History of Ironworkers Local 8, Part 2

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.


The Great Depression Years

In mid-1928, Recording Secretary G.J. Weckman reported to The Bridgemen's Magazine that Local 8 seemed to be experiencing "an era of prosperity at present... There seems to be plenty of work coming our way but very little for the non-union men so to say."

He cited work in progress on the Public Safety Building on W. State Street, erection of the 16th Street viaduct across the Menomonee Valley (at left, under construction in 1928) and the Cedar Street (Kilbourn Ave.) bridge over the Milwaukee River, as well as construction of the new County Hospital on the far west side. He also wrote hopefully about plans for the new $6 million County Courthouse, which the men of Local 8 did, indeed, work on over the next few years.

But the stock market crashed in 1929, and within a short time the economic repercussions of the Crash rolled across the country.

Just two years after Weckman's optimistic report, in August, 1930, Bill Reddin wrote to The Bridgemen's Magazine:

"Work is at a standstill. We do not want members to come here under a false impression, thinking they will be able to get work. Most of the large projects are practically completed. At the present time, we have a number of members unemployed... Stay away unless you can afford to take a compulsory vacation."

The unemployment situation got much, much worse. Tens of thousands of businesses throughout the U.S. collapsed. Factory production stalled and construction projects were stymied by lack of investment capital. By 1933, 15 million Americans were out of work. Among them were many ironworkers. In the late 1920s, membership in the Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers International was nearly 30,000. By 1933, the number plummeted to 10,318.

In a crisis atmosphere where there was little construction work being initiated, some ironworkers, desperate to support their families, left the trade to take whatever jobs they could find. Others took to the railroads in search of work elsewhere. Ironworkers have always had a proud tradition of "booming out" - going where the work is. But many of the men riding the rails in the 1930s met with more disappointment than opportunity.

The Bridgemen's Magazine did its part by publishing a complete list of ironworking jobs available across the country, noting the location, the size of the project and the erecting company. Often, hundreds of men would show up for a job that needed just a 10 or 20-man crew. Several old-timers from that era recalled how unemployed men would literally camp out near work sites, watching and waiting for a worker to be injured or dismissed. They were eager to be close at hand if the foreman suddenly needed a replacement.

From 1930 to 1935, membership in Local 8 fell. It wasn't until the late 1930s that membership rose to and then surpassed the level achieved just before the Depression: about 250-270 members. Like ironworker locals around the country, Local 8 was also forced to accept wage cuts. The hourly wage of $1.20 paid to all ironworkers in 1931 was reduced in 1932 to $1.05 for structural and ornamental workers and to 90 for rodmen. This situation was not unique to Milwaukee. The International found that wage rates around the country fell by an average of 15.9% in the 1930s.

Given the terrible economic and social conditions, it is a credit to the leaders of Local 8 that the union survived and then prospered. Bill Reddin remained Business Manager and Financial Secretary until his death in 1933. He was succeeded by Joseph F. Burns, who held the position for two years. Then in 1935, Herbert J. Mueller was elected Business Manager. With the exception of a 2-year term in the 1950s, "Turk" Mueller, as he was called, served as Local 8's Business Manager for 25 years, until 1960. Also providing leadership and stability to Local 8 was Gustave (Gust) Damske, President of Local 8 from 1925 through 1950.







Work began on the current Milwaukee County Courthouse in 1929 (left) and neared completion in the second photo from 1930 or '31.



"New Deal" Programs

If there was any positive side to the Depression years, it was the long overdue pro-labor legislation adopted during the administration of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Foremost among these reforms was the National Labor Relations Act, adopted by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt in 1935. This law established for the first time ever the right of workers to organize into unions and bargain collectively. It restricted unfair labor practices by employers, like firing union organizers or allowing only company-run unions. It also set up the National Labor Relations Board, an independent body, to oversee union elections and investigate and rule on complaints of unfair practices. The National Labor Relations Act was a great turning point in labor history and contributed to the rapid growth of organized labor in mid-20th century America.

