History of Ironworkers Local 8

By J. Jamakaya

Compiled for the Centennial Anniversary of Local 8,
International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers.
Copyright, 2001 by Local 8. All rights reserved.
Contact Local 8 at 12034 W. Adler Lane, Milwaukee, WI 53214, (414) 476-9370.

Members of Local 8 construct the ironwork that undergirds hundreds of bridges, stadiums, hotels, hospitals, campus halls, auditoriums, skyscrapers, power plants and other large structures in eastern Wisconsin and upper Michigan. Among their many accomplishments, the most fabled may be "Mighty Mac," the 5-mile long suspension bridge across the Mackinac Straits joining upper and lower Michigan. Here is their story.

Ironworkers Local 8: 100+ Years

As we celebrate the centennial year of Ironworkers Local 8, there is reason to raise an extra toast and kick up our heels a little higher. While researching Local 8's history, we've discovered that Milwaukee ironworkers were actually organized by 1896, making us more than 100 years old!

Our official celebration this year is based on the charter issued by the International Association of Bridge and Structural Ironworkers of America on February 1, 1901 to the Housesmiths and Bridgemen's Local Union No. 8 of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although the words "Housesmith's and Bridgemen's" were dropped long ago, that charter still hangs proudly in the board room of Local 8's office in Milwaukee.

An early logo

A little more digging revealed, however, that an earlier charter was issued to Local 8 on June 26, 1896 by the National Association of Bridge and Structural Ironworkers. This was the name our International used before it formally adopted the term "International" at its convention in 1900. The following year, under its new title, the International re-issued charters to many of its locals, including the one in Milwaukee.

Origins of Local 8

Frank J. Weber played a key role organizing Milwaukee's bridgemen and ironworkers in the years before the first charter was issued. Weber was a tireless advocate for unions at that time, employed as an organizer by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He helped establish the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor in 1893, became its first President, and served as its General Organizer for 23 years. In that role, he fostered the growth of many local unions in various trades throughout the state. Historian Robert Ozanne says that the advice and encouragement Weber gave to first time unionists - like Milwaukee ironworkers - was invaluable.

Many factors contributed to the foundation and growth of Local 8.

A Strong Union Town: By the 1890s, Milwaukee was developing into a strong union town. It was a center of agitation for the 8-hour day. Carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, teamsters, brewery workers, cigar makers, typographers, and even shoemakers had already organized into local unions. Immigrants, many with trade union backgrounds from their homelands, swelled the ranks of workers and organized for better pay and working conditions.

City Expansion: Milwaukee was a thriving, expanding city. Its population grew from 204,000 in 1890 to an astonishing 374,000 in 1910. There was new construction going on everywhere, from residential housing to commercial buildings to bridges and industrial plants. There was work galore, especially for those in the building trades.

Power in Numbers: Like men in the other trades, Milwaukee's bridgemen and ironworkers undoubtedly organized themselves because they wanted to be respected for their special skills and to present a united front to the contractors who hired them. They hoped this would give them more leverage in seeking better pay and working conditions.

Support for Fellow Ironworkers: Another compelling reason they banded together was to pool their resources and provide financial support to the families of men killed on the job. One hundred years ago, there was no insurance or worker's compensation, and safety measures on job sites were non-existent. Early issues of The Bridgemen's Magazine recorded the sad toll from this dangerous work. In 1906 alone, five members of Local 8 died in work site accidents, among them Harry Gunderson, who was crushed by a 9-ton column; T.J. Sullivan, who fell from a girder; and John Phelan, hit by a falling truss. By that time, the union was able to give the families of these men $100, which represented about one month's pay. It seems small today, but it was the beginning of ironworkers looking out for their own.

Early Leaders

Like many young organizations, Local 8 had its struggles and growing pains. At the time of its founding in 1896, it had only 16 members. Among its earliest officers were James Harvey, Joseph Brett, Thomas Daily and M. J. Shea. They had the daunting task of recruiting new members, asserting ironworkers' jurisdiction amidst the other trades, and negotiating with companies that were often anti-union.

After members elected William E. Reddin their President and Business Agent in 1905, Local 8 achieved firm financial and organizational footing. Bill Reddin (in photo at right) provided great leadership and stability to Local 8 for the next 28 years until his death in 1933.

