A History of Toledo's Iron Workers -- Local 55
Chartered on February 16, 1903, with 104 members. Initially chartered as a federal labor union, No. 8527, by the American Federation of Labor on June 25, 1900, and chartered as Local 55 after the International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Iron Workers of America affiliated with the American Federation of Labor in 1903.
A strike, although unsuccessful, against the non-union contractor, Bentley and Sons Company, in 1905 helped establish the new, aggressive union in Toledo and the arrival, in 1908, of William R. "Big Bill" Walters from Michigan helped stabilize the union and provide long term leadership for Local 55.
Throughout its history the members of Local 55 received assistance from the International Union, Toledo's Central Labor Union, and iron workers locals in Chicago and Cleveland, in the fight against non-union, open shop contractors and business associations who conducted "Rid Toledo of Unionism" campaigns while seeking to raise wages, reduce the hours of work, retain card carrying members, and "straighten up" jobs when other craft unions- such as carpenters, millwrights, lathers, and others -- tried to take iron work.
Building and Jobs
The earliest recorded Toledo job hiring union iron workers and paying the wage scale occurred in 1903 when the Illinois Steel Company constructed a cantilever bridge and two turntables at the Toledo Furnace Company.
Other early projects included viaducts for the Wabash Railroad, a bridge for the Toledo Railway and Terminal Company, the new Spitzer Building, the Ohio Building, bridges across and dock improvements on the Maumee River, and Toledo City Hall.
During World War I, iron workers participated in the conversion of Toledo industries, such as Willys Overland, to support the war and worked on a federal nitrate plant on Presque Isle, new refineries for Standard Oil Company, construction at Camp Perry, and City of Toledo projects such as the Broadway water pumping station.
1920s - Devilbiss and Central Catholic High Schools, Commodore Perry Hotel, Famous Players theater and commercial building, Paramount, Publix, and State theaters, Ohio Savings Bank and Trust Company, Toledo Blade building, and facilities at the Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Company and Edward Ford Plate Glass Company and worked on out of town facilities in Napoleon, Delphos, Lima, Bellefontaine, Kenton, Woodville, among many others.
The premier construction project for the members of Local 55 was the High Level or Anthony Wayne Bridge constructed between 1929 and 1931.
1930s - Ohio Saving and Trust Company building, additions to the Toledo Museum of Art, Bell Building, Factories Building, Toledo Public Library, Acme Power Plant, YMC, Central High School as well as new theaters, refining facilities for Standard Oil, Pure Oil, Sun Oil, and Gulf Oil, repair of the Fassett Street bridge, and coal dumpers for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in East Toledo.
1940s - Willys Overland, Libbey-Owens Ford, the Spicer Company, Argo Steel, Plaskon Steel Company, among others. A major project of the time started in 1946 and involved the removal two massive coals dumper cars and Hulett ore unloaders for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and New York Central Railroad and their relocation ten miles downriver to Lake Erie at the Lakefront Dock and Railroad Terminal followed by the construction of two new Hulette ore unloaders.
Pile Drivers and Shopmen
In 1916, Local 55 agreed to the organizing of pile drivers local, No. 180, but competition from a rival organization prompted the international union to change Local 55's designation to include the pile drivers. By April 1920, the international agreed to the transfer of pile drivers from iron worker locals to carpenter locals.
In July 1918, the international union chartered, with assistance from Local 55's business agent George Mentzer, a shopmen's local (No. 236) - comprising those "inside" workers who fabricated iron and steel products - at the Toledo Bridge and Crane Company. The local lasted only a year, but on October 25, 1937, the international union charter Local 499 with 23 members.
In 1903, Local 55's territorial jurisdiction included a sixty mile area around Toledo, but this caused problems with the Detroit local. Two years later Toledo's jurisdiction extended west from Toledo to the Indiana state line and north to the Michigan state line with Erie, Huron, Crawford and Morrow counties forming the eastern boundary and Union, Logan, Shelby, and Darke counties being the southern boundary.
