
While the structural workers of both unions were contending for control of the outside work, the group known then as Shopmen or Architectural Ironworkers divorced themselves form the dispute, presumably because there was so much work in preparing Chicago for the 1893 Columbian Exposition that the arguments over working conditions were settled with little effort. They had organized on June 5, 1890, when they were the lowest paid Mechanics in the city. Their wages ranged from 17 1/2 to 25 cents per hour, for a ten-hour day. In 1891, 1,500 Architectural Iron Workers had left their jobs and demanded more pay and shorter hours. The better-organized Employers, however, defeated their attempts. In1893, they tried again and won the eight hour day.
At that time the Architectural Iron Workers had three separate branches in Chicago: German (279 members), English (198), and Bohemian (102). One other local previously had gone over to the more powerful Bridge and Construction Men's Union. Their numbers fluctuated over the next few years, and on December 27, 1900, the Architectural Iron Workers of Chicago chose a different direction from the structural workers and became Local No. 14 of United Metal Workers International. Their membership continued to dwindle, going as low as 150, when , through the efforts of their President O.H. Hill, the Chicago shopmen broke with the Metal Worker and became Local No. 63 at the 1903 Ironworker Convention in Kansas City.
The first ironworkers in New York came from a German union called the "Locksmiths and Railingmakers' Union" organized in April of 1886. Within three years this union boasted of 120 member, opened a branch in Brooklyn, and joined the Eight-Hour League of the A.F. of L. In 1890 they changed their name to "Architectural Iron Workers' Progressive Union" and opened English and Jewish branches in the city, plus another German branch in Hoboken, totaling 400 members. In 1891, like their Chicago compatriots, the New York Ironworkers called a strike in May for an eight-hour day. Their strike also ended in failure, and the Architectural Iron Workers, plus the growing Housesmith's Union, were dissolved. Both unions were apparently crushed by the defeat at the hands of the Employers, for neither group of workers had the strength to get together and apply for a new state charter until 1893.
Shortly after each was reorganized. "Fighting Sam Parks" assumed leadership of the Housesmiths. In 1895 both took a militant stand against the Employers and held out once more for the eight-hour day. Although both unions stood united in their last-ditch effort against the employers., the Housesmiths, five months later, sought to strengthen its hand and became the Housesmiths' and Bridgemen's Local No. 2 of the International.
The Architectural Iron Workers of New York did not affiliate and remained separate. On June 28, 1900, 300 of their members were locked out by the Architectural Iron Workers Employers' Association. At that time they had a treasury, that by today's standards would be considered quite substantial. Nevertheless, six months later they were in debt. The Employers' Association apparently was able to obtain the use of the State Militia and other military organizations, because in July of 1901 a resolution was passed not to take such men into the union. A year later the predominately German union adopted English as the official business language, and again, like their Chicago tradesmen, chose a different direction and became Local No. 50 of the United Metal Workers' International. This proved ineffective and finally, to protect their existence in the shops, the Architectural Iron Workers drew up an agreement with the Housesmiths of Local No. 2 of the International, promising not to do outside work. This led on November 11, 1902 for them to become Local No. 42 of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers of America.
It may be said that the gradual development of these four local is much more integral to the history of the Ironworkers than a detailed account of the International itself, for little is known of the first four years of the organization, for several reasons. First of all, the International officers were not full-time paid officials. Very little time and energy remained after the officers put in their full day's work on the steel. If they had not lost their will and strength to run a union at night or on Sundays, they certainly didn't have the financial means for the necessary communications and transportation. A 25-cent per capita tax was levied each month, but most locals did not have the funds to pay into the International, nor was there an established headquarters. Each year the International headquarters moved to the home of the elected Secretary-Treasurer, and if he would move, so would the headquarters. All this while the local unions major concern was with their individual incessant struggles with various Employers' Associations. In its first four years of existence the International barely survived.
In 1896, the founding convention consisted of delegates form Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, New York City, Pittsburgh, and possibly Cleveland. By 1900 the Inernational had chartered seven more locals, but the membershi (1,731) showed a gain of only 200 men in the four years. Furthermore, inronworkers' wages dropped slightly, and the Inernational was in debt by 1900.