During his productive tenure, Reddin helped increase membership to more than 250. He succeeded in expanding the geographic jurisdiction of Local 8 beyond Milwaukee's city limits to encompass nearly half of the state of Wisconsin. As a member of Milwaukee's Building Trades Council, he cultivated cooperative relationships with other unions. He devised inventive promotional methods and he stood up against the union-busting tactics of groups like the National Erectors Association.

Another outstanding leader of Local 8 was Adam Sladky. Sladky toiled as an ironworker for 40 years and served as Local 8's Recording Secretary for most of that time. He was a delegate to eight International conventions, the first in 1901, the last in 1936. As Recording Secretary, Sladky wrote the minutes to Local 8's meetings and sent frequent updates about jobs in the Milwaukee area to The Bridgemen's Magazine. Sladky's writing provides us with most of what we know about Local 8's work in the first decades of the 20th century. It's an impressive record of hard work and proud achievements.

Leaders of Ironworkers Local 8 in 1905

Building Milwaukee

To put it simply, members of Local 8 built the modern infrastructure of Milwaukee in the first decades of the 20th century - from the bridges spanning the Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic rivers to the viaducts over the Menomonee Valley, from the breweries and tanneries and manufacturing plants to the schools and theaters and department stores.

The men of Local 8 erected the Water St., Michigan St., Oneida St. (now Wells St., pictured at left) and Cedar St. (now Kilbourn Ave.) bascule bridges in downtown Milwaukee. They built a bridge over the KK river for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. They erected the Bartlett St. and Holton St. bridges, and many others. The 6th, 16th and 27th St. viaducts connecting the south side to the center of the city were massive undertakings, stretching over several years. Milwaukee ironworkers played a crucial role in their construction and benefitted from the steady work.

Local 8 helped build many of the factories that made Milwaukee an industrial power - Harnischfeger, Allis Chalmers, International Harvester and Falk, to name a few. The brewers also kept Local 8 busy.

In 1901, Adam Sladky wrote to Bridgemen's Magazine:

"The Brewers Assn. are doing their share of building to their plants and keep us busy. They are the life of the iron craft. Just finished Pabst, now Schlitz will erect two buildings, one seven-story steel and one four-story steel structure. Others follow suit - Blatz, Miller and all the rest."

Other important projects and buildings Local 8 worked on included: the Northwestern Mutual Life building, the Wisconsin Hotel, Milwaukee Vocational School (now MATC), Lincoln and Riverside High Schools, Gimbel's and Schuster's Department Stores, St. Mary's Hospital, the Empire Theater Building (current site of the Riverside Theater), the Wisconsin Telephone Co. building on Broadway, the Milwaukee Auditorium (mainly roof trusses), the Municipal Building next to City Hall and the Plankinton Building on Grand (Wisconsin) Ave.

But members of Local 8 also went beyond Milwaukee to work. They built bridges in Oshkosh and Manitowoc and coal conveyors in Sheboygan. They worked on the huge J.I. Case plant in Racine. They also erected the structural elements of much of the State Capitol Building in Madison, including its majestic dome (pictured at right, under construction). When work was slack in Milwaukee, they worked for the railroads in Illinois and Iowa and built rigs in the mining regions of Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

This work was accomplished with none of the modern machinery and methods available to us today. In the decades before cranes became available, derricks were the primary means of hoisting heavy loads. The men themselves did much of the hauling and lifting with chain fall hoists and hand-operated winches. They did their work without benefit of the many safety precautions that are mandatory today. In 1901, they made just 35 an hour. By 1921, they were making $1 an hour, which was considered a good wage in those days.

Two veteran ironworkers, Leo Price, who became a member of Local 8 in 1908, and Charles Volkmann, a member of Local 1 from Chicago, formed their own erecting companies and provided work for union men on many important projects over the years. Price Erecting, run by Leo's descendants, is still in business today. Other contractors who provided work for the men of Local 8 were Worden & Allen, J.C. Thielacker, Strobel Steel and Milwaukee Bridge. (American Bridge and Wisconsin Bridge angered ironworkers by often hiring non-union labor.)

Local 8 crew working a job for Volkmann, 1906.
Note the cloth caps. Hard hats would later be required for safety.

