Looking Backwards, 1888-1970

Union sheet metal workers take pride in their craft—and they’re not afraid to show it. “We’re the only trade that fabricates what we install,” a distinction that makes them “the most highly skilled craft in the whole building industry.” Their fittings are “all laid out from a flat piece of metal,” they explain. “Each piece is cut, each piece is laid out, each piece is figured before it’s even bent or rolled or shaped. So a sheet metal worker” is an artist, they boast, as well as a mechanic.

The range of their work is impressive. They erect gleaming copper domes and towering cathedral steeples. They design and install complex, and increasingly “green” and “clean” HVAC systems. They program and operate computerized metalworking equipment and cut, drill, and form parts with computer-controlled saws, lasers, shears, and presses. They do precision welding at power plants, stainless-steel work in commercial kitchens, and even maintain the glittering New Year’s Eve ball that drops every year in Manhattan’s Times Square. Sheet metal workers are employed in railroad shops and shipyards, in manufacturing plants, production shops, and on construction sites. They fabricate and erect signs and billboards. They do retrofit work, service work, and test, balance, and maintain systems they install. They work as estimators, project managers, and detailers who use the latest building-information-modeling software to generate “smart” building plans. “There’s so many facets to sheet metal work,” one retiree noted, “that if you have any kind of mind at all, you can use it and enjoy your work.”

Proud of the skill they bring to the job, and the training opportunities that make it all possible, union sheet metal workers are also proud to be employed on some of the largest, most demanding jobs around—what one journeyman called “complex, long-term, high-dollar builds . . . that only a handful of companies . . . [can] even man properly, let alone run.” But that pride doesn’t come easily—it is earned on the job every day, as one long-time union leader explained. “Sheet metal workers work hard,” he said. “If they don’t work hard, they don’t work. It’s a fact of life,” one that was as true in 1888, when sheet metal workers first established an international union—the Tin, Sheet Iron, and Cornice Workers’ International Association—as it is today. In those early days, though, ten or even twelve hour days set the standard, and safety issues were rarely discussed. In fact, in Chicago, where skyscrapers were just beginning to rise, it was not unusual to look up and see a tin roofer “clinging to swinging scaffolds high . . . above stone pavement,” as one newspaper reported, “or hanging on with one hand to a . . . cornice while he works with the other.” Worse, this dangerous job was hardly well paid. “Our employers figure our time so closely,” one roofer explained, “that I believe if a man should fall . . . to the street he would be docked for the time he occupied in falling.”

No wonder these workers in the U.S. and Canada were putting down their tools and organizing local unions. And no wonder the local leaders who launched the International Association (or IA) limited membership to bona fide craftsmen who had served an apprenticeship. These union pioneers wanted to be more than industrial “hands.” They wanted to be recognized as valuable partners in the industry. By forging a network of versatile and valuable mechanics, ready, willing, and able to support each other in a fight, the IA intended to push wages up, cut hours down, and improve working conditions in urban and rural markets alike.

At first, progress seemed inevitable. By 1890 (the year the union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor), the IA represented some 2000 journeymen in thirty locals, and within two years that number had doubled. Better yet, almost every local union had won the 9-hour day and raised wages to around $2.50 a day, a fair rate at the time. “Everything was harmonious, all working together for the common good,” the IA’s first general president, Archibald Barnes, remembered those early years. And so he predicted “a bright future” for the new organization—as long as the membership focused on improving conditions, assisting brothers in distress, and resolving industrial conflicts through arbitration, not strikes. “Build up a union . . . then see what can be done in the line of hours and wages,” he counseled. “Experience proves that with thorough organization and just demands, no strike will ever be necessary.”

Yet the road to industrial justice proved far rockier than Barnes expected. In the 1890s employers were more likely to lock out union workers and blacklist organizers than welcome them as industrial partners—and they often relied on armed guards in order to get their point across. “We were called ‘Socialist’ and ‘Anarchist,’ in those days,” a local leader explained. “When one of our members was progressive, he lost his job . . . or sometimes the employers would . . . fine . . . any[one] who would hire a certain union member,” thereby forcing that member to leave town. “ The first members were considered outlaws, and an organizer might as well have been Satan himself,” another leader recalled. “It was well nigh impossible [for an organizer] to get into the shops,” a situation that would not change significantly until 1935, when the Wagner Act finally legalized labor’s right to organize.
In the meantime, only the most aggressive, economically-valuable, and well-organized local unions would survive, a fact that got in the way of “thorough” organization. Local unions strong enough to be effective in the dog-eat-dog world of competitive industry were usually protective, too—that is, they fought hard to win the best wages and conditions for local members, and they fought equally hard to “build a wall” around their territory to keep others out.