1901, however, was the best year in Ironworker history, percentagewise at least. Membership swelled to 6,000, and by September there was over $2,000 in the International treasury. The number of locals receiving charters mroe than doubled that year, the Ironwrokers became affiliated with the A.F. of L., a constitiution was adopted, and a semi-offifcial journal, The Bridgemen's Magazine, provided the necessary communication link between members and elected officials. A form of "honeymoon of capital and labor" had begun, and all existing unions grew during this brief period of labor peace. The honeymoon was great, but the marriage ended in divorce a few years later.
The first two International Presidents were resisted in their efforts to organize a cohesive and effective international union from both inside and outside. Local Employers' Associations and the Steel Industry preferred to deal with union labor locally, in smaller and weaker numbers, thus they sought to circumvent the International. On the other hand, local unions were militantly autonomous, and while refusing assistance from the International officers, as being interference with their autonomy. They also refused to help sister locals elsewhere. That Edward John Ryan (1896-1898) of Boston, Mass., and John T. Butler (1988-1901) of Buffalo, N.Y., were seeking uppermost the greatest interests of the union, is attested by the fact that both former presidents continued to serve the International after leaving office. Among other activities, Butler later became a vice-president and Ryan served on various committees.
The Third International President, Frank Buchanan, of Chicago, Ill., assuming office in 1901 also met with resistance from local union leaders as well as from the employers. Somehow he managed to bring unity and prestige to the union. A significant factor was his labor philosophy. Buchanan believed that the history of the trade to that time showed conclusively the need for effective united action on national lines instead of the existing policy of individual action by separate locals.
Elected to office in 1901, Buchanan's first official act was to meet face-to-face with Joshua Hatfield, president of the American Bridge Company, by far the largest employer of ironworkers in the country. A few months later, after numerous meetings of officials of both organizations, a tentative national agreement was reached, the first of its kind for a trade union, much less a trade union of such recent national vintage/ If the agreement was adopted, it would solve the two greatest problems confronting the job security of Ironworkers and their progress toward the future as a trade union. The agreement on job recognition called for total unionization of every job of the A.B. Co., plus its numerous sub-contractions for the Ironworkers. In craft recognition, it called for complete recognition of jurisdictional claims of the trade as set forth by the International Union, many of which were at the time disputed by other unions. If the Ironworkers would accept the contract, undoubtedly other large contractors would accept the same agreement and the bargaining position of the union would be unbelievably strategic.
President Buchanan submitted the contract to the Locals for a referendum vote, and the Executive Board' strongly urged its acceptance. The local unions, however, distrusting the A.B. Co., voted down all or part of the proposed contract. H.F. Lofland, erecting manager for A.B. Co., said: "I worked for three days drafting the best agreement ever offered the ironworkers and your union didn't give it three minutes consideration." The Business Agent for the New York Local later recalled: "And Mr. Lofland was right. We didn't give it one minute's consideration. Sam Parks arose and said we didn't want anything coming from Lofland and asked that it be thrown in the waste basket, which it was. We realize now what we threw away."
If the legendary Sam Parks, the "Bismarck among Bridgemen" can be credited with one local's shortsightedness on this occasion, he is certainly to be remembered as one of the most dogged defenders of workingmen's rights. It is said that Sam Parks single-handedly, as a "walking delegate," doubled the wages of the New York ironworker from $2 per day to a handsome $4 in 1896. His tactics, however, were not fully condoned by the International officers, although they may have been considered necessary at the time, especially in New York where labor conditions were abominable. After serving one year on the Executive Board of the International (1897-1898), Parks devoted all his energies, in spite of poor health, to the New York local.
"It would appear," says the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations 11 few years later, "that Mr. Buchanan's ideas were too far in advance of the membership of local unions, which believed in purely local contracts and no interference from the international." So President Buchanan, seeking to keep moving forward, took a middle position of trying to settle local disputes on a national, or at least regional, basis. Since all the large structural iron firms were doing an interstate business, it was generally possible to attack them at points where the union was strong and force them to unionize their work at points where the union was weak. Some local unions who were well-off at the time were reluctant to assist a distressed sister' local some thousand miles away. so Buchanan had to prove that mutual assistance was the long term need of all regardless of the circumstances at the time.
