History of Ironworkers Local 8, Part 3

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 Mackinac Bridge & Local 783

In the 1950s, members of Local 8 were among the many ironworkers who helped to construct one of the modern wonders of the world - the Mackinac Bridge. The 5-mile long suspension bridge crosses the Mackinac Straits, connecting the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. Construction took almost 3 years and involved 3,500 workers, many of them ironworkers from Michigan and Wisconsin.


Photos from the Michigan Department of Transportation at left and right show work in progress on the Mackinac Bridge, 1955-57.

"Mighty Mac," as it is often called, stands as one of the proudest accomplishments of ironworkers everywhere. Its construction led to the establishment of Ironworkers Local 783, which gained sole jurisdiction over the Upper Peninsula. Local 783 has its own proud history, but its fate was ultimately entwined with that of Local 8. In 1994, seeking strength in greater numbers, Local 783 merged into Local 8. But first things first.

The Story of Mighty Mac: Plans for building a bridge to cross the Straits of Mackinac went back to the 1880s. Such a span would significantly reduce travel times and costs for business and commercial interests as well as for average folks heading to private destinations. In the 1930s, the State of Michigan set up the Mackinac Bridge Authority to assess its feasibility. It wasn't until 1953 that the Authority was ready to proceed after issuing bonds worth more than $99 million to private investors.

Once the technical plans were laid and funding was secured, the massive project was ready to go. The Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corp. won a $25.7 million contract for foundation work, while the American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel was awarded a $44.5 million contract for erecting the superstructure. Foundation work began in May of 1954. The north and south towers were erected in 1955. The catwalks and cable went up in 1956. Roadway trusses were installed and decking was completed the following year, enabling the first traffic to cross the bridge on November 1, 1957.

Even today, statistics on the Mackinac Bridge are awesome. Its total length is 5 miles; the length of its steel superstructure is 3.6 miles. Its north and south towers rise 552 ft. above the water, while the tower piers extend as far as 210 ft. below water. It consists of 931,000 tons of concrete, 71,300 tons of structural steel and almost 12,000 tons of cable wire. The total length of cable wire used would stretch for 42,000 miles. Ironworkers drilled more than 4.8 million steel rivets and fastened more than one million steel bolts! "Mighty Mac" is indeed an engineering and construction wonder.


"Mighty Mac"

Local 783 History: When construction on the Mackinac Bridge began, jurisdiction of ironworkers in Michigan's Upper Peninsula was like a patchwork quilt. Local 563 out of Duluth controlled the western half of the U.P., Local 8 had jurisdiction in two southern counties, Locals 25, 340 and 426 controlled the eastern counties, and several other counties were "open" territory.

The International sent in General Organizer Robert V. Poole to oversee the interests of all ironworkers employed on the bridge. From his own observations and after consulting with local ironworkers, he concluded that the U.P. should be united under the jurisdiction of one local. Many men agreed. Ray Himebaugh worked closely with him to contact ironworkers throughout the U.P. to get the necessary signatures to obtain a new charter. Local 783 was officially established on November 22, 1957.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. It took some time before Duluth-based Local 563 conceded its jurisdiction to Local 783. And the recession of the late 1950s, which dried up jobs, challenged the financial viability of the fledgling local. But Local 783 survived those lean times and went on to represent ironworking "Yoopers" for 37 years.

Among the significant projects Local 783 worked on were power plants at Escanaba, Presque Isle and L'Anse; the Kinross and Sawyer air bases; the Houghton, Menomonie and International bridges; the Kinross, Baraga, and Munising prisons; and Lake View Arena and General Hospital in Marquette. They worked on the Soo Locks in Sault St. Marie, and many of the paper mills (Mead, Champion, etc.) and mines (White Pine Copper, Palmer, Tilden and Randville).


Work on the Groveland Mine in Randville, Michigan, 1963.

A combination of factors led to Local 783's merger with Local 8 in 1994. Longtime Business Manager John LaVallee explained that the smaller number of members (around 225 compared to 1,000 in Local 8) "made it more difficult to establish the kind of benefits and programs the men really deserved, especially good health care coverage. We felt we could accomplish more for our membership by combining forces with Local 8."

Like Local 8, Local 783 was a mixed local, with members trained and experienced in all aspects of ironwork. Both locals shared a common base of contractors and worked on similar projects for the paper and mining industries. Wisconsin ironworkers had worked in Upper Michigan and their northern brothers had worked jobs in Wisconsin. "We always had a good relationship with Local 8," LaVallee commented. "Members of both locals shared a strong work ethic too, so it seemed like a good fit, and I think it has been."

The 1970s and '80s

By the 1970s, conditions for ironworkers had improved dramatically from those their brothers had labored under in the first half of the century. Wages had risen consistently, health and pension benefits were in place, stricter safety measures were mandated and enforced, and apprenticeship standards had been strengthened.

