Early Years of the Local
Unfortunately, we have no recorded minutes of union meetings going back to the formation of Local 208 on April 26, 1902. The earliest recorded minutes of official union meetings begin in August of 1913. These handwritten minutes appear in bound volumes on paper that is now sadly crumbling with the passage of time. Paging delicately through these volumes, we discovered a treasure chest of insights into the minds and actions of the founding brothers of the Local.
In the earliest recorded minutes, we immediately discover a common characteristic that carries through to the membership of today. This characteristic is rooted in the deep unity of purpose that pervades all meetings and official actions of the local. This unity of purpose represents a state of mind that goes beyond the preservation of the local and the interests of its membership.
Despite the fact that the Local’s treasury was almost empty at the time, this unity of purpose extended to the cares and concerns of other workers of the era.
From the minutes of October 28, 1913:
“Relief committee from the striking Mine Workers admitted to the floor to make an appeal for aid…. (motion follows, seconded and approved)….Motion carries that the Secretary draw a warrant for $5 to be paid to the Relief committee of the Mine Workers.”
The striking mineworkers at the time were engaged in a bitter strike in the southern coalfields of Colorado. They were living with their evicted families in tent colonies on property owned by the United Mine Workers of America. Less than six months after the mineworkers appealed to the pipefitters for aid and assistance, company thugs from the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I today) drenched the workers’ tents in oil. They proceeded to shoot rounds of rifle fire into the colony as they ignited the tents. When the carnage was over on April 20, 1914, nineteen unarmed men, women and children were murdered in their tents. This is the infamous “Ludlow Massacre.”
In the first Local 208 meeting following the Ludlow Massacre, the first order of business (after reading minutes) was a motion to send additional monies to the striking miners. The pipefitters didn’t need a visiting delegation of mineworkers- now attending funerals- to know that these workers and their families needed additional support to help them through their struggle.
Building a strong local union
Aside from supporting the needs of workers in other struggles, the early brothers of Local 208 were faced with a multitude of issues that needed to be addressed in their own local. Among the challenges Local 208 faced in the first two decades of its history:
- Jurisdictional issues: There were repeated calls for Local 208 members to not “infringe” on the jurisdiction of other crafts like the Iron Workers and Plumbers. In return, repeated requests went out to other trade unions to respect the jurisdictional work of the pipefitters. Advances in technology and materials often fueled these jurisdictional “discussions” among the crafts. In the early 1900s, new commercial and industrial buildings were beginning to use new piping insta llation techniques and materials that blurred the lines of jurisdiction among the crafts.
- Coordination of regional contract language: In addition to resolving jurisdictional issues with the UA affiliated Plumbers Local 3, the early brothers of Local 208 worked very closely with Local 3 to push for mutually beneficial contract provisions in agreements with area employers. Local 3, founded in 1877, has worked cooperatively with Local 208 since the birth of the pipefitter local in 1902. The two locals even established a joint Ladies Auxiliary on June 23, 1917.
- Membership Loans: In the early years, the treasury of Local 208 served as a virtual banking and lending institution to members in need. Interest free loans were routinely given to members to help them and their families through tough times. Many of these early members had no access to the lending institutions of the era.
- Wide administrative duties: The early brothers worked many hours on administrative functions and benefit assistance to the membership. There is abundant documentation pertaining to the pursuit of sick benefits for members from the UA and other entities. There were also numerous requests for collection of dues from other locals when a new member traveled to Denver for work. The early brothers were meticulous in making sure that members received what they were entitled to. Likewise, they insisted that members live up to their obligations. They were scrupulous stewards of the princ iples of union brotherhood and union responsibility. Fines were instituted for failure to attend at least one union meeting each month. Members were also routinely fined for failure to march in the Labor Day parade. (How and why did our locals abandon this behavior?).
- Assimilation of the local into the labor movement: The early brothers worked very diligently to assimilate the local into the overall labor movement in Colorado and beyond. They partic ipated in the Building and Trades Council (BTC) in the area and cooperated with other BTC unions on a wide number of fronts. Along with the BTC, Local 208 was constantly agitating for wage increases, health and safety improvements and other protections for workers in the building trades.
As one example of the commitment of the early brothers to the labor movement in Colorado, Local 208 invested some of the local’s funds to purchase stock in the “Labor Temple” back in October of 1916. The early brothers supported the mission of organized labor to build a large union hall for office space and meeting facilities. The Local also worked closely with the central labor council and state labor federation to help elect labor friendly politicians.