While working on a building in Philadelphia erected by a Chicago firm, Buchanan learned that about one-half of the structural work in Philadelphia was not unionized. He sent out a call to the New York and Milwaukee Locals asking them to declare a "semi-sympathetic" strike against all work done by the same companies. Meanwhile Local No. 13 of Philadelphia demanded an eight-hour day and a ten-cent increase of wages. All companies doing structural steel work in the city found the demand reasonable except two firms, including their largest adversary, A.B. Co. When the two firms ignored their request, Local No. 13 asked the International for assistance.
Buchanan received cooperation from Locals in New York, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Albany, and set a strike date of August 14, 1902 against A.B. Co. work in those cities. On the day before the planned strike, Buchanan met once more with Joshua Hatfield in New York and settled the Philadelphia dispute. The 400 non-union ironworkers for A.B. Co. in Philadelphia were ordered to join the union or be discharged. Two-thirds of them joined, and the various Locals, by working together, proclaimed this their greatest victory yet.
Good will and good sense prevailed at the 1902 Convention in Milwaukee a month later. Buchanan reported that the membership had grown from 6,000 to 10,000 members, "and if, during the coming year, we will actively advance the interests of our Association, there is no reason to doubt but that we will succeed in organizing the men working at our craft." The delegates voted to place the offices of the International President and Secretary-Treasurer on a salary basis for the first time, and gave the latter supervision of The Bridgemen's Magazine to further strengthen the growing bond between officers and members. A month later the Executive Board gave authority to the International President to appoint "District Organizers," and they adopted the first uniform road scale, $3.50 a day for nine hours of work, paving the way for a national agreement with the employers.
Part Two: Strenuous Years
The first seven years of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers showed the gradual emergence of a trade union which began as a group of men primarily concerned with their own lack of protection. The first major activity of those who then formed the International Association was to deal out $50 to widows for a decent burial for their ironworker husbands, and $5 a week to disabled workers who, because of their trade, could not be insured.
In 1903 the union dropped "of America" from its title and became International. They reinforced this new identity by holding the 1904 convention in Toronto a year later. The membership, after getting off to a shaky start increasing only 13% in the first four years in existence to a scanty 1,750 members, expanded rather rapidly between 1900-1903 growing 500% to approximately 10,000 members.
The next seven years were to prove indeed strenuous for the International Union. Evidence of this is shown in the size of the membership which remained almost static and by l910 was about the same as in 1903. In addition, by 1910 the International Union was indeed struggling for survival. That was the age of mergers, cartels and trusts, and invariably union labor suffered when mergers were made. It was also years which saw the beginning of what was to become known as the "open shop war" which plunged America into one of the darkest periods of her labor history. Indeed, despite our size and age, the Ironworkers were in the forefront of that "war".
The first couple of years in this second phase of Ironworker history probably generated within the union more confidence than conditions truly warranted. With the 1902 Philadelphia success fresh in their minds, our small union, consisting of less than 30 locals, began to feel it was invincible. In this atmosphere, all the locals, after having rejected in 1902 most clauses of the National Agreement developed between the Executive Board and the American Bridge Company, voted to call a general nation-wide strike against the American Bridge Company for March, 13 1903, because of "grievances" which, as specific issues, are not too clear today. This largest of all erection companies had been operating under signed agreements with individual locals in larger cities, but would not readily recognize union conditions or sign agreements in areas which we did not have well organized. This situation alone may have been the factor that initiated the general strike. However, intermingled in the overall argument to strike were protests over somewhat confusing grievances. One grievance concerned the practice of hiring more than one non-union foreman. This was confusing since in the 1902 defeated National Agreement, there had been approved in the referendum a clause which read: "There shall be no restriction whatever to the employment of foremen."
Despite the absence of clearly unresolvable issues, the strike was carried out. Incredibly, little attention was paid at the time to the fact that the employer forces on the other side were beginning to organize. On March 3, ten days before the strike date, fifty-four of the country's largest steel fabricating and erection firms met in New York to form the National Association of Manufacturers and Erectors of Structural Steel and Iron Work. The stated purpose of this organization was to deal with the Ironworkers for wages and hours. The aims of the organization coincided with the Ironworkers', namely, to provide peaceful settlement of disputes, and work towards a National Agreement.