Technological progress led to big improvements in equipment over the years. Advances in hydraulics increased crane capacities exponentially. Old-timers who spent much of their days unloading and hauling materials are especially happy to see cranes doing much of that work today. Electric power drills have largely replaced air drills. Mass production and use of high tension bolts has, for the most part, meant the end of the classic 4-man rivet gang. Rodmen today wear wire reels on the side of their belts rather than the cumbersome shoulder rolls of old.

Yet despite these changes, the basic hand tools of the trade remain the same. And of the work itself, Local 8 Business Agent Jim Jorgensen says: "Physically, it hasn't changed a bit. It's tough. There's nothing easy about iron work."

Safety Issues and OSHA: Safety issues have always been a prime concern for ironworkers. Local 8 contracts in the 1930s and '40s contained basic safety provisions. They called for proper planking of floors, the use of steel cable rather than chain or hemp slings, sufficient stiffening or support at load points, protection of signal devices, and elevator fall protection.

A simple but revolutionary safety measure - the hard hat - became standard work gear in the 1950s. The most common injuries ironworkers sustain are head injuries from falling loads or from falls off of platforms or equipment. As with any change, some workers at the time griped about having to wear the hard hat, but there is no question that it has dramatically reduced the number of deaths and head injuries among all workers on construction sites. Today, the hard hat has become a proud symbol of all workers in the construction trades.


Proud "Hard Hats" gather at the "topping out" ceremony
at Michigan Technical College in 1979.

With the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) by Congress in 1970, the federal government made a commitment to protect the safety and health of American workers. The agency's mission was to establish and enforce standards for safety and health in all areas of work.

OSHA convened a committee with representatives from the construction trades and the building contractors to develop safety standards for the steel erection industry. The rules they issued brought more far-reaching changes to ironworkers on the job, including the use of safety belts and harnesses at heights of over 25 feet, the increased use of hydraulic lifts ("man baskets") rather than floats (work platforms rigged to the structure), stiffer scaffolding requirements, and more guard railings along scaffolding and work sites.

(New, strengthened OSHA standards adopted in 2001 address continuing hazards related to crane safety, column stability, double connections, fall protection and worker exposure to overhead loads.)

OSHA also has an educational arm which provides safety training to workers around the country. All ironworkers in Local 8 take the OSHA course as part of their apprenticeship training.

Apprenticeships: Apprenticeship standards have risen over the years and Local 8 is justifiably proud of its Apprenticeship Training Program.

In the first half of the 1900s, an individual who wanted to become an ironworker - often the brother or son or nephew of ironworkers - came to Local 8's office to obtain a work permit. He was directed to take that permit to a contractor who was looking for help and willing to take on an apprentice, or a contractor wrote a letter to the union expressing a willingness to take on the prospect as an apprentice. The apprentice was then paid half of a journeyman's wages while he learned the trade alongside veteran ironworkers.

In the 1950s, a more formal apprenticeship system developed with the establishment of a Joint Apprenticeship Committee, made up of three representatives from Local 8 and three from the building contractors. (Today, the committee's make-up is 5/5.) Applicants who appeared before the committee were asked about their experience and skills and had to perform some exercises like tying knots. Once approved by the committee, they received their permit and were required to work at least 4,500 hours in a satisfactory manner before achieving journeyman's status. They had to pass an aptitude test and another oral interview before receiving their journeyman's book.

In the early 1970s the law changed and new apprentices were indentured through the state of Wisconsin, rather than through individual contractors. The amount of time and training to achieve journeyman status was increased. Each apprentice had to work for three years (and at least 6,000 hours) on the job and had to attend classes related to the trade. Currently that instruction time amounts to about 400 hours. Given that Local 8 is a "mixed" local whose members perform all aspects of the iron trade, the core curriculum, taught by longtime journeyman ironworkers, is based on three major units: structural ironwork, rod work and rigging. Classes include welding and related job skills as well as OSHA training.


All members of Local 8 are trained and certified as welders.

The greater emphasis on education and training is fueled, in part, by OSHA, according to Gil Toslek, Local 8's Apprenticeship Coordinator. He commented:

"Today, with all the safety aspects and the cranes and equipment and the millions of dollars worth of stuff that's used on job sites, worker's lives are in each other's hands. There's more pressure to improve everyone's training, not just the apprentices."

Indeed, even journeyman ironworkers take "refresher" courses from time to time, whether to learn about new equipment or to become familiar with new regulations. The apprenticeship and training program is funded today by a 30 per hour employer contribution.

Local 8 apprenticeships in Wisconsin are governed by the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards, part of the state's Department of Workforce Development. Apprenticeships in Local 8's territory in Upper Michigan are governed by the Bureau of Apprenticeship Training in the federal Department of Labor. This is just one of many bureaucratic challenges faced daily by the officers and staff of Local 8.