A second reform with vast implications for working people was the Social Security Act. The desperate conditions of so many unemployed workers and of widows, children and the elderly during the Depression stirred the conscience of the nation. Congress finally acted to provide a basic safety net for all Americans.

The Social Security Act created a national system of old age insurance based on payroll deductions which were matched by employers. It provided federal aid to the states for the disabled as well as to mothers and their dependent children. It also established a national program of unemployment insurance funded by federal, state and employer contributions.

In 1937, Congress passed the National Apprenticeship Act which promoted the formation of apprenticeship programs in workplaces and the application of labor standards to apprenticeship contracts. It launched a Federal Committee on Apprenticeship with equal representation by employers, labor and the public. It also created the Apprenticeship Training Service, which is now called the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, housed in the Department of Labor.

Another critical reform, the Fair Labor Standards Act, was passed in 1938. It mandated a minimum hourly wage for workers employed by firms engaged in interstate commerce. The first minimum wage was set at 40 per hour beginning in 1940. This law also called for time-and-a-half pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 per week.

Each of these far-sighted reforms of the Roosevelt era provided long-term benefits for all working Americans. But in the depths of the Depression, the administration also focused on the immediate task of getting people back to work. Among the "alphabet soup" of New Deal agencies, the PWA and the WPA provided opportunities for Local 8's ironworkers.

The Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration funneled billions of federal dollars to states and localities for work relief efforts. Some projects were derided by critics as "make work" schemes, but many provided essential infrastructure for our nation and its cities. PWA/WPA funding built 650,000 miles of highways, thousands of bridges and dams, 125,000 public buildings like courthouses and schools, and hundreds of navy vessels, including the aircraft carriers Yorktown and Enterprise.

In Milwaukee, one example of PWA funding which provided employment to members of Local 8 for almost a year was the building of the huge Linnwood Avenue Water Treatment Plant along the lakefront. The job provided much-needed employment for Local 8 men, and construction of the purification facility also resulted in a notable improvement in the quality of Milwaukee's drinking water.

Local 8 managed to weather the hard times of the Depression. Its Business Manager, Turk Mueller, who became legendary for his no-holds-barred negotiating style, even managed to win gradual increases in wages from the Building Trades Employers Association. By the time of the 1941 contract, structural and ornamental ironworkers were to be paid $1.50 per hour, rodmen $1.37.


Three-quarters of a rivet gang circa 1940.

Ironworkers and World War II

With the approach of World War II, the U.S. set about re-building its defense industries. This put many building tradesmen, including ironworkers, back to work. Many plants had to be converted from peacetime to wartime production. This involved the erection of new additions, generating stations, conveyor systems and storage facilities, as well as the installation of heavy equipment. Local 8 members worked on plant conversions for A.O. Smith, Cutler-Hammer, Ampco Metal, Bucyrus-Erie, Globe Union, Nordberg, Ladish, J.I. Case, Massey-Harris and other companies.

During World War II, Local 8 members also found work in Wisconsin's shipyards, from Sturgeon Bay to Manitowoc and south to Milwaukee and Kenosha. They helped to build and repair tugs, freighters, even some mine sweepers. Their skills as riggers were especially valued in the wartime shipyards, when lifts of major tonnage were very common.

Ironworkers International President P. J. Morrin was insistent that rigging jobs, especially in the navy yards, go only to qualified union ironworkers:

"This is an important branch of our trade as the nature of the work in the various government navy yards requires highly skilled riggers, especially in the placement of machinery, heavy guns and gun mounts, some of which run as high as 135 tons. On work of this kind it is absolutely necessary to use skilled riggers, not only for the safety of such machinery or equipment but for the men employed on such vessels."

Of course, members of Local 8 also served in all branches of the armed services, seeing action in both the European and Pacific theaters of war. Some ironworkers were especially recruited to serve in the "Seabees," the construction battalions whose job was to keep naval shipping and aviation facilities in fighting trim. For ironworkers who went to war, dues were suspended for the duration of their military service. They were welcomed home afterward as members in good standing.

Post-War Work and Wages

The immediate post-war years and the decades of the 1950s and '60s were generally good for the ironworkers of Local 8. Wages rose, work was plentiful, and new health and pension benefits were initiated.