Three weeks into the strike President Buchanan, aware of, but having no specific means of dealing with the new Employers Association, once again traveled to New York. This time he sought and succeeded in talking personally with J. Pierpont Morgan, utilizing a neutral group known as the National Civic Federation. Buchanan explained the strike situation to Morgan who, while not approving the closed shop and similar aims of unionism, indicated a general sympathy with labor organizations and an interest in a solution to the problem presented by Buchanan. A few days later a meeting with the newly-formed Manufacturers and Erectors Association was set up, and on April 12, 1903, Buchanan's hopes for a National Agreement were fulfilled. Both parties accepted a contract which would remain in effect until January 1, 1905.
The Ironworkers proudly claimed this as their second major victory. However, history more clearly shows that the greatest strength of the Ironworkers in these victories was the persuasiveness and effectiveness of President Buchanan.
Indeed, the 1903 National Agreement was not as liberal to the union as the proposed agreement defeated in the 1902 referendum. It did, however, establish contractual relations between capital and labor in the steel erection industry, and strengthened even more the position of the Ironworkers among other unions. It also established relative calm at the International and local level, enabling the union to turn its attention to two neglected internal aspects of the industry that needed solutions to insure growth--the apprenticeship system and the inside-outside Ironworkers.
Unlike most building trades which had years of tradition to draw upon for an apprenticeship system, the Ironworkers employed in a relatively new industry had no precedents to follow. The heavy nature of the work and the danger involved made it unlikely for anyone to enter the trade at an early age. As a result, most Ironworker apprentices were on an average of ten years older than an apprentice in other trades. Thus, a typical case would show a 25-year-old man working as an apprentice with a journeyman for only a few months before becoming a journeyman member. Efforts to develop an effective training program met continuing frustrations and, despite the concentration of effort in those early years, was not resolved until 1948 when John H. Lyons, Sr., after assuming office, made improved apprenticeship training a major goal.
Similarly, the 1902 Convention agreed to help inside workers organize, but it took twenty-five years before the ability to launch an effective campaign was reached. By 1903 only a few of the architectural and ornamental shops were organized. As more and more structural Ironworkers chose to work close to home rather than travel to the next job, they worked temporarily or permanently on nearby architectural and ornamental jobs and in the shops. Gradually more shops were unionized, and that part of the industry became organized by the International. Structural steel fabricating shops were another matter. Most fabrication of steel erected by the Ironworkers was controlled by the major companies and fabricated under non-union conditions. On September 29. 1904, the International won an important jurisdictional dispute from the United Metal Workers for the right to organize steel fabrication, however, by 1910 only a few shops had been organized.
Steel companies, it appears, were afraid that if the shops were unionized then the jobsite structural Ironworkers would have an additional bargaining tool: They could he in a position to refuse to handle steel fabricated in non-union shops. The structural Ironworkers never refused to erect steel which was fabricated by non-union shopmen, mainly because such a move was impractical at a time when a large portion of their own structural work was also non-union. This existed despite the fact that most of the building trades unions at that time, such as the Sheet Metal Workers, Marble Workers and Carpenters, had agreements covering the men in the shops in their respective crafts. The Ironworkers were unable to do the same for several decades.
Preventing the unionization of inside workers was indeed a matter of major concern of the employers for to obtain the vitally needed agreement to protect outside work the Ironworkers had to agree to a clause in the National Agreement with the Manufacturers and Erectors which ruled against "discrimination on the part ot workmen as to the handling of any materials." The agreement also contained a clause, probably the first of its kind for any International Union, which showed early general recognition and acceptance of a procedure necessary for security and growth. "In cases where misunderstandings or disputes arise between the employer and workmen, the matter in question shall be submitted to arbitration locally, without strikes, lockouts or the stoppage of work pending the decision of the arbitrators." The National Agreement was generally lived up to by both the Manufacturers and Erectors Association and the Ironworkers' union while it was in effect. President Buchanan had urged: "Aside from the injustice of violating an agreement. such as this, is the equally serious condition that if violated, the public will become aroused against our organization in particular and labor unions in general."
