"We're Killed, but we seldom ever die."
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.
Wartime Gains and Post-War Challenges
The United States entered World War I in April 1917. The AFL, under President Gompers' leadership, worked in close cooperation with President Wilson to ensure industrial peace and a steady flow of military equipment and armaments for the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.
As head of the War Committee on Labor and member of the Council for National Defense, Gompers and the unions he represented played an increasingly important role in national affairs. A wartime disputes board helped avoid strikes and maintain production; it had the support and cooperation of the labor movement. With the vast expansion of production for military and civilian needs, unions grew rapidly during the wartime years.
A symbolic recognition of labor's new status was President Wilson's visit to Buffalo in 1917 to address the annual AFL convention-the first time a President had made such an appearance. In the succeeding administrations, most Presidents (Republican and Democratic alike) spoke to the labor conventions.
During the years following World War l, however, the labor movement suffered setbacks and difficulties.
While AFL membership had reached almost four million by 1919, the postwar reaction from employers and their allies was swift and predictable. Elbert Gary, head of U.S. Steel (the company bestowed his name on the Indiana city), refused to meet with striking workers. The AFL endorsed and supported a strike of steel workers committed to such objectives as the end of the 12-hour day, the dismantlement of company-dominated "unions," collective bargaining and wage increases. Using massive propaganda which sought to depict the strike as "unpatriotic," plus such time-tested favorites as strikebreakers, spies, armed guards and cooperative police departments, "Big Steel" finally wore down the strikers, and they were forced to return to work early in 1920 under the old conditions.
The decade of the 1920s drifted on a downhill course for the labor movement. Virulent anti-unionism, the steady, creeping ascent of unemployment, and the complacent political climate engendered by the Hoover Administration had a decidedly negative effect on the fortunes of the AFL, its unions and America's working men and women in every part of the country, in every sector of the economy.
From Murdered Miners to Shiny Dimes
One chapter of the history of early-century industrial conflicts involved John D. Rockefeller, the first tycoon of the age of energy and the creator of the Standard Oil complex of corporations.
Rockefeller controlled the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, whose coal miners went on strike in 1914. With their families, they were promptly evicted from company-owned homes in Ludlow, Colorado.
They moved into a cluster of tents, around which National Guard soldiers took positions and at night occasionally fired their rifles into the colony. To protect the children, the miners dug a cave under the largest tent. But on Easter night 1914, company-hired gunmen and some of the National Guard poured oil over the strikers' tents and set them on fire.
As the frantic miners and their families ran for safety in the night, they were machine-gunned. Some escaped, some were wounded and thirteen children and a pregnant woman in the recently dug cave all died-some with gun wounds, some from suffocation.The nationwide protests against the killings on Rockefeller property were immediate and long sustained. Eventually, it led Rockefeller, the nation's first billionaire, to hire Ivy Lee, an early public relations man, to repair John D.'s sullied reputation.
Even as an old man, Rockefeller continued to hand out shiny new dimes to little children in the effort to erase the Ludlow image-but among the miners and workers in many other unions, the memory of Ludlow persists like an endless bad dream.
Depression, War and a Labor Schism Healed
December 1931, the 50th anniversary of the creation of the modern labor movement, found America and much of the world sliding down the much steeper slope of a cataclysmic economic depression. Business enterprises failed by the thousands, production plummeted and unemployment went through the roof. By 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President, the American economy was in chaos-and the American trade union movement was but a ghost of its former strength and numbers.
Roosevelt, taking the leadership of the all but paralyzed nation on March 4, 1933, undertook a number of programs designed to recharge the economy, feed the unemployed and restore confidence. At his urging, Congress passed the National Recovery Administration; the NRA's Section 7a specifically placed on the statute books the right of unions to exist and to negotiate with employers. Although it had no real enforcement powers, Section 7a was seen by millions of workers as a green light, if not a government invitation, to join a union.
The Supreme Court soon declared NRA unconstitutional, and Section 7a was no more. Under the leadership of Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, Congress in 1936 enacted the National Labor Relations Act-known as the Wagner Act. It went beyond "7a" to establish a legal basis for unions; set collective bargaining as a matter of national policy required by the law; provided for secret ballot elections for the choosing of unions; and protected union members from employer intimidation and coercion. That law, as amended in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act and in 1959 by the Landrum Griffin Act, is still in force.
The growth in union strength of both the AFL and CIO throughout the period coupled with Roosevelt's domestic program, led to passage of a number of national social programs long advocated by the labor movement: among them, the national social security program, unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, and a federal minimum wage-hour law (the original minimum hourly pay set by the 1938 statute was 25 cents an hour).
Women in the Unions
A noteworthy event in the labor movement of the early 1900s was the creation of the Women's Trade Union League, to help educate women workers about the advantages of union membership, to support their demands for better working conditions, and to acquaint the public with the serious exploitation of the rising number of women workers, many of them in "home industries" or industrial sweatshops.
It was founded by Mary O'Sullivan, a bindery worker who became the first woman organizer employed by the AFL; Jane Addams, the noted social worker and founder of Chicago's Hull House; Mary Kehew, a Boston philanthropist, and women who were officials in the unions of the garment and textile industries.
For much of its first century, the labor movement was-in huge majority composed of men. Except in a few occupations clerical work and the garment, textile, retail and hotel industries-the labor force was essentially male.
Since World War II, however, women have moved increasingly into new occupations and larger numbers of women have become full-time wage earners. As more and more women went to work their union membership climbed, passing seven million members in 1980.
In 1984, two women were serving on the AFL-CIO Executive Council as federation vice presidents. Women also head a major AFL-CIO staff department and a national affiliate, while others hold offices of increasing responsibility in their unions.
Did you know that The Golden Gate Bridge was built by Ironworkers? What about the testing and building facilities for the Stealth Fighter and Space Shuttle or the famous “Gateway to the West” – The St. Louis Arch? That’s right – Ironworkers erected those buildings too. Think about it. Nearly every structure you can think of – schools, sports stadiums, shopping malls, hospitals, bridges, office and industrial buildings – all required the skills of trained Ironworkers.
By becoming an Ironworker you will have the opportunity to help build the landmarks and shape the skylines of the future. You will be able to look back at your work and say, “I built that!”