The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers
is a union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...
in the United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...
, which represents primarily construction workers, as well as shipbuilding and metal fabrication employees.
Iron work is a new craft, made possible with the advent of modern steel-making processes, iron bridges and skyscrapers. It was and is also an exceptionally dangerous job; hundreds of iron workers fell to their death every year in the late years of the nineteenth century. As one saying among Iron Workers of the day put it, "We're killed, but we seldom ever die."
The union was formed in 1896 at a meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh is the second-largest city in the US Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the county seat of Allegheny County. Regionally, it anchors the largest urban area of Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley, and nationally, it is the 22nd-largest urban area in the United States...
of delegates from local unions from Boston, Massachusetts, Buffalo, New York
Buffalo is the second most populous city in the state of New York, after New York City. Located in Western New York on the eastern shores of Lake Erie and at the head of the Niagara River across from Fort Erie, Ontario, Buffalo is the seat of Erie County and the principal city of the...
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...
, Cleveland, New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...
, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh. Those locals, and others established later, often protected their own autonomy jealously, rejecting at least one national contract with the American Bridge Company because it would have reduced their power. The internal divisions also led the union, which had affiliated with the American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Federation at its...
shortly after its formation, to disaffiliate in 1901, only to reaffiliate two years later. It was one of the charter members of the AFL's Building Trades Department, which was created in 1908.
Battles with the employers
A number of employers tried to destroy the craft unions
Craft unionism refers to organizing a union in a manner that seeks to unify workers in a particular industry along the lines of the particular craft or trade that they work in by class or skill level...
that made up the AFL in the first decade of the twentieth century by insisting on maintaining an "open shop", i.e. hiring without reference to union membership. For craft unions, such as the Iron Workers, who maintained union wages and working conditions by controlling the supply of labor, the open shop meant that the employer was free to set any wage standards it chose and to discriminate against union members in hiring.
The Iron Workers had successfully repelled the open shop demands of American Bridge Company (or "Ambridge"), an arm of the United States Steel Corporation, in 1903. In 1905, after the union's collective bargaining agreement with Ambridge had expired, Ambridge and the other members of the National Erectors Association began refusing to hire union members and hired labor spies
Labor spies are persons recruited or employed for the purpose of gathering intelligence, committing sabotage, sowing dissent, or engaging in other similar activities, typically within the context of an employer/labor organization relationship....
to infiltrate the union. When the Iron Workers struck in response, the employers obtained injunction
An injunction is an equitable remedy in the form of a court order that requires a party to do or refrain from doing certain acts. A party that fails to comply with an injunction faces criminal or civil penalties and may have to pay damages or accept sanctions...
s and local ordinances that barred picketing or limited it to an ineffective display.
Allegedly, some unionists went further and planted bombs at non-union work sites. The most famous one, and the only one to cause any loss of life, killed twenty employees of the Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles Times is a daily newspaper published in Los Angeles, California, since 1881. It was the second-largest metropolitan newspaper in circulation in the United States in 2008 and the fourth most widely distributed newspaper in the country....
, the main supporter for the open shop movement in Los Angeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...
, on October 1, 1910. The authorities arrested the Secretary-Treasurer of the union, John McNamara, and his brother James, based on the testimony of an accomplice.
The union hired Clarence Darrow
Clarence Seward Darrow was an American lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, best known for defending teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb in their trial for murdering 14-year-old Robert "Bobby" Franks and defending John T...
to defend the McNamaras. Darrow, however, concluded that the brothers faced a strong chance of receiving the death penalty for the crime; he therefore made a clumsy attempt, in broad daylight in downtown Los Angeles, to bribe one of the jurors. As it turned out, it was a trap and Darrow was arrested. Now more desperate than ever, he persuaded the McNamaras to plead guilty on the basis of an unwritten plea bargain that would have freed John. Once they pled guilty, however, the authorities denied that they had any deal at all. John McNamara served nearly ten years, while his brother spent his remaining years in prison.
Their guilty pleas effectively defeated the campaign of Job Harriman, who was running for mayor of Los Angeles as a socialist
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...
, and nearly destroyed Darrow. The federal government then indicted dozens of other Iron Worker officers for conspiring to transport dynamite as part of this campaign; the International's current President, Frank M. Ryan, and one of its future Presidents, Paul "Paddy" Morrin, were convicted along with several other defendants on December 31, 1912, after a trial in which Herbert Hockin, the International Secretary-Treasurer, testified against them.
John J. McNamara later returned to the union after his release from state prison. He was expelled from the union in 1928, however, for submitting false audit reports on behalf of his local union.
Battles with the AFL, employers and the IWW
The Iron Workers soon found themselves at war with the AFL and, in particular, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America is one of the largest building trades union in the United States. One of the unions that formed the American Federation of Labor in 1886, it left the AFL-CIO in 2001.-Early years:...