The only serious dispute that arose after the signing of the National Agreement was in New York City, but it did not involve the National Manufacturers and Erectors Association. A local association of building contractors tried to force a joint compulsory "Arbitration Plan" on all New York building trades unions. This was indeed different from a single trade having an arbitration clause with their individual emplovers. Craft identity could well be lost. Fighting Sam Parks of our Local Union' No.2, "the old war horse" as he was called when he led the way in improving wages between 1890 and 1900 but who also led the way in defeating the 1902 proposed agreement, emerged as the leader of the combined unions' opposition to the plan. The contractors retaliated by singling out Sam Parks and proceeded to lockout Local Union No.2 and to set up and recognize a dual union of Ironworkers. Other unions were threatened with lockouts, but they continued to side with Sam Parks. In August the opposition was dealt a mighty blow when Sam Parks was sent to Sing Sing on charges of extortion, but union spirits were quickened a week later when Parks was released on a certificate of reasonable doubt. Most trade unionists and union sympathizers were convinced that Parks had been falsely accused, for they gave him a large and enthusiastic welcome upon his release.
The New York labor dispute was the hottest issue at the Kansas City Convention. A few weeks later, President Buchanan took a position that a solution had to be reached and, since our Local Union No.2 was deeply involved, the International had to intervene. He felt that the lockout, if not handled carefully, could affect the National Agreementwith the Manufacturers and Erectors Association, and the position of the union as well. A majority of the candidates agreed and they authorized the International Executive Board to draw up a settlement agreement with the New York Employers. This was done but rejected by the Employers. It did, however, open the door to negotiations between the Employers and the International Officers. It was clearly evident that the contractors were determined to break up our Local Union No.2 as long as it was controlled by Sam Parks. Three months later a settlement was finally made and the dual union, established 'by the contractors and chartered by the State of New York, was dissolved, but--so was Local Union No.2. The International formed four new locals, two in New York City and one each in Brooklyn and Jersey City. Sam Parks, his request for a new trial having been denied, was sent to prison while his old local, the second to be chartered by the International Association, became the first to pass into history.
The existence of the national agreement was obviously an influence in settling the New York dispute despite the fact that it involved more employers of other trades than employers of Ironworkers. Disputes that arose elsewhere were of much less proportion and were all resolved within the framework of the agreement. This was, indeed, significant in comparison with the turmoil over the proposed agreement that took place in 1901 and 1902. In fact in the 1904 convention, the question of jobsite safety, which was one of the greatest concerns in founding the International Association, again was noted to be the greatest concern. President Buchanan reported 121/2 per cent of the membership was being killed each year--not much lower than the rate when the founding fathers determined to achieve safe work conditions. During that period, the average Ironworker was earning $4.05 for a day's work of nine hours. Our wage scale was considered as good by other unions and as exorbitant by the general public but the figures then as now, are deceiving. The average Ironworker was literally unemployed during unseasonable weather and, invariably, after one average two-month job was finished, he was out of work until he found another which was usually beyond commuting distance from home.
On January 1, 1905, the National Agreement expired. No serious effort from either side was made to renew the agreement. Accordingly, the pressures started to develop for agreement at the local level.
M. J. Cunnane, business agent for the Philadelphia local, secured a local agreement from the American Bridge Company three weeks after all the Ironworkers at a bridge over the Schuylkill River were "laid off" on December 31. Other local agreements followed in large cities like New York and Boston, but the Manufacturers and Erectors Association seemed to ignore the locals in smaller cities. The New Haven local, for example, proposed a local agreement which was rejected and then the local was ignored by the Manufacturers and Erectors Association. When American Bridge fabricators sub-let the erection of a local bridge to a non-union firm, the New Haven local went on strike against all American Bridge Company work on July 28, 1905. Similar incidents occurred in Arkansas and Illinois. On August 10 a national strike was almost called, but not put into effect, against the American Bridge Company because of the upcoming convention in Philadelphia in September.
At that convention, President Frank Buchanan, despite having the support of his views by a huge majority of the local unions, and having received tremendous national stature by having been elected President of the Building Trades Alliance (a forerunner of our present AF of L Building Trades Department) and by having been selected to deliver an address on labor relations to the second session of the 57th Congress of the United States, surprised everyone with his decision to retire from his office as President. Frank M. Ryan, also of Chicago, was elected to take his place, and John J. McNamara was reelected to his second term as Secretary-Treasurer. The convention indeed became one of the most significant bodies in the short history of our organization. Shortly after accepting the decision of President Buchanan not to seek further office, the delegates proceeded to practically tie the new officers' hands. In the endorsing of the national strike against the large steel companies the adopted resolution contained a clause that the officers "not to call this strike off until every existing grievance is settled satisfactory to our affiliated locals." This inflexible resolution made it virtually impossible for International Officers to negotiate for fair settlement of the issues that brought about the strike. The U. S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1915 in writing about the development of labor at the turn of the century and specifically of our International Association commented that this resolution was indeed a major handicap to the union and theorized that when convention delegates "undertake to lay down hard and fast rules or a line of conduct for the guidance of their officers during a strike they are apt to make a serious blunder. Successful prosecution of a war, or a strike, demands centralized authority."