From the local union’s point of view, this defensive strategy made sense. With no full-time organizers, no legal rights, and nothing but their own determination to stand together in a fight, local members sacrificed time, money, and very often their family’s security to build an organization strong enough to raise standards. So they were not about to share their work or good conditions with outsiders, whether those outsiders were union brothers or not. From the IA’s point of view, however, even the strongest local union was not strong enough if workers just beyond its boundaries remained unorganized and available to replace local members in a strike.

The fact that new technologies, new materials, and new employees were changing the nature of sheet metal work also got in the way of “thorough” organization. Thanks to the introduction of steam-powered presses, lathes, and wheeling machines, household goods, cutlery, and cans were now mass produced in factories, not hand-crafted in the tinsmith’s shop—and factory hands were not eligible for union membership. A similar change was underway in the sheet iron branch of the trade. On the one hand, the introduction of galvanized sheet iron created new opportunities for journeymen who fabricated and installed roofs, cornices, skylights, and ceilings, as well as warm air furnaces and ventilation pipe. On the other, the introduction of labor-saving machinery, including sheet iron folders, or brakes, and cutting, rolling, and seaming machines, opened the door to a new class of workmen: semi-skilled specialists who produced materials for the trade. Because these workers had not completed an apprenticeship, they were not eligible for union membership.
If the Tin, Sheet Iron, and Cornice Workers intended to control the trade, these new workers would have to be organized, a move the membership accepted in 1896. “Realizing the tendency of our progressive age, where modern machinery simplifies nearly all the crafts, and to a great extent makes apprenticeship unnecessary,” the IA reported, “the constitution of the tinners has been changed so as to admit all who work at sheet metal work into their unions. . . . Henceforth, the Tin, Sheet Iron, and Cornice Workers’ International Association . . . will . . . be known as the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association.”

Conflict and Compromise

Almost a century later the IA would celebrate this change as a remarkable sign of trade unity. At the time, though, unity was in short supply. It was one thing to broaden membership categories, another to harness the economic power of a diverse group of workers when some were more powerful than others. Members employed in the building trades, for instance, were in a better economic position to enforce the 8-hour day than those employed in factories or furnace shops.

Conflict between rural and urban locals also threatened unity. Because work was scarce in the countryside, members of small rural locals expected their busy urban brothers to welcome travelers, so they favored a low dues, low initiation fee policy. But big city locals had a different plan. They favored high dues and high initiation fees to support full-time business agents who policed union jobs and enforced union contracts—and they required travelers to pay their way if they wanted to enjoy these benefits. Ultimately these conflicting policies severely tested the IA’s notions of “brotherhood.”

In theory, the IA existed to balance strong and weak local unions. Per capita taxes would defray organizing costs; general assessments would finance strike benefit payments; and urban and rural “brothers” would share the wealth. Yet reality proved quite different. Although general vice presidents were elected to serve as organizers, their opportunities were limited since they still worked full time with the tools. And while strike benefits were designed to help locals in distress, those benefits were also limited, since the IA had no power to enforce the assessments that financed them. “It is very embarrassing, indeed,” General President Henry Brauch admitted, “but what can the IA do?”—a position that hardly satisfied local unions in need. “We cannot live on promises,” one leader wrote in the midst of a strike for the 8-hour day. If the IA could not enforce its laws and provide practical help, what was the point of joining the organization?

How to resolve these differences and establish the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers in fact as well as in name was a major question in the late 1890s—one that would eventually led to secession (when big city locals decided to go it alone), civil war (when those locals organized a rival IA), and reconstruction (when both groups formed the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers International Alliance in 1903). The peace treaty that saved the union was based on the concept of local autonomy. Big-city locals would maintain their right to set policies and membership fees “to suit their surroundings,” a compromise that reflected economic reality at the time. The fact was the IA needed big-city locals more than those locals needed the IA. And as long as they were able to control their work, they expected the IA to stay out of their way.