During these early years, Milwaukee was the host city for two International conventions. The first took place September 15-22, 1902 and drew 60 delegates from 19 states. President Frank Buchanan announced that membership in the International was up to 10,000. Bridgemen's Magazine reported on the absence of friction at the Milwaukee convention, in contrast to the previous convention in Boston:

"It would seem that Milwaukee beer is much more conducive to the transacting of business than are baked beans."

The 15th annual convention of the International was held in Milwaukee September 18-25, 1911. The meeting, held at the St. Charles Hotel on Water St., was dominated by discussion of the McNamara case.

Union Busting and the McNamara Case

None of the progress Local 8 made in its first 30 years came easily. There was no right to strike in those days, and companies used everything from court injunctions to hired thugs to exclude and destroy unions. Despite this, strikes were still mounted against companies that used scab labor or unfair practices.

Even the brewers sometimes tried to manipulate and shortchange union workers. In 1910, the blanket agreement of the Brewers Association with the Building Trades Council expired and the brewers refused to renew it, preferring to negotiate contracts with individual locals. The Council advised union men in all trades to walk off their jobs at the breweries. This solidarity paid off because eleven days later the strike was won, and a general agreement satisfactory to all trades was adopted.

There were setbacks as well. In 1913, Local 8 signed a 3-year agreement with a representative of the local Erectors Association. It called for a wage increase to 62 per hour on July 1 and an increase to 65 in July of 1914 to last for two years. But when July of 1914 arrived, some contractors refused to honor the second wage increase. A strike was called, lasting three long months. In the end, Local 8 conceded defeat and reluctantly returned to work at the lower rate.

The founding of the National Erectors Association (NEA) in 1905 created special challenges for all building trade unions, but especially ironworkers. The NEA, which represented many of the largest companies in the country like American Bridge and U.S. Steel, declared for the open shop. It worked relentlessly against unions, blocking organizing drives, locking out union men and crushing strikes.

Frustration with these unfair tactics led to desperate measures. Between 1908 and 1911, dozens of bombings occurred at work sites across the country. Although no one was hurt in these incidents, financial damage to the erectors was considerable.

But in October of 1910, an explosion at a printing plant of the Los Angeles Times newspaper resulted in 20 deaths. The owner of the Times, Harrison Gray Otis, was leader of the city's Manufacturers & Merchants Association and an outspoken opponent of everything union. Not surprisingly, the newspaper headline the next day read: "UNIONIST BOMBS WRECK THE TIMES." The mayor of Los Angeles hired William J. Burns, a detective for the NEA, to investigate the case.

In April of 1911, police raided an Executive Board meeting of the Ironworkers International at its headquarters in Indianapolis. Secretary Treasurer John J. McNamara was seized and, without benefit of extradition proceedings, forcibly transported to California to face charges in the Times blast. The famous civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow was brought in to defend McNamara, but it quickly became clear that a fair trial was impossible. McNamara, who hadn't even been in Los Angeles at the time of the blast, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

McNamara's incarceration was only the beginning. The leader of the NEA, which was pushing the investigations, had sworn to destroy the ironworkers union. Soon, federal indictments for conspiracy and transportation of explosives were issued against 42 ironworker leaders at both the International and local levels. One of those charged was Local 8 Business Manager Bill Reddin.

Local 8 rallies in support of John McNamara
at Borchert Field in Milwaukee in 1911.

Ironworkers around the country, including Milwaukee, had come to McNamara's aid, raising defense funds and protesting the miscarriage of justice. Members of Local 8 now rallied around their own leader, Bill Reddin. He was tried in federal court in Indianapolis, found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. An appeal was denied, and he ultimately served two years and three months at Leavenworth prison.

But members of Local 8 were convinced of Reddin's integrity. Just weeks before his trial, they presented him with a gold watch and chain as a token of their "esteem and confidence." Upon his return to Milwaukee in 1916, he was greeted by a crowd of union supporters, and Local 8 and the Building Trades Council held a public reception to celebrate.

Reddin was immediately re-elected to office and served as Business Manager of Local 8 until his death in 1933. Both Reddin and Local 8 survived this intense period of union busting and moved on, but more challenges - and opportunities - lay ahead.

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