Two problems which resulted at least indirectly in this severely restrictive convention resolution were the McKeesport Tube Mill Issue and the Post and McCord Strike. With respect to the first of these: some major fabricator-erectors employed union Ironworkers on all new construction and alterations within their plants. Some companies did part with union Ironworkers and part with in-plant employees and some did this type work exclusively with in-plant. When the American Bridge Company began work in a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, the McKee sport Tube Mill, with non-union Ironworkers. The Pittsburgh local felt the work was covered by their local agreement. Since the forty men were employed for only a few weeks on the tube mill construction, the dispute was in reality to each side more a matter of principle than a dispute on which the issue could be finally resolved. "Give the union an inch and it will try to take a yard" was the attitude taken by the company officials. They clearly feared the unionization of their fabricating shops and perhaps eventually their rolling mills.
President Ryan met a number of times with company officials. Ultimately they offered to sign an agreement to employ only union men on all erection work on building and bridges done by American Bridge, its affiliates, and sub-contractors, but would not commit that agreement to the McKeesport type job, since those would be inside the company plant facilities. They also agreed not to use any pressures to prevent union Ironworkers from being employed inside of those steel mills where union contractors had been and could obtain contracts. This in effect would have left that question standing by itself for future solution, while at the same time the major problem of organizing all building and bridge construction would have been solved and in the future would be erected only under the recognized wage rate in each local union. President Ryan went to Pittsburgh and urged the local to waive the grievance it had filed with the convention over the erection of McKeesport Tube Mill. The local refused, and President Ryan was forced to keep fighting the issue in accordance with the convention action which he felt gave him no flexibility in the matter. Had an understanding been reached on the protest of the tube mill, every point for which the Ironworkers originally struck would have been won. Not only did that slip through their grasp but they did not even get a man on the McKeesport job.
Samuel Gompers, AF of L President, considered the McKeesport mistake one of the three most costly blunders to American labor in the early years of trade unionism. But hindsight is clearer than foresight, and to blame anyone individual or group for the blunder would be fruitless argument. One thing is clear, however, the local unions and International had not yet learned the technique of working together in the best interests of the union as a whole.
The second significant problem leading to the convention resolution was the Post and McCord strike in New York. Secretary McNamara, in carrying out the convention resolution had been forced to recommend suspension of the Cleveland local for not cooperating with the general strike against American Bridge. President Ryan, meeting in New York with the newly-formed New York locals, called attention to this and felt the same action would be necessary if they did not strike the Post and McCord Company, then considered a subsidiary of American Bridge. The local complied and called a strike, even after the New York City General Arbitration Board, composed of employers and union leaders, ruled against the justification of the strike. The Ironworkers were suspended from the Board and thus cut off from the help and sympathy of other trade unions.
What began as a convention resolution to state a position of determination resulted in an uncompromising position of incredible magnitude for the Ironworkers. The general strike against American Bridge became one that had to be carried out unflinchingly. Compromise and concession could not be attained. Then, on May 1, 1906, the National Association of Manufacturers and Erectors of Structural Steel and Iron Work changed their name to the National Erectors' Association and took an equally uncompromising position. They adopted a new Constitution which read: "The object of this Association shall be the institution and maintenance of the Open Shop principle in the employment of labor in the erection of steel and iron bridges and buildings and other structural steel and iron works." The reorganization and new policy of the Erectors' Association came at an unpropitious time for the Ironworkers. They were beyond the reach of assistance from other building trades unions because of their eviction from the General Arbitration Board in New York, which also, unfortunately, was the headquarters for the Erectors' Association. In addition, the Ironworkers had lost their chance for closed shop on buildings and bridges when they refused to concede the McKeesport issue.