The first Apprenticeship Coordinator at Local 8 was Richard (Dick) Eyestone. Bob Haase took over in 1976 and held the position until 1995. Haase says he's especially proud of Local 8's welding program, which he estimates has turned out almost 1,000 certified welders over the years. Gil Toslek has held the reins since Bob's retirement.

Purchase of the Adler Lane Property: Most of the apprenticeship and advanced journeyman instruction takes place in Local 8's Apprenticeship Training Center, a facility that was remodeled on land purchased in West Allis in 1975 by the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee. In 1979, the deed was transferred to the Joint Apprenticeship and Advanced Journeyman Training Trust Fund which, in turn, sold half of the property to Local 8. The union had outgrown its office space at 62nd and Bluemound and officers had been planning to move to an expanded facility.

The Grand Opening of Local 8's latest headquarters took place in November of 1980. Ironworkers International Secretary Juel D. Drake sent a letter of congratulations, touting Local 8 for the careful financial management and planning that enabled it to make such a significant investment in its future.

Some of the officers of Local 8 who helped organize the purchase and move were Earl Spicer, Russ Pride, John R. Armstrong, Harold Schmidt, David J. Cross, and Bob Haase.

Russ Pride, who served as Business Agent under Business Managers Earl Spicer and Bob Zimmermann from 1968 on, was himself elected Business Manager after Red Spicer's retirement. Pride served as Local 8 Business Manager from 1978-86.

Fellow officers and union members give Pride credit for helping to establish Local 8's Annuity Fund, formally known as the Union Individual Account Retirement Fund, in 1978. This fund is proving to be a major supplement to the Pension Fund. Unlike the Pension Fund, which is a defined benefit that pays out a certain amount of money to each retiree every month, the annuity allows the retiree more freedom to manage his account, drawing out a lump sum, making occasional withdrawals, or letting it continue to grow. It's not an exaggeration to say that the retirees love it.

Pride is also respected for bringing Local 8 through the 5-year-long recession period during the Reagan years, when the construction industry was in the doldrums. Despite the economic downturn and unemployment among ironworkers, Pride and Local 8's Negotiating Committee were successful in winning consistent wage and benefit increases.

Reciprocity: Pride and others in Local 8 also championed the concept of reciprocity, the idea that "the money follows the man." Years ago, if a member of Local 8 worked in another ironworker local's territory, that local would retain any benefits the worker had accrued in its own trust funds. Because of this, a lot of old-timers lost out on benefits. Today, Local 8 respects reciprocity, so all benefits earned by Local 8 workers employed outside its geographical jurisdiction are sent back to Local 8. Likewise, ironworkers from outside Local 8's territory who work here have their benefits sent to their locals. It's an issue of fairness the International has endorsed and that Local 8 helped to usher in.

Building the Future

In the last three decades of the 20th century, Local 8 ironworkers continued to do what they do best - build the infrastructure of our communities.

Some of the big jobs included: expansion of Midtec Paper in Kimberly and Wisconsin Tissue Mills in Menasha; the Harbor (Hoan), North Ave. and Locust St. bridges in Milwaukee; the First Wisconsin Center and large office buildings at 100 E. and 411 E. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee; power plants at Pleasant Prairie, Port Washington, Point Beach and Oak Creek; and additions to and renovations at Allen Bradley, Ladish and American Motors in both Kenosha and Milwaukee.

Other projects involved new hospital buildings in Waukesha, West Allis, Menomonee Falls, Green Bay and Appleton; expansion of the Marinette County Courthouse; Earth Station 3, the satellite communications facility in Lake Geneva; Tower Drive Bridge in Green Bay (at right, under construction); rebar work for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District; and buildings on the campuses of the University of Wisconsin, Michigan Tech, Lawrence University, and St. Norbert and Alverno Colleges.

Contractors on these jobs have included Oscar J. Boldt Construction, C. R. Meyer, Price Erecting (a signatory to Local 8 contracts since 1915), Lunda Construction, Chilstrom Erecting, Oneida Erecting, Gundlach Champion, John Hennes Co., Interstate Erecting, Azco Inc., and C.D. Smith.

In 1970, Local 8 members were touted in the pages of The Ironworker for the "Rigging Job of the Year." The challenge involved lifting a 60 foot long, 260 ton nuclear reactor vessel 55 feet up then lowering it and placing it laterally through a 28x30 foot opening into its containment shell. That impressive job took place at the Point Beach nuclear plant.