With that battle decided, other changes were underway. Over the next few years, the general president would become a full-time, salaried officer/organizer; IA staff would include a full-time general organizer and at least four special organizers; district councils would be set up wherever they were needed to settle local disputes; and the IA would reserve the right to amalgamate (or merge) local unions when necessary. Now per capita taxes, not local assessments, would finance a strike defense fund, and a formal dues stamp system would be implemented to protect the membership—and the IA—from careless or corrupt financial secretaries.

The next few years would also see a shift in union ranks. In 1906, the Coppersmiths’ International Union, whose jurisdiction included the fabrication and installation of sheet metal pipes, vats and tanks, joined the IA. Around the same time, railroad shop workers were also becoming an important new membership group. But can makers and other low-wage factory workers, did not fare so well, despite the IA’s effort to organize “provisional” locals that charged lower dues and initiation fees. Although twelve provisional locals would be launched in 1918, only one was still in business by 1924. Employer hostility, seasonal employment, and especially the unskilled nature of the work made it almost impossible to hold these unions together.
In the meantime, though, shipyard workers had come into the IA, around the time of the First World War, and by 1924 so had independent unions of chandelier, brass ,and metal workers. Now representing 75 percent of the U.S. and Canadian skilled sheet metal work force, or about 26,000 members in 1924, the IA was ready to adopt what one member called a “more up-to-date, progressive name”: the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association.

The Industry Expands

With a new name, an updated structure, and a more diverse membership, the IA was ready to move forward in the 1920s. But no one expected smooth sailing. Railroad shop workers were recovering from their disastrous 1922 national strike. Building trades workers were embroiled in a costly jurisdictional war with the Carpenters to install metal doors, window sashes, and trim (that had once been made of wood). Canadian workers were battling more radical unionists in the One Big Union movement. And employers were taking advantage of a recent economic recession to advance what they called the “American Plan”—the latest incarnation of the open-shop movement.

But the 1920s also marked the beginning of an industrial shift for the sheet metal trade when Willis Carrier sold his invention for air-conditioning to movie-theater operators in 1922. By 1925 the system was cooling New York City’s Rivoli Theater, and within a few years air conditioners were being installed in restaurants, railroad cars, and department stores.
“At the beginning, they were all small jobs,” according to Edward F. Carlough, a member of New York City’s Local 28 who would go on to serve the IA as general secretary-treasurer (1951-59) and general president (1959-1970). They were custom-designed, custom-manufactured, field-installed systems, with most of the assembly and erection of components done on site. “The firm I happened to be working for got a share of restaurants and theaters, so I went through the whole line of air conditioning, learning the . . . business, which was a salvation to the sheet metal industry at the time,” he said. This new branch of the trade not only put union members to work. It gave sheet metal workers, the only trade that could take a flat piece of metal and lay it out “in elbows and double elbows, and fittings,” an opportunity to prove that they were “one of the finest, if not THE finest of any craft” in the building trades, said Carlough.

But new work opportunities were only the starting place as far as Carlough was concerned. In fact, as proud as he was of his craft, the young mechanic was still very dissatisfied with certain conditions—or the lack of them. “I didn’t like that we had no pensions . . . in our local unions,” he said. “I ran some of the biggest jobs that came into New York City,” including Radio City Music Hall, part of a $250,000,000 project that began going up in 1930, right at the start of the Great Depression. At a time when so many others walked the streets unemployed, Carlough was relieved to be working on such a high-level job. But he could not help wondering how his family would fare once he was too old to climb scaffolds, a worry that stayed with Carlough throughout these dark years.

“It was trying times,” he remembered. Almost half of New York City’s 250 sheet metal shops had shut down, so there was “very little work at the time,” a complaint that would be echoed all over the U.S. and Canada. Expenditures for the construction industry dropped by 50% between 1930 and 1932; 35% of building trades workers were unemployed by 1935; and the IA was cutting expenses in order to survive. IA salaries were cut 25% between 1933 and 1936, and another 10% in 1937, and publication of the monthly Journal was suspended in 1933 in favor of financing the death benefit fund.

Sadly, it took the outbreak of the Second World War to revive the economy and put union members back to work. Sheet metal workers were employed in navy yards, airfields, and on railroads. They played crucial roles in defense-related construction, including top-secret projects at Oak Ridge, TN, Hanford, WA, and Los Alamos, NM, where the atomic bomb was in development. They served in the military, often as members of the Seabees, the Naval Construction Battalions, and fought to protect the military installations they built. The fact that SMWIA membership more than doubled between 1938 and 1946—from 24,372 to 52, 932—reflected the vast expansion of sheet metal work during the war.
And once the war was safely over, these work opportunities continued to grow.