Not too long after the National Erectors' Association declared their open shop policy, the International recognizing the significance of their position found it necessary to compromise the convention position. The Executive Board authorized local unions to allow their members to work for sub-contractors of American Bridge, provided the work was done under union conditions. The compromise came too late, however. The Philadelphia local estimated that the union in that vicinity had already lost 60 per cent of its influence. Many Ironworkers there had been on strike against the Ettor Erecting Company, an erection sub-contractor, on a contract by American Bridge to build an elevated railroad. American Bridge stepped in and finished the work with open shop men after the strike was called. In Chicago the union Ironworkers were called out of the Illinois Steel Company, the only steel plant which employed Ironworkers inside its grounds for its structural work, because Illinois Steel, like American Bridge, was a subsidiary of U. S. Steel. The union men were warned that if they quit they would not be re-employed, and they were not. And in other cities large firms which operated under union conditions before now hired open shop, non-union men to finish their jobs.
A year later, in February of 1907, delegates from the New York, Brooklyn and Philadelphia locals met in Indianapolis at the International Headquarters to urge the Executive Board to consider a "local option" policy. Their idea was to de-nationalize current policy and allow members to work for open shop erectors, eventually to unionize one job at a time. Gradually, the open shop employers would be hemmed into restricted areas. The Executive Board felt that such a proposal could not be adopted by the International within the framework of the previous convention actions and further, in carrying out such a plan the strength that the local union had in combination as an International Union could be undermined by the proposed "local option." In New York they reasoned, where the union was virtually wiped out and Ironworkers were forced to work with open shop workers to preserve, in name at least, what was left of the organization, nevertheless, there was still an organization. Their proposal was presented to the convention delegates who chose to vote down the "local option" plan. Years later it was tried and abandoned after one year.
Meanwhile, the tonnage of steel erected with open shop ironworkers was growing. The National Erectors' Association had control of 75 per cent of all fabricated steel used in structural jobs, and preferred to subcontract other companies which did not hire union men under closed shop agreements. The open shop Ironworkers were paid less than our union members, but they could make ends meet because their employers kept them more steadily employed. Non-union workers, by way of the "open shop" work, received less money per hour but their annual salary was usually larger than union Ironworkers. Gradually, it developed, "open shop" meant that the job was closed to members of the Ironworkers Union.
Through the first four years of the "Open Shop War," the membership figures fluctuated. By 1910 the International Union was no larger than it was in 1903, in spite of the inclusion and chartering of locally organized machinery movers, pile drivers, and some shop men. The revised Association of Ironworker Employers had crippled but had not killed the Ironworkers. While not gaining ground, the union held together in what was the most prominent point in the fight against open shop.
When the American Federation of Labor organized the Building Trades Department in November 1908, in Denver, President Ryan was elected Third Vice President of the new department. In 1909 he led to a decision a significant jurisdictional question: The Ironworkers were awarded the installation of reinforcing steel in steel reinforced concrete construction which at that time became an alternate for structural steel in the framing of a building. A year later his predecessor, Frank Buchanan, was elected to Congress from the Seventh Illinois District on the Democratic ticket.
The years 1903 to 1910 were strenuous years for the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, but there was one darker period when the International was faced with a struggle for survival. On October 1, 1910, the Los Angeles Times building went up in flames and Officers of the Ironworkers were accused of "the crime of the century."
For twenty years Los Angeles had the reputation of being the most militantly anti-union city in America. When the Iron Workers organized there in 1903, their most formidable obstacle was the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association, which, according to the San Francisco Bulletin, had "one creed: 'We will employ no union man.'" Virtually every strike called by teamsters, carpenters, plasterers, brewery workers and others had ended in defeat of organized labor. On June 1, 1910, the metal trades, including the Iron Workers, united and called a strike for union recognition and the eight-hour working day in what proved to be one of Los Angeles' bitterest struggles.
Non-union workers were quickly imported from the Midwest and private detectives were hired to spy on strike leaders and assist the regular police force in an effort to crush the unions. But the unions stood firms. Pickets were orderly and no violence occurred until July 16, 1910, when the City Council passed its infamous anti-picketing ordinance. The ordinance was strict enough to satisfy even the most militant of anti-union employers, but it was denounced by union workers as "class legislation." Union pickets naturally defied the ordinance which ran counter to their constitutional principles. Fights broke out between strikers, strike-breakers, police, hired detectives, and professional sluggers. In such a blood-bath only the pickets were arrested, but as each defendant requested a jury trial, the court calendars were filled up until early the next year...