In addition to supporting the mineworkers in their struggle in southern Colorado, there are numerous examples of the Local’s financial, moral and logistical support to other unions during the early years and beyond. Local union records indicate that support in the early years was given to horseshoe fitters, plumbers, garment workers, painters, brewery workers, police, firemen, cigar makers and an assortment of other workers in time of need. From the birth of the local up to today, the Local’s legacy has been one of solid commitment to assist other unions in times of trouble.
The Good Years
Throughout the 1910s and the 1920s, the membership of Local 208 was busy working on a multitude of building projects in the Denver area. In general, it was a prosperous time for the pipefitting trades. Local members at this time worked on steam and hot water heating systems in a variety of commercial buildings. Refrigeration systems were also in high demand during the era. The brothers worked on heating and refrigeration systems in schools, churches, powerhouses and a variety of other buildings.
The early brothers were also instrumental in reducing diseases and other health problems by their important work building sewage, water delivery and water treatment facilities. Their work saved and improved many lives at a very important time when public health standards were rapidly on the rise.
The early brothers went to work in their derby hats and bow ties riding the streetcars of the era. The apprentices took an earlier streetcar to carry the tools and set up the equipment at the job site. The dapper journeymen arrived on a later streetcar to begin their work each day. These skilled craft workers took great pride in their work and their appearance, but they never lost sight of their place among other workers. When the streetcar workers went on strike, the brothers found alternative means of transportation to their worksites. Local 208 would fine members who crossed a picket line, but records reflect that this virtually never took place. The early brothers instinctively knew that it was their duty to support fellow workers in time of need. They considered themselves to be proud and loyal members of the great American working class. This identity and conviction hasn’t changed in one hundred years.
In October of 1929, the American economy simply and completely fell apart. The devastation to the incomes of pipefitters and other workers throughout the country was tragic. From 1929 to about 1935, construction projects throughout the country, including Denver, came to a virtual stop. The UA lost over 40% of its membership, and the national organization didn’t even hold national conventions between 1928 and 1935. Local union membership ranks and local union treasuries were depleted as well. Local 208 and Local 3 in Denver were no exceptions to this national catastrophe.
In preparation for a local union election in June of 1932, the Election Committee of Local 208 reported the following at the membership meeting of June 21, 1932:
“Due to the large amount of unemployment and the large numbers of members that have been borrowing stamps to keep themselves in good standing, the committee recommends that all members be allowed to vote in the election.”
There was no unemployment insurance at the time, and the membership was suffering. A motion was made and approved to accept the recommendations of the election committee. Since the local’s treasury was virtually empty, a subsequent motion was passed on June 21, 1932 to temporarily dispense with the office of Business Agent. The union’s organizing engine was shut down. It was a somber meeting in a sad and tragic time. The Local, like the country as a whole, could do nothing but wait for some type of recovery or assistance. It is a tribute to the brilliant leadership skills of Local 208 leadership at the time to simply state that they endured and kept the Local out of bankruptcy and disintegration.
Busting out and building again
By the late 1930s, some creative New Deal programs slowly began to give workers hope that there was light at the end of the terrible tunnel they found themselves in. Government programs like the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Projects Administration (WPA) helped soften the blow in the building trades. A good number of Local 208 members were put back to work under these government projects. They worked on projects like libraries, roads, dams, public housing units and a variety of other projects designed to pump money and jobs into a crippled economy. These were still tough and lean years for Local 208 members and other workers in the pipe trades.
The economic rebound didn’t really come into full fruition until the spending frenzy of World War II jolted the economy back into recovery. By the end of World War II, membership in the UA climbed to an impressive 210,000 members. This was a dramatic increase above the depression era demise of less than 35,000 members in 1928.
During the war years, two important factors served to fuel an era of prosperity for Local 208 members and other workers in the pipe trades. These were:
- The construction boom of the war economy.
- A landmark national agreement in 1941 between the UA and the National Construction Association. This agreement was largely responsible for increasing wages, improving conditions and elevating benefits in the pipe trades throughout the country. For Local 208 members who were not off fighting fascism abroad, this landmark agreement served to improve the lives of the membership working back home in the Denver area.
The brothers who were fighting fascism abroad were soon to return to the Denver area to share in the jobs and prosperity of the rapidly improved economy. It is important to note that a good number of Local 208 members served with distinction and honor in World War II. In fact, members of Local 208 served in every major conflict overseas since the founding of the local back in 1902 many Denver area pipe trade workers proudly fought overseas to help secure democracy at home and abroad.