Forming a Union

In Chicago, in the mid-1880’s, innovations in building design, in materials used and in the awareness of laboring groups to form themselves into self-interest organizations inter-acted together to become the nucleus of a construction history that would be felt around the world.

The design of bridges, their new materials and the men that built them joined to become the most dramatic and far-reaching development that ever occurred in construction and social history: “Bridgemen” became Ironworkers, timber was replaced by steel and bridge designer William LeBaron Jenney introduced a bold new design that transferred bridge-building techniques to multi-storied building which became known as “Skyscrapers”. Jenney’s first example of his new structural design was for the Home Insurance Building built in 1884-85 in downtown Chicago at the corner of LaSalle and Monroe Streets.

“WE’RE KILLED, BUT WE SELDOM EVER DIE”

The above was the motto of a group of some 20 men in the early 1880’s working the new iron construction who formed The Bridge Builder’s Mutual Association, interested in giving each other a decent burial in the event of death on the job, and supporting each other in times of sickness or injury. For about 20 cents an hour, ten hours a day, six or seven days a week in all weather, these Ironworkers expected a work life of 10 years before death or crippling injury.

At this time the new demand for structural Ironworkers caused many former bridgemen to join since they would employ essentially the same skills as they had on wooden bridges. In 1890, this group became known as the Bridge and Construction Men’s Union.

One of these men, George W. Geary, who later became known as the “Father of the Ironworkers” stated:

“A state charter was procured and we sailed out in the waters of Trade Unionism, determined to protect the rights of each member of the craft, do justice to the employers and control the industry”.

In 1892, the Bridge and Construction Men’s Union and another organization called the Architectural Iron Workers, whose members worked both in the shops and the construction sites combined to form the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. Today’s Local One is an outgrowth of that 1892 founding.

In 1896, Delegates from Chicago, Buffalo, New York City, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Boston met in Pittsburgh and formed the International Association of Bridge and Structural Ironworkers of America. The Chicago delegates were P. J. Dalton, George W. Geary and James G. Crowley. A lottery was held to determine which Local would be known by which number. Chicago drew number (1) One.