History of International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers

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History of International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers Richard Shemory

08/11/2012

How many times do you think you have benefited from the work of an ironworker? I’m guessing we really have no idea how often this benefit occurs. Ironworkers are the ones who actually build or put things together in the world around us. They often get lumped in with Steelworkers who are the ones who actually make and form the steel often used by ironworkers. Ironworkers do things the things like build the components that make up building and bridges. Ironworkers also may be the ones who put together all the pieces to build a building or bridge. Like the steelworkers, the ironworkers eventually found the need to form a union. This was in part to work towards getting a fare share for the worker. There has been a long history of union activity in the United States. Unions were looked at as a way for craftsmen to have solidarity and demand fair wages. Early union organizers found it rough going as many people wanted to be free of any regulation. If a strike occurred and the union lost, the union generally dissolved and things went back to the status quo. Up until about 1870, only about 1% of the workforce was unionized. In part this was due to the perspective held of unions and their activities. Many activities of a union were run like secret societies and they used acts of intimidation and violence against those who did not go the union way. They called these “non-unionized” workers scabs or blacklegs.

While unions did have a foothold in some cities among some skilled labors and railroad workers, they failed to gain much ground until the 1880’s ushered in the “progressive” era. I find it ironic that the first unions included tailors, hat makers, and shoe makers. Try finding one of those professionals in today’s throwaway society we are living in. (Reynolds)

While union struggles have been going on since this country was founded, and before elsewhere, unions have had prosperous periods and have also had less than prosperous times in their history. I would like to focus on one particular union, that being what is now called The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. I hence will refer to it as Ironworkers Union for sake of simplicity. I have a personal interest in this particular union as my Grandfather was a member as are several of my Uncles. My Father retired from a local IAIW union after 33 years of service building roof trusses for three different companies. The first thing I do when I go into a large building is to look up and see if perhaps my Father helped make the building. One of their biggest contracts ever was for a large percentage of the East coast Wal-Mart stores that have been built in the last 15 years.

Much like many labor unions, the start of the Ironworkers Union was anything but smooth. The union officially formed in 1896 but I would like to review a bit of the previous activities that led up to their formation. While steel has been around for centuries, the first all steel bridge was built in 1879 in Missouri. This bridge spanned the Missouri River and preceded one of the most notable steel bridges, the Brooklyn Bridge which was completed in 1883. It should be noted that somewhere between 30 and 40 men were killed during construction of the bridge. This included the original designer who dies from a tetanus infection; his son took over and ended up being crippled for life due to getting the bends while working on the bridge. Many of the surviving workers later became charter members of Iron Workers Local #2 in Ne York City. (Robinson) This is just one example of the dangers faced everyday by Ironworkers in building the world around us.

The Ironworkers can trace their roots to the famous Haymarket Affair of 1886. The Federation of Trade and Labor Union (later became A F...
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