. The Carpenters claimed that pile-driving work, which was done primarily by Iron Workers in many areas, belonged to them and convinced the Building Trades Department to go along with them. When the Iron Workers refused to relinquish this work the AFL suspended it from membership in 1917. Other unions, such as the Lathers, then claimed that work that had historically been done by Iron workers belonged to them instead. Unable to call on the support of other AFL unions in its fights with employers, the Iron Workers relented the following year and ceded pile driving work, with the exception of work related to bridge building, to the Carpenters.
These fissures contributed to an extent to the failure of the Iron Workers' New York City strike, called in 1921 to resist the American Plan, the open shop movement that reversed much of the labor movement's gains, particularly in construction, of the previous decade. When the strike failed, the union sued the employers, also without success. The union survived, but in a much weaker state.
The union also fought the Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World is an international union. At its peak in 1923, the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict...
, which had won leadership in a number of its west coast locals in the era after World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...
. International President Morrin expelled some dissident locals and sued others to regain the locals' property. By 1928 the rebellion was over.
The Great Depression and the New Deal
The union lost roughly half of its members in the early 1930s. While the passage of the Davis-Bacon Act
The Davis–Bacon Act of 1931 is a United States federal law which established the requirement for paying prevailing wages on public works projects...
required payment of the prevailing wage on federal construction projects, the desperate shortage of work allowed some employers to force their employees to pay kickbacks to them to hold on to their jobs. A number of union members hopped freight cars to go in search for work. At the same time the union's old enemy, the Carpenters union, resumed its jurisdictional war with it.
Conditions improved somewhat with the advent of the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration's creation of the Works Progress Administration
The Works Progress Administration was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, and operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects...
, a public works project that employed thousands of iron workers and other construction workers. The union was also spurred to organize, particularly in the inside fabricating shops, by the threat of competition from the newly created Congress of Industrial Organizations
The Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, proposed by John L. Lewis in 1932, was a federation of unions that organized workers in industrial unions in the United States and Canada from 1935 to 1955. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 required union leaders to swear that they were not...
. The union's membership grew slowly, reaching 40,000 by 1940.
World War II, the postwar boom and change
The union grew even more rapidly during World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...
and the years afterward, reaching 100,000 members by 1948, when John H. Lyons succeeded Morrin as president of the union. His son, John H. Lyons, Jr., succeeded him in 1961.
The Taft-Hartley Act
The Labor–Management Relations Act is a United States federal law that monitors the activities and power of labor unions. The act, still effective, was sponsored by Senator Robert Taft and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr. and became law by overriding U.S. President Harry S...
, passed in 1947, limited construction unions' rights to picket worksites at which non-union contractors were working by barring secondary boycotts. Even with those restrictions, however, the Iron Workers continued to grow in the expansive economy of the 1950s.
The union, like most other United States construction unions, had remained nearly all-white for most of its history. That began to change in the early 1960s, as the American civil rights movement began to challenge employment discrimination in the north, then picked up steam in the 1970s as the federal government began using the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark piece of legislation in the United States that outlawed major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation...
to knock down some of the barriers to African-American workers' entry into the industry. Some local unions of the Iron Workers fought integration and affirmative action tenaciously, but usually unsuccessfully.
The union also found itself challenged by a change in the business climate in the 1970s, as non-union contractors invaded markets that had been solidly union for years with the support of the Business Roundtable, made up of the heads of General Motors, General Electric, Exxon, U.S. Steel, DuPont and others. The Roundtable also attempted to weaken the Davis-Bacon Act and other legislation that protected construction workers. The Iron Workers and other building trades, caught off guard and used to organizing from the top down, lost large amounts of work to non-union contractors in the decades that followed.
World Trade Center Cleanup
After the 9/11 terror attacks
The September 11 attacks The September 11 attacks The September 11 attacks (also referred to as September 11, September 11th or 9/119/11 is pronounced "nine eleven". The slash is not part of the pronunciation...
on the World Trade Center
The original World Trade Center was a complex with seven buildings featuring landmark twin towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, United States. The complex opened on April 4, 1973, and was destroyed in 2001 during the September 11 attacks. The site is currently being rebuilt with five new...
, the union helped to clear the debris, sending many iron workers to clear the mass of wrecked steel.
21st Century Controversies
The union's International President, Jake West, pled guilty in 2002 to improper use of pension funds and making a false statement on a union report filed with the United States Department of Labor
The United States Department of Labor is a Cabinet department of the United States government responsible for occupational safety, wage and hour standards, unemployment insurance benefits, re-employment services, and some economic statistics. Many U.S. states also have such departments. The...
. Joseph Hunt succeeded him. A number of lower-level officers and the union's accounting firm likewise pled guilty to related embezzlement and disclosure charges.
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