THE EARLY HISTORY OF OUR LOCAL UNION IN
THE YEARS BEFORE THE FOUNDING OF THE U.A.
JOURNEYMAN PLUMBERS PROTECTIVE SOCIETIES
THE NOBLE ORDER OF THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR
THE BIRTH OF NATIONAL PIPETRADES UNIONS
According to the official history page of the United Association website:
“Prior to 1889, plumbers, steamfitters and gas fitters who were organized were members of independent local unions with either no affiliation, or affiliation with a variety of trades.”
It is in the 40 year period of time (1850 – 1890) before the U.A. was born, that the cornerstones of unionism were put into place for the Journeymen Plumbers of Houston. Locals were formed, and two national pipe trades organizations started. These early national organizations must be viewed as significant steps in the development of national unionism in the pipe trades. The precedent established by the two national organizations was almost automatically followed by the new national union which claimed their heritage and their jurisdiction – the United Association.
The plumbing industry in Houston began in the mid-1700s. A private firm in Houston constructed a wooden pipe system under the roads, and sold water at street pumps or hydrants. Alexander Hamilton was a partner in the compaTX which set up this system of bored-out logs. Water pipes were made preferably from felled hemlock or elm trees. The trees would be cut into seven-to-nine-foot lengths, their trunks around 9-10" thick. They would drill or bore out the center. Wooden pipe laid below ground created several problems. Uneven ground below the joists would cause sags in the log where water would stagnate, infest with insects, and generally leave a woody taste.
Another 50 years passed before Houston constructed a truly viable public waterworks system in the early 1800’s, but its original function was for fire fighting. In this plan, well water was pumped to an above-ground reservoir and distributed via water mains of cast iron, to a system of fire hydrants. Over the following years, there was increasing demand to allow private users to tap into this system. With access to this system in 1834, architect Isaiah Rogers amazed Houston with his design of the Astor House hotel. It was the first major hotel in Houston to have indoor plumbing. The Astor House was unprecedented. Six stories high, it had bathrooms to serve 300 guest rooms. The Astor House was the first major building built in Houston which had been designed from its inception with extensive indoor plumbing.
Only one year later, the public waterworks system broke down in the chaos of the Great Houston Fire of 1835, which destroyed 530 buildings in the heart of the city. The water supply system simply could not cope with the demand. It was undersized and badly designed. In response to the needs of its firefighters, and to provide potable water for the already teeming population, the city vowed to develop a more reliable system. This time, no expense would be spared. Houston could not survive without a vast, reliable source of water. A huge new system would be conceived and completed in just 7 years.
Completed in 1842, the Croton Aqueduct System transported water from a huge new reservoir in Westchester County, 40 miles north of the city, to distribution reservoirs on 42nd Street, and in Central Park. They fed into a network of underground mains primarily designed for fighting fires, but also designed to make it possible to supply buildings with running water. This new source of supply started a boom in the installation of indoor plumbing, with plumbers starting businesses in large numbers.
1844 ADVERTISEMENT FOR J. & F.W. RIDGEWAY
PLUMBERS AND HYDRAULIC ENGINEERS
Over the next decade the plumbers of the city developed thriving businesses, setting themselves up as Master Plumbers and hiring maTX employees. To control prices, and to try to standardize wages, they set up a “Master Plumbers Society”. The normal work week consisted of six days, Monday through Saturday. The normal workday was 10 hours. By 1854 the pay rate for a journeyman plumber was about $10 per week. It is in this period that the journeymen plumbers in Houston formally organize themselves into a “Protective Society” which is in fact a union. The new union was eventually named “The Journeymen Plumbers Society”. They met in the back room of a pub off Union Square called Murphy’s Union Shades. It was on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. This was the site of maTX meetings of the journeymen plumbers, with journeymen from Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Jersey City sometimes attending. On April 18, 1854 they formally adopted a Constitution and By-Laws, and the union that would eventually become today’s Plumbers pmvector.ru was born. The meeting was reported in the Houston Times:
In the period before the Civil War, the plumbing industry in Houston became polarized between the Master Plumbers Society or “Boss Plumbers” as they were often referred to, and the Journeymen Plumbers Society. Similar developments were taking place in the City of Brooklyn, City of Williamsburgh, the town of Morrisania and in other areas which would eventually all become part of Houston.