In 1999, The Ironworker again recognized members of Local 8, who labored with ironworkers from Local 584 out of Oklahoma to complete Milwaukee's 1,221 foot high Digital Tower Complex, pictured at left. Recent or current projects employing many Local 8 members include the erection of Milwaukee's impressive new baseball stadium, Miller Park, with its awe-inspiring retractable roof. Members in Michigan's Upper Peninsula have been busy with maintenance on the Mackinac Bridge, now more than 40 years old. They've been replacing the traveler system under the roadway and repairing structural members. Meanwhile, in Green Bay, work has begun on the long-awaited renovation of Lambeau Field.

The tragic crane accident that took the lives of Local 8 ironworkers William DeGrave, Jerome Starr and Jeffrey Wischer at Miller Park in 1999 was a stark reminder to everyone of the dangers inherent in structural ironworking. Local 8 responded quickly by collecting money for the families of the fallen workers and by proposing legislation (along with Operating Engineers Local 139) called the Safe Building Act.

The Safe Building Act calls for the certification of operators and the licensing of ironworkers by the state of Wisconsin. Its purpose is to ensure that all individuals working as operators and ironworkers in Wisconsin are fully capable and skilled. If adopted by the state legislature, the Safe Building Act could become a model for other states and the nation.

Local 8 has always stepped forward to meet the needs of its members and the challenges of the industry. In 1989, in the wake of the economic recession, the membership approved creation of a Defense Fund to focus on market recovery. In 1995 and '96, three full-time organizers were hired to recruit non-union workers and contractors. In 1995, Local 8 had just 12 apprentices in training. Today, that number is about 180. Membership, as well as the number of signatory contractors, has increased. Although the robust economy of recent years contributed to those gains, there's no question that Local 8's investment in organizing efforts has been fruitful. Active membership in 2001 stands at about 950 members.

Throughout its history, Local 8 representatives have also been very vocal at International conventions, speaking up for the rank and file by introducing resolutions and debating issues on the floor. At the most recent convention in 1996, Local 8 was instrumental in getting the $1 per month per member organizing fund established within the International.

In 2001, as Local 8 celebrates its 100+ year anniversary, members enjoy a wage rate and benefits package that ironworkers at the turn of the 20th century - who earned just 35 per hour - could hardly imagine.

The total wage and benefits package for journeyman ironworkers in southeast Wisconsin in June of 2001 stands at $36.97 per hour. (In the Fox Valley area the total is $35.16, in Upper Michigan, $35.12 or $32.84 based on the cost of the project.) This includes contributions for health and welfare, pension, annuity account and apprenticeship and skill improvement. Each of these benefits and other advances in working conditions over the years came about through the concerted efforts of the officers and members of Local 8, standing together as one united union.

Such progress has meant new challenges, especially for the leadership. Business Manager Brent Emons notes that with all of the new benefits and funds and federal regulations, union leaders must be educated on a "mind-boggling" array of rules and procedures: ERISA laws, OSHA standards, unemployment and worker's compensation, the governance of trust funds, collective bargaining, Taft-Hartley provisions, jurisdictional disputes, contract language, and more.

"It's mind-boggling when you take an iron worker from the field and elect him to office. I don't think the average iron worker realizes how much you have to learn to protect the membership and, hopefully, increase their benefits. It's challenging at times, but it's also rewarding - working to do the best that you can for your members."

Jack Martino, Local 8's President for the past 18 years, is enthusiastic about recruiting new members and sees great opportunities for young people in ironworking.

"We offer them an opportunity with our apprenticeship program to be trained in a skilled trade, to work and earn money while they learn, to do interesting work and to be productive members of the community. You can make a decent living as an ironworker, be associated with a lot of nice people and do well for yourself."

Both Jack Martino and Brent Emons are confident that with the younger talent now emerging from the ranks, Local 8's tradition of hard work, fair play and strong leadership will carry on well into the next 100 years.


Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the officers, members and office staff of Ironworkers Local 8 in Milwaukee, Brillion and Marquette for their time, patience and assistance with the creation of this history. General Organizer George Cross and others at the International in Washington, DC lent valuable advice as well. Thanks also to the many retirees who spent time sharing their stories and adventures in ironworking. I regret that space did not permit the inclusion of many of their personal stories - some were funny, some heroic, and some too risqué to print!

Thank you, too, to all those individuals, contractors and archives who provided photos for this history, especially Price Erecting, John Hennes Trucking and Gundlach Champion. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Library, the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and the Michigan Department of Transportation were particularly helpful.

As I began my research, I was shocked to find no mention in any existing history books of Local 8, any of its colorful leaders, or its role in building so many of the extraordinary structures people seem to take for granted. In the short time I had, I did my best to compile a thorough overview of Local 8's achievements in the past 105 years. It is only a beginning. I hope this history will be revised and expanded in the future. The ironworkers of Local 8, who have literally built the infrastructures of whole communities in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, deserve their place in history.

J. Jamakaya
(414) 276-6935
writer@jamakaya.com

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