Indeed, the 1950s proved to be exciting but critical years for highly skilled sheet metal workers. With the revival of industry and the expansion of defense-related construction, they were busier than ever erecting metal roofing, decking, and siding; installing all types of chutes, hoppers, fans, blowers, pipes, and fittings; erecting sheet metal aircraft hangers, garages, and service stations; performing copper work in breweries and railroad cars; and fabricating and assembling wind tunnels and missile and propulsion systems.
At the same time, air-conditioning was becoming a necessity, not a luxury, in commercial, industrial, and residential structures, making sheet metal workers an “indispensable factor” in the building and construction industry. This was all “heavy, heavy, construction work,” as one member put it, that generated hours and hours of fabrication time. “We were making duct work,” a member explained, but “we would also make the dampers that had to go into the system. . . . We would make galvanized louvers and things like that. We’d make the entire job.” And that was a boon to journeymen and employers alike: because construction work was seasonal, fabrication work kept shops busy throughout the year. When winter weather put a stop to “outside work,” for instance, journeymen could spend their time “inside” fabricating products like roof ventilators and louvers. “We put them in stock,” a journeyman explained. “So when a job would be available we would have them already made. That used to be our winter’s work,” he added. “If we had not fabricated, we would have lost a lot more time than we did.”

Organizing Production Workers

At the same time, though, large-scale sheet metal companies were taking over this work. For instance, Burt Manufacturing, in Akron, OH, produced prefabricated roof-top ventilators that were cheaper to install because they were cheaper to produce: Burt’s shop employees did not earn building-trades wages. Traditionally, in such situations, “outside” workers would refuse to handle such products, a strategy that forced contractors to deal with union firms only, and one that members of Akron’s Local 70 promptly employed in 1945. But that strategy proved risky after 1947 when the Taft-Hartley Act outlawed secondary boycotts. To complicate matters, Burt’s shop workers were members of the United Steel Workers, an industrial union affiliated with the CIO. When the AFL and CIO made plans to merge in 1955, Edward F. Carlough, for one, strongly protested. He feared that the Steel Workers would win this, and other, jurisdictional fights and push sheet metal journeymen out of fabrication work.

The case dragged on through the 1950s and was not decided until 1960, in the Steel Workers’ favor. By that time, though, the IA had developed a more promising strategy: in 1954 General President Robert Byron assigned Edward F. Carlough to assist a newly-appointed organizing committee and “do the job we are expected to do,” that is “organize the unorganized within the jurisdiction of the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association.” The plan made sense to Carlough. “We erect every fan that goes into our business. . . . So I started saying ‘Why can’t we make them, too?’” a question he raised at the 1955 Business Agents’ meeting. “I got up in front of . . . 400 people,” he remembered, “and I told them the story about what we have to do to try and consolidate our whole industry [and] not leave other people to do our work.”

Within a year the membership had agreed to finance a 2-year national organizing campaign to charter new production locals that would “in no way interfere with or infringe upon the work performed by members of construction locals,” Carlough promised. Manufacturers of fans, blowers, and air-conditioning and heating units of all kinds, as well as hospital equipment, metal furniture, and water and oil tanks, would be organized on a production shop basis. Manufacturers of dampers, electrical boxes, louvers, ventilators, radiator enclosures, and kitchen equipment would be organized on an industrial or construction shop basis—and paid building trades rates. With a new Organizing Department ready to go in 1956—the most important undertaking in the history of the International so far, according to Carlough—the SMWIA began organizing the industry “like it should be organized,” he said. Thanks to new shop workers, IA membership grew from almost 88,000 in 1954, to more than 102,000 in 1958, to 111,000 in 1962, a 26% increase in less than 10 years’ time.

The Rise of the Business Round Table

However, building trades locals did not follow suit. Whether they were hardened by the boom-and-bust cycles of the construction industry or the tough fights to win middle-class wages and benefits, they were no more inclined to “organize thoroughly” in the 1950s and 60s, when work was plentiful, than big-city unions had been when the IA first started out.
From their point of view, it made no sense to open doors to new members who would then compete with longtime members for work when times got tough again. So they tended to limit apprenticeship training to family members and friends, a practice that strengthened local ties in times of trouble. After all, members were more likely to walk off a good job or pay dues and assessments when it was all in the family. “The union was stronger in those days,” a journeyman who came up in the 1950s remembered. “Most of the members were committed to the union first and foremost.” Another, who came up a few years later, agreed. “My father was a sheet metal worker, two of my brothers are sheet metal workers, so I grew up in a culture of the building trades,” he said. In his neighborhood, all of the trades—plasters, carpenters, pipe fitters, sheet metal workers –tended to respect each other’s work jurisdiction and would never dream of crossing a picket line.