In 1938, Lewanee and Monroe counties in Michigan came under Local 55's jurisdiction and in the 1940s jurisdiction issues with the Cleveland and Dayton locals were settled by agreement. Ultimately, Local 55's territorial jurisdiction came to be defined as the territory "which extends to the nearest outside local union" of the international union and Lewanne and Monroe counties in Michigan except where Local 55 had special agreements. With certain exceptions, Local 55's territorial jurisdiction includes Lucas, Wood, Hancock, Ottawa, Sandusky, Seneca, Fulton, Wyandotte, Putnam, Crawford, and Defiance counties in Ohio.
Local 55 established offices and operations at a variety of Toledo locations. Between 1903 and 1940, the members of Local 55 met at Phoenix Hall at 316 Cherry Street, where the Toledo Central Labor Union met; Rader's Hall; Painter's Hall; Swiss Hall; the Central Labor Union's Labor Temple at Michigan and Jefferson; 308 Orange Street; in East Toledo at the Weber Building, 524 Front Street and at 136 Euclid Street; returned to the Central Labor Union headquarters and 222 Cherry Street; and at 415 1/2 Michigan Avenue. In 1941, the local centralized its operations at the Labor Temple at 912 Adams Street. The local moved to its own office building, day hall, and training center in 1976, after purchasing the research and development building of the Haughton Elevator Company at 1080 Atlantic Avenue, in 1974.
The Dangerous Trade
Death and accidents seemed ever present on iron work. Between 1911 and 1956, 68 members of Local 55 died - 20 of the deaths coming from-on-the-job falls, electrocutions, and accidents. Countless injuries - broken ribs, hands and legs, sprained ankles, broken pelvises, back injuries, and eye injuries went with the work. Like many locals, the members of Local 55 used, over the years, temporary or permanent assessments or collection slips, to help a sick or injured workers. The first attempt to establish a permanent sick and accident fund for local members occurred in 1937. In the 1940s, for six months, the local established such a fund, but the members did not continue it. In 1949, Local 55 adopted the insurance plan of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company.
Iron worker wages ranged from 40 to 50 cents an hour during the early 1900s and rose to a high of $1.37 1/2 for structural iron work before dropping to $1.05 during the depression of the 1930s. As the nation and local entered periods of prosperity and growth between 1940 and 1967 wages rose for structural and ornamental iron workers and rodmen o $3.40 and $3.29 1/2 in 1956. In 1952, Local 55 successfully negotiated an agreement whereby local contractors started contribution to the health and welfare fund. By 1970, iron worker wages reached $7.97, rose to $15.26 in 1980, and reached $20.88 in 1990. On the eve of a new contract, iron worker hourly wage rates reached $24.15 in 2002.
For almost forty years an aspiring iron worker, usually a member's relative or someone recommended by a contractor, learned iron work from a journeyman. After gaining experience, the apprentice appeared before a local examining board and if judge qualified received a journeyman's card.
After the federal government passed the National Apprenticeship Law in 1937, the international iron worker's union endorsed a formal apprenticeship program and presented its first written standards in 1940. Local 55 responded to this effort by starting a welding school for a few months until March 1942. In 1953, Local 55 and Toledo contractors established the Toledo Joint Apprenticeship Committee. In 1956, The Bridgemen's Magazine featured Local 55's apprenticeship program.
Toledo Today - Toledo Tomorrow
Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, Local 55 iron workers helped change Toledo's landscape and skyline - building shopping plazas and malls, schools, expressways, bridges, housing projects, transportation terminals, and office buildings. A selective list of buildings and projects includes the Federal Building, Owens-Illinois FiberglassTower, Bay Shore Station, Davis-Bessie Nuclear Power Plant, Medical College of Ohio, Regional Criminal Justice Center, Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, Summit Center, Fifth Third Field, Radisson Hotel, the School of Art and Business Administration buildings at Bowling Green State University, Dana World Headquarters, Lucas County Juvenile Center, Burlington Air Express, Visual Arts Center at the Toledo Museum of Art, the Valentine Theater.
As the men and women of Local 55 celebrate the 100th anniversary of the union, it seems fitting that they are participating in the construction of the largest single project -- the new 8,800 foot long, 120 foot high Maumee River crossing - undertaken by the Ohio Department of Transportation, including several contractors and the bridge builder, the FRU-CON Construction Company.