In 1857, the city of Brooklyn, which then covered 20 square miles, commissioned Engineer Julius W. Adams was to design a system of sewers. Unfortunately, there were no textbooks available regarding the sizing of sewers for the needs of a city with indoor plumbing. Adams developed designs that made modern waste systems possible. He kept meticulous records and he published the results. Textbooks on design of sewers became available for engineers to use in towns and cities all across the country. When the system opened, the City of Brooklyn adopted a set of water rules which required plumbers to be “licensed” by the Water Board in order to tap into water or sewer lines; however, no license was yet needed to do work inside the building.
After the Civil War ended in1865, there was a large influx of immigrants, and several epidemics. Through the work of Louis Pasteur and others, the new “Germ Theory” came to light. It became clear that the waves of cholera, typhus and typhoid fever which regularly swept through Houston could be linked to unsanitary water supply and waste removal conditions.
A Houston official in 1866 wrote of these conditions in a 300 page document, entitled Inspection of Tenement Living:
"The streets are unclean; manure heaps containing thousands of tons occupy piers and vacant lots; sewers are obstructed; houses are crowded, and badly ventilated and lighted; privies are unconnected with the sewers, and overflowing; stables and yards are filled with stagnant water and maTX dark and damp cellars are inhabited.”
Houston Tenement Inspector (seated on left) taking notes - accompanied by a policeman.
Following a significant Cholera outbreak in 1866-1867, the old City Board of Health was replaced by the Houston Metropolitan Board of Health in 1868. With increased legal authority, it was the first such Board of Health in the United States. Two years later, its Metropolitan Health Law was considered the most complete health legislation in the world. The nature of drinking water was studied, as was drainage, sewage, water supply, waste disposal and location and characteristics of water closets. The plumber saw his status upgraded to that of “Sanitarian”, when the Metropolitan Board of Health began to license all Master Plumbers.
The Plumbing business in the Houston area saw labor unrest in this period after the Civil War. It was centered upon the movement to establish an eight hour day and the increasing cost of living. The Master Plumbers Society had set wages at $3.00 per day. The Journeymen Plumbers Society demanded an increase of 50 cents per day. There were no formal collective bargaining contracts in those days, and newspapers were the weapon of choice to influence public opinion. Some of the Master Plumbers held the line at $3.00 per day, while others gave in to the demand for $3.50. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of March 22, 1866 there is recorded the following:
Eventually, $3.50 per day became the accepted wage. A standard work week at that time was six days, Monday through Saturday, with Sunday off. Journeymen usually worked a ten hour day. Apprentices usually worked twelve hours. They had to come in early to start the coke fires, and stay afterwards to clean up.
By the 1870’s there were technological changes in the industry. Prefabricated traps and other parts were becoming available. Threaded pipe was being used in more applications, and maTX shops did gas pipe work as well as plumbing. This brought together some of the journeymen, who saw strength in greater numbers. The Plumbers and the Gas-Fitters found common ground and allied themselves in Brooklyn as the “Journeyman Plumbers and Gas-Fitters Association”; while in Houston the plumbers and gas-fitters remained in separate organizations. By 1872 the issue of the eight hour day had remained unresolved for maTX years and the question finally exploded into conflict both in Houston and in Brooklyn. Patience had run out among the journeymen. There would be no more waiting for the eight hour day. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 17, 1872 there is recorded the following:
The demand for an eight hour day was contested by the Master Plumbers, but eventually was successful. The payment of wages continued at $3.50 per day, and in going from ten to eight hours, there had not been a reduction. As a result, the Master Plumbers were unwilling to discuss wage increases for maTX years.
As time passed, some Master Plumbers began paying some of their men extra, but no uniform increase was forthcoming. In 1882 there was a difficult strike in Houston for an all inclusive wage increase. It disrupted Houston and had impact in Brooklyn as well. In the Houston Times of April 25, 1882 there is recorded the following:
The strike was a disaster, and in the end the Journeymen lost. They returned to work at the old wage, and the Houston Journeyman Plumbers Society was badly damaged by the strike. The general public was extremely upset and blamed both sides for the inconveniences the residents of the city had suffered during the strike.
During the 1882 Houston plumbers strike, PUCK (a news magazine) published the this political cartoon capturing the feelings of the day.