Wage Rates: Pay rates had remained stagnant through the war years. The Labor Department's Wage Stabilization Board approved just one increase for ironworkers in 1944 and it was only 7. At the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, structural and ornamental ironworkers were making $1.50 per hour and rodmen were making $1.37. At the time of the German and Japanese surrenders, the pay rates were just $1.57 and $1.43, respectively.

But wage rates rose consistently over the next few years so that by 1950, all ironworkers (including rodmen, who had been paid at a lower rate) were making $2.35 per hour. In 1960 they made $3.67. By 1970, the hourly rate was $6.06. Ten years later, in 1980, the hourly wage was $11.36.


Rod work at Miller Brewing Block House, circa 1950.

Building Boom: The rationing of vital materials for the war effort had caused a lull in construction on the home front. After the war, the pent-up demand for housing and commercial properties was a boon to the building trades.

On November 30, 1948, Local 8 Business Manager Turk Mueller sent a letter to contractors informing them of a planned wage increase and asking that they submit a list of jobs already begun under current contractual provisions. The contractors' response gives us a snapshot of the kinds of work Local 8 men were engaged in at mid-century.

Projects in Milwaukee included: Deaconess Hospital, an addition to Schuster's on Mitchell Street, the diesel shop for the Milwaukee Road Railroad, the gymnasium at Whitefish Bay High School, a fermenting cellar and stock house for Schlitz, a new boiler house at Pabst, a Post Office branch on the south side, and a Wisconsin Telephone Co. building on N. 35th Street.

Outside of Milwaukee, jobs included a railroad trestle in Hartford, a power plant in Menasha, the Johnson Wax Tower and St. Catherine's High School in Racine, the Oak Street Bridge in Neenah, Winnebago State Hospital, a hydroelectric plant in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and sewage treatment plants in Waukesha and Fond du Lac.

Contractors employing Local 8 men included: Milwaukee Bridge, Badger Wire and Iron Works, Wisconsin Bridge and Iron, Atlas Iron and Wire Works, Capitol Erecting, John Hennes Trucking, Chilstrom Erecting, the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, Immel Construction out of Fond du Lac, Miller Erecting out of Racine, and C.R. Meyer & Sons out of Oshkosh.

Sports Venues: Among the biggest projects Local 8 ironworkers contributed to in the 1950s were the building of Wisconsin's great sports venues: County Stadium in Milwaukee to house the soon-to-be-world-champion Milwaukee Braves, and the now legendary Lambeau Field in Green Bay, home to the Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers. Local 8 members also built the Milwaukee and Brown County Arenas. Each of the these structures took several years to erect and employed hundreds of union workers.



At left is the new state-of-the-art (for that time!) Milwaukee County Stadium in 1953.

Pictured at right are roof trusses installed for the Brown County Arena in 1958.

In 1956, Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, establishing the wide-ranging Interstate system. Over the next 13 years, more than $30 billion was funneled into highway and bridge construction around the country. Local 8 ironworkers helped build the "I" system in Wisconsin, although the construction was burdened by jurisdictional disputes.

At the State AFL-CIO Building Trades Conference in 1959, Turk Mueller blasted the "big four" highway construction unions for bargaining what he called "lousy" wage rates for workers. The Carpenters, Teamsters, Laborers and Operating Engineers served on a joint committee that negotiated with the Wisconsin Road Builders Association. Mueller, and his successor, Earl "Red" Spicer, fought continuously to see that all bridge and structural work on the new highways was done by qualified ironworkers and properly recompensed.


Local 8 members helped build the famous horticultural domes
in Milwaukee's Mitchell Park in the 1960s.

The Struggle to Gain Benefits

Health and Pension Benefits: In the 1950s, membership in Local 8 soared to over 500. Considerable discussion had already taken place about establishing a health insurance plan for members. The details of a workable plan needed to be devised, and Local 8's Bargaining Committee had to obtain the agreement of the contractors, who were organized at that time into the Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA) of Milwaukee.

When negotiations began for the 1952 contract, Local 8's bargaining team sought a 15 increase in the hourly wage and the establishment of a Health and Welfare plan to be funded, initially, by an employer contribution of 5 per hour per worker. The BTEA was willing to grant only a 7 hourly wage increase and to discuss the future possibility of a health plan. Four other local unions in the Building Trades Council, representing operating engineers, laborers, cement finishers and truck drivers, also came to an impasse in their negotiations with the BTEA. With the membership's consent, Local 8 allied with these building trade unions and all five went out on strike on April 16, 1952.

The strike lasted for one month. For the ironworkers, it resulted in the BTEA agreeing to a wage increase of 9 per hour and the creation of a Health and Welfare Fund supported by the 5 per hour employer contribution. In the 1960s, that contribution rose to 10, then 15 and 25 - the increases being roughly commensurate with the rise in wages. The agreement stipulated that trustees from both the union and the contractors association were to oversee and administer the fund.

Ironworkers had worked hard to get it, and they were very glad to have the health and welfare benefit. The plan included general medical, hospitalization and disability coverage for themselves and their families. Many retirees who worked at that time recall how the health benefit kicked in at about the time they were newly married and having kids in the 1950s, so the hospital coverage was especially welcome. It also helped to cover the immediate costs of any injuries or illnesses.

Efforts by Local 8 leaders to win pension benefits were fueled by their commitment to provide better support for ironworker retirees in the future, but the Pension Fund took a little longer to institute.

In the mid-1950s, other building trades were also exploring the possibility of setting up pension funds. The solution ultimately devised was to establish the Building Trades United Pension Trust Fund, to be jointly managed by representatives of the building trades and the contractors. The Pension Fund, supported by employer contributions, was started in 1959. The first agreement required contractors to pay into the new fund 10 for each hour each member worked (up to 40 hours per week). Today, that contribution stands at $2.63 per hour.

The 1966 contract expanded benefits even further by initiating a Vacation Fund for Local 8 members. The Vacation Fund was operational for the next 20 years until being dissolved in the 1980s. By that time an Annuity Fund had been established.

A New Office: Since the earliest days of Local 8, the union had always rented space for its office and meeting hall. From about 1915 through the 1930s, Local 8 rented space in Brisbane Hall, the home of many Milwaukee unions, at 536 W. Juneau Ave. Then, Local 8 moved into offices in the Metropolitan Block Building at 1012 N. 3rd Street.

By 1962, with membership expanding and finances on a sound footing, Local 8 was able to purchase a building at 6225 W. Bluemound Road. The Bluemound Road office served as Local 8's headquarters until 1979.

Among the leaders of Local 8 who contributed to these advances were Robert A. Pilot, who was Business Manager from 1951-52, Earl Spicer, Assistant Business Agent under Turk Mueller, Bob Zimmerman, Robert Warren, Raymond Ross, Harold Johnson, Gust Damske, Ray Flynn, John Carney, Edward K. Preuss, Abel Revoir, James P. Hamill and, of course, Turk Mueller.


"Turk" Mueller (left) and "Red" Spicer, his successor as Business Manager,
at Mueller's retirement dinner in 1961. Photo courtesy of Gladys Spicer.

An era of Local 8 history passed in 1960 when Turk Mueller retired. In April of 1961, 500 people attended a testimonial dinner in his honor in the Crystal Ballroom of the Schroeder Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. Among the guests were ironworkers, officers from the International, and colleagues from many of the building trades, but there were contractors, politicians and community leaders as well.

Turk didn't disappoint. After listening to the tributes, he rose to acknowledge the speakers and declared: "There isn't anyone here that I haven't raked over the coals."

One old-timer recalled for this history that when Turk attended Milwaukee County Labor Council meetings, he insisted that everyone present show the union label on the clothes they were wearing. "You'd better be able to show those labels or you'd get a hell of a dressing down," he said. Others said Turk wasn't afraid to resort to fisticuffs to get his point across.

Some say his bluster and rough edges would probably not be acceptable in union leadership today, but there's no question that Turk Mueller, like Bill Reddin before him, fought for his members and built Local 8 into a bigger and stronger union.

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