About Insulators Union

The 20,000 members of today's International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers proudly trace the history of their union to the earliest days of the modern industrial era. Prior to about 1880, much of America's physical plant was still in a dismal state; mass production in industry was still far in the future; public buildings and multi-family dwellings were seldom much cozier or healthful than the cold, drafty factories of the day; working conditions were barely tolerable. In the closing days of the Nineteenth Century however, steam power overtook the nation in much the same way that electricity would 40 years later. Widespread use of steam power in this era resulted in better heated, more efficient industrial plants, and created untold thousands of new manufacturing jobs. Working conditions in factories improved somewhat, and even living conditions in homes were upgraded with the installation of steam power. Among these side benefits of steam power cam the creation of an entire new industry - insulation to conserve the precious energy being piped from boilers into factories and offices and homes across the nation. The insulation mechanics who provided the craftsmanship required for such a sudden and large undertaking were, at that time, almost totally without cohesive, organized representation. They enjoyed none of the benefits of belonging to a national or international organization; at best, there grew up by the end of the Nineteenth Century a few localized associations that attempted to look after the interests of their members in specific cities. Just as the modern American labor movement had its awakening at the turn of the century - during a turbulent era of economic depression, employers' disregard for workers' rights, and government advocacy of strike-breaking - so too did a movement begin to united the craftsmen who were performing the much needed task of conserving the nation's newest and most modern energy resource. The first attempt to form a national bond between the existing insulators' associations came in 1900, when the Salamander Association of New York City (which took its name from the reptile that, according to legend, had a skin that was impervious to fire) sent out an appeal to related crafts in other cities to form a "National Organization of Pipe and Boiler Coverers". This initial effort by the Salamander Association's Joseph A. Mullaney and John Boden met with little enthusiasm, though, in the face of prevailing fears that large, national organizations simply would not protect local interests. That initial appeal did spark interest, and two years later a much more decisive action was taken by the officers and members of Pipe Coverers' Union, Local No. 1, of St. Louis Missouri. Local No. 1 sent out an announcement that it had affiliated with the National Building Trades Council of America, and invited other coverer unions and related trades to join with them in the pursuit of better working conditions, pay that was commensurate with their skills, and the strength that comes from unity. The brothers of Local No. 1 went about their task of forming an international union in a reasoned and methodical manner. The first appeal for unity was sent to targeted cities where other asbestos workers already were enjoying the benefits of union affiliation - New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. The communications carried with them a request that each localized union exchange with others their constitutions and by-laws as well as a solicitation of names of brothers who could be recommended for an initial "International Committee". Unlike the effort of 1900, the campaign by Local No. 1 of St. Louis produced some very encouraging results. In all, seven local unions from around the nation responded favorably, and the hard work of laying the foundation of an international union was begun. With the St. Louis union leading the way; the interested locals who had responded to the call for formation of an international union met for their first convention on July 7, 1903. Local No. 1 President J.W. Shearn called the convention to order. The results of that inaugural convention were impressive - a constitution was drafted and approved; by-laws were adopted; Thomas Kennedy of Chicago was elected the first president of the organization; and an assessment of $1.00 was levied on each local union to pay expenses of the convention. The following year, 1904, brought with it even faster advances for the new union. At the annual convention, a formal name fully was adopted by the organization - the National Association of Heat, Frost and General Insulators and Asbestos Workers of America. And on September 22 of that year, the American Federation of Labor issued an official charter designating the Asbestos Workers as a national union. The early years of the new union mirrored the time in which is was born. The United States and Canada at the turn of the century were trying to struggle out of the depths of a severe depression that persisted even in the face of substantial - if sometimes isolated - industrial expansion. Likewise, a virulent anti-union sentiment guided the hiring policies and working conditions set by the vast majority of employers. The federal government, when called upon to intervene in labor-management disputes, did so most often to the sole benefit of employers. And the public at large, along with many workers, were open skeptical of a national labor movement that was still in its infancy. Brothers Shearn, Kennedy, and others launched their new national union in less than advantageous times, and immediately were faceted with an unrelenting attack by asbestos industry employers who, with their corporate colleagues, feared union representation for the building trades. A massive, national open-shop campaign was waged, one that was at least equal to the initiatives being pushed by these same interests today. But the early leaders of the Asbestos Workers knew from the beginning that they would have to fight for mere survival, and this determination was expressed in the earliest conventions by providing funds for organizers. By the 1905 convention, provisions were made that guaranteed each local would commit itself to the national policy of growth and strength through organizing. If such expansion was uppermost in the minds of the founding officers at the 1905 convention, so too was the early leaders' commitment to democracy. The delegates that year mandated that every affiliated local union be entitled to at least one delegate to each subsequent convention, and locals were urged to set aside funds to pay the expenses of those convention delegates. Still, these were harsh times for all building trades unions, and the Asbestos Workers was not exempt. Membership gains had been made during the initial year or two of the union's existence, but inroads made by open-shop employers and the willingness of some workers to work for wages far below what their skills demanded caused the ranks of the Asbestos Workers to dwindle to only about 300 in 1905. Such a dilution of the union's strength might have been an irreversible disaster for less-determined union leaders, but the Asbestos Workers fought back even harder. Gains were made, slowly and at no small economic sacrifice. To save money, the 1906 annual convention was cancelled and the union's organizers were cut back. Instead of simply folding under the economic pressures, though, the members of the General Executive Board took on the responsibilities of organizing. Over the course of the next several years, these tough-minded leaders saw their efforts begin to reap some rewards. Membership crept up to the 1,000 mark, and funds were obtained to again establish an official position of General Organizer. The year 1910 marked a new plateau for the National Association of Heat, Frost and General Insulators and Asbestos Workers of America. The union's unremitting policy of expansion paid off when several Canadian local unions added their strength to their American brothers. In light of these advances, the Asbestos Workers applied to the American Federal of Labor for a new charter, this time as an international union under the name that the organization bears today: The International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers. The goals of the new International were spelled out in the charter: "The object of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers shall be to assist it's membership in securing employment, to defend their rights, and advance their interests as working men; and by education and cooperation raise them to that position in society to which they are justly entitled". The New AF of L Charter also delineated the work over which the Asbestos Workers would have jurisdiction as the "practical mechanical application, installation, or erection of heat and frost insulation, such as magnesia, asbestos, hair felt, wool felt, cork, mineral wood, infusorial earth, mercerized silk, flax fiber, fire felt, asbestos paper, asbestos curtain and millboard, or any substitute for these materials or engaged in any labor connected with the handling or distributing of insulation materials on job premises." Respect for the craftsmen of their union, just compensation for the work they performed, and a careful demarcation of the International's jurisdictional rights - all of these components of the 1910 International charter gave the Asbestos Workers a broader, more solid foundation on which to build. With their sights focused clearly on the future, the leaders of the International took their members into the second decade of the Twentieth Century - a time that was at once to usher in new prosperity for the International and to see the world plunged into the first global war. When the Asbestos Workers met in convention in 1914, Joseph A. Mullaney - who had been a co-signer of the letter 14 years earlier from the Salamander Association urging formation of a national association - was serving his first term as president of the union. His report to the delegates gathered in Toronto, Canada, included the heartening news that the membership rolls had grown to 1,477 - 600 of whom had been accepted into the union in just the past two years. The number of local unions affiliated that year stood at 19. When the International held its next convention two years later, the good news of continued expansion and work opportunities for the membership was tempered by the cold reality that the United States had entered World War 1. The dark days of ware, in which the nation mobilized all of its domestic resourced to defeat the enemy in Europe had created an urgent need for the skills of Asbestos Workers craftsmen. This effort to prosecute the war successfully created so many jobs, in fact, that the Asbestos Workers were in a position of being able to come to the aid of another, less successful union - the Operative Plasterers and Cement Finishers. Since the war effort required bans on certain types of building materials, the Plasterers' Union members found themselves virtually without work until the Asbestos Workers held out the hand of union fraternalism. The International signed an agreement with the Plasterers providing employment for a number of that union's members in the asbestos industry. With the sudden surge in asbestos-related jobs, the agreement could be made without curtailing work for the Asbestos Workers; on the other hand, it provided desperately needed jobs for union plasterers and contributed to the war effort on the home front. This unique agreement was a shining example of brotherhood during an era of intense rivalry for membership among some other unions. And while the brothers of the Asbestos Workers were doing their part at home, they did not forget those members who were called on to serve in the military. At the 1916 convention, the delegates exempted their brothers in uniform from dues for life, and memorialized their service in the International Roll of Honor. More than 250 Asbestos Workers members were honored in this fashion. When World War 1 drew to a close, President Mullaney and the other International Officers turned their attention to strengthening their union and protecting the remarkable gains that had been achieved by developing codified, uniform agreements among the trades represented by the International. Some confusion, and occasionally an intra-union dispute, arose over the first 17 years of the Asbestos Workers' existence because of the diversity of skills and materials covered by its