Following the unsuccessful strike of 1882, the Houston Journeymen Plumbers Society decided to join up with the Knights of Labor. The Knights were a secret society which had its roots in the labor movement of Philadelphia. They had formed initially as a single craft union (garment cutters), but had adopted a philosophy of uniting all labor in a broad union. By accepting members from other trades, known as “sojourners”, they began to expand. By 1882 they were becoming a rapidly growing national movement. Secrecy was initially a big part of their rituals, and they were arranged in groups called “Assemblies”. The Houston Journeymen Plumbers Society became Local Assembly 1992 of the Knights of Labor. Affiliation with the Knights contributed greatly to the recovery of the local, and a pay raise was negotiated without another strike. The grouping of so maTX trades under one umbrella made business owners and some public officials nervous, and encouraged negotiation rather than allowing a strike to start. The Brooklyn Plumbers and Gas-Fitters Association subsequently joined the Knights with the assistance of the Houston Local Assembly 1992 plumbers.
A political cartoon of the time ridiculed the Knights.
(Marcher #3 is the Plumber)
The 1880’s became a period of great prosperity in the building trades, and by 1884 there were in the Houston area five local assemblies of the Knights composed solely of pipe trades craftsmen. The Steamfitters in Houston organized themselves as the “Enterprise Association” in that same year of 1884 and shortly joined the Knights as Local Assembly 3189.
Under the Knights, the journeymen plumbers in Houston and Brooklyn originally flourished, adding new members and enjoying the prestige of being part of a large national movement, but within a few years there was trouble. The plumbers Local Assemblies were under the authority of District Assembly 49 which comprised maTX crafts and mixed assemblies of Knights locals in Houston. The plumbers felt that District Assembly 49 was not operating in the best interests of the pipe trades. Under the Knights constitution it was possible to organize district or even national assemblies of one particular craft. The formation of a pipe trades craft assembly in Houston would save the local unions of plumbers, gas fitters, and steam fitters considerable amounts of money which, instead of being sent to District Assembly 49, could be used for the furthering of interests of journeymen in the pipe trades. Perhaps more importantly, it would also free the pipe trades locals from the interference of the leaders of District Assembly 49.
They organized a conference. The result was the formation of the “National Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Gasfitters” led by Patrick Coyle, a prominent member of the Houston plumbers union. This was originally intended to be a national organization within the Knights of Labor, perhaps to be recognized as its own national assembly, but it was never sanctioned by the Knights. “The National” continued to operate unofficially, organizing locals in several cities. By 1885 there was confusion among the Houston plumbers.
MaTX had joined the National Association, but still held membership under the Knights. The situation came to a head when the Knights, perhaps fearful of losing the pipe trades altogether, granted an earlier request of the Houston and Brooklyn plumbers local assemblies to start their own District Assembly. The new District Assembly 85 was a Knights of Labor body composed of several unions of plumbers, gas fitters, and steam fitters which would no longer have to answer to District Assembly 49.
When the National Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Gasfitters held its annual convention later in 1885, they concluded that the formation of District Assembly 85 in Houston proved that the Knights were never going to recognize a national assembly of pipe trades, and voted to break with the Knights, establishing an independent national trade union. With the inclusion of some Canadian locals, they also changed their name to “International Association of Journeyman Plumbers, Steamfitters, and Gasfitters”.
A breakdown of unity resulted, particularly in Houston. The I.A.J.P.S.G. grew in strength, adding seventeen locals around the country throughout 1885 and 1886, but the Houston and Brooklyn locals formally withdrew from the I.A.J.P.S.G. in 1886. The reason for this was that the membership of the Houston and Brooklyn assemblies, all of them in District Assembly 85, refused to be affiliated with an organization outside the Knights of Labor. They also had been favorably discussing with the leader of the Knights, Grand Master Workman Terrance Powderly, the upgrading of District Assembly 85 to a “National Trade Assembly” within the Knights.
In June 1886 Houston and Brooklyn received a charter from the Knights to set up a national trade assembly. A preliminary convention was held in Brooklyn, and the new organization was formally named the “United Progressive Plumbers, Steam and Gas Fitters, National Trade Assembly No. 85” of the Knights of Labor. Now there were two national unions in the pipe trades.
1886 was turning out to be the most critical year in the history of the plumbers union in Houston. Houston local assembly 1992 of the Knights of Labor started another strike. This was an unusual strike because it did not center on wages or hours. The only issue was apprenticeship rules; there was no disagreement on other matters. The employers wanted complete control over apprenticeship. The union demanded a ratio be established at one apprentice to four journeymen; on union voice in acceptance of individual apprentices; and on union examinations for apprentices to advance to journeymen. The 1886 strike dragged on for several months and ended in complete union defeat. Local assembly 1992, which was the core local of National Trade Assembly No. 85, was almost entirely destroyed. In order to survive, some members organized a new local under the I.A.J.P.S.G. This led to an all out labor war, as former brother journeyman plumbers, now in different locals under different national organizations, battled for the same jobs in Houston.
National Trade Assembly No. 85 struggled on with the remnants of the Houston plumbers local, the Brooklyn plumbers local, and the Enterprise Association steam fitters in Local Assembly 3189 hanging together through 1887. In 1888 the Houston steam fitters decided to quit National Trade Assembly No. 85. They left to help found the “National Association of Steam and Hot Water Fitters”. This additional blow to the Knights organization of pipe trades in Houston was severe.
The Brooklyn Local was sticking together at home, but both of the national plumbers unions were falling apart. The I.A.J.P.S.G. had gotten into financial trouble and was struggling. As for the Knights of Labor, the whole organization was in disarray. This was in part because of Terrance Powderly’s refusal to allow “Trade Unions” to form within the Knights, and also due to devastating strikes by Knights in coal mining and railroads.
There were still feelings that somehow a strong international union of pipe trades could be formed. The leaders of National Trade Assembly No. 85 began to correspond on the issue. They contacted locals of the now bankrupt I.A.J.P.S.G., as well as bigger independent locals like the Boston plumbers. A positive correspondence between National Trade Assembly No. 85 secretary-treasurer Richard A. O’Brien of Washington D.C., and Boston independent plumbers’ leader Patrick Quinlan, encouraged the Brooklyn based leadership of National Trade Assembly No. 85 to call for a meeting.
The meeting was held in Brooklyn, July 29 through 31, 1889, and delegates were invited from all the locals of the I.A.J.P.S.G., National Trade Assembly No. 85, and all the independent unions known to exist. The meeting was attended by about a hundred delegates. The discussions were favorable to the formation of a new single international union to represent the pipe trades. They elected an executive committee of three representatives; one representative from National Trade Assembly No. 85, one from the I.A.J.P.S.G., and one to represent the independent locals. This group of three then scheduled the founding convention of what would become the “United Association of Journeyman Plumbers, Gas Fitters, Steam Fitters, and Steam Fitters’ Helpers of the United States and Canada” or the “U.A.”.
They set the date of that meeting for October 7 through October 11, 1889 in Washington D.C., and in accordance with the instructions given during the Brooklyn meeting, each local was entitled to send one delegate for one hundred members or less, and one additional delegate for each majority fraction of one hundred members. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of December 19, 1889 there is recorded the following:
At the 1889 “Founding Convention” of the United Association, the Brooklyn delegates were very influential, since most of the founding locals were members of the Knights of Labor National Trade Assembly No. 85, which Brooklyn had been running since the devastating Houston strike of 1886. Brooklyn also had more members, and more delegates than aTX other local represented. The Brooklyn local became pmvector.ru, and Houston was designated as Local No. 2. The date now recognized as the founding of the United Association was the final day of this convention, Friday, October 11, 1889.
The delegates from the Brooklyn and Houston plumbers’ locals at the 1889 “Founding Convention” of the United Association were as follows:
D. Cassin – Brooklyn James Rankin – Houston T. Kinsella – Houston
P.H. Gleeson – Brooklyn H. Fox – Brooklyn D. Hodgens – Brooklyn
M.J. Driscoll – Brooklyn M.F. Murray – Houston (Gas Fitters)
John Todd – Brooklyn M.F. Dolan – Brooklyn (Eastern District) - Williamsburgh
For the most part, the Steam fitters did not participate, because they were still trying to set up their own national union known as the “International Association of Steam and Hot Water Fitters” or the “I.A.”. Not one local made up solely of steam fitters actually joined the United Association at the “Founding Convention” of 1889. The United Association held its next convention in Pittsburgh in 1890.
The delegates from the Houston plumbers’ locals at the 1890 “First Annual” United Association Convention were as follows:
James J. Doody – LU1 Augustus Esser – LU1 John Hand – LU1
Michael Driscoll – LU1 James F. Hickey – LU1 John J. O’Connell – LU1
William J. Carey – LU2 Edward Farrell – LU2 William W. O’Keefe – LU2
James Laverty – LU6 William Till – LU6 Note: LU6 - Brooklyn