Yet the same ties that empowered local unions on the job site and in the community were slowly but surely weakening their strength in the industry. First, exclusive local unions lost public and political support, in the 1960s and 70s, because “outsiders” (including African-Americans, women, and other minority groups) had no access to apprenticeship training or well-paid union jobs. Second, a series of militant and successful strikes around the same time ultimately priced union construction out of the market, at least as far as private industry was concerned. Fed up with time lost to work stoppages—that numbered almost a thousand a year between 1966 and 1969—and fearful that rising building-trades rates would trigger a rise in manufacturing wages, major corporations, national contractors, and construction industry executives decided to take action. In 1969, they launched the Construction Users Anti-Inflation Roundtable (which merged with the Business Round Table in 1972), intending to undermine local union power, increase productivity, control wage rates, and ultimately break the union’s hold on apprenticeship training and skilled manpower.

Worse, they planned to achieve their goal by promoting nonunion or so-called “merit” construction. That strategy was more promising in the 1970s than ever before, thanks to the availability of a wide range of prefabricated materials, new labor-saving technologies, and a steady supply of semi-skilled workers who had been shut out of unions for years. The fact that the post-war construction boom had collapsed in 1973 also boosted nonunion chances—skilled journeymen with mortgages to pay and families to feed did what they had to do to survive; that is, they provided the skilled manpower that nonunion firms had lacked in the past. Now engineering and construction firms like Brown & Root and Daniels Construction, that had gotten their start in the nonunion South, were outbidding union contractors “no matter how well established,” as IA General Vice President Frank Bonadio reported in 1973.

For men like Edward F. Carlough, who came up at time when there was no substitute for skilled union labor, this development was hard to believe. A strong defender of craft union principles and jurisdiction rights, a staunch supporter of joint apprenticeship training programs, and a firm believer in middle-class living standards for working-class mechanics—including health, welfare, and pension benefits—his experiences in the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the post-war expansion of the sheet metal industry had shaped his priorities and tempered his leadership. But now that the game—and the players—had decisively changed, he decided that he was not the right man to lead a new generation of sheet metal workers through the current crisis.

Instead he recommended that his son, Edward J. Carlough, chart a new course for the union. Organizing director since 1960, young Carlough had proven to be fearless in the field and tireless in the office, setting high standards for well-organized, aggressive campaigns that brought large manufacturers like Carrier and GE-Hot Point into the SMWIA fold. In fact, when he took over as General President in 1970, the union counted over 150,000 members—a 35% increase since 1962.

With long hair and “mod” clothes, as the Washington Post reported, Edward J. Carlough was closer in age to the membership than he was to other building trades leaders. In fact, at age 37, he was one of the youngest union presidents around. But that was an asset, as far as he could see, and proof that the IA was determined to change with the times. “I’m not going to minimize the problems that . . . all of us have to face,” he told delegates to the 1970 convention, “problems in organizing, in jurisdiction, problems with the government, the problems of change, which I think is going to be particularly difficult in the days ahead. . . . We not only have to educate [our members] in the skills of the trade,” he said, “we have to educate their hearts and their minds in the feeling of the trade union movement and our union in particular.”

And that’s what Carlough set out to do. A visionary when it came to developing programs and policies, he was determined to improve training, cut crew costs without cutting wage rates, and generally make the union more valuable to the members and the members more valuable to the industry. But as he and the IA leaders who followed him—Arthur Moore, Michael Sullivan, and Joseph Nigro—would learn over time, defeating nonunion competition requires change from the bottom up as well as the top down.
If the SMWIA hoped to move forward in the future, it would have to resolve some longstanding issues that were as old as the union itself: the conflict between local union autonomy and IA authority; the reluctance of some local unions and contractors to grow the membership and expand their business; the difficulty of keeping up with an ever-changing social, technological, and political world; and the pressing economic requirement to demonstrate every day that well-trained, well-paid, productive SMWIA members add value to the job.
Follow the year-long commemoration of the anniversary at SMART125.com.

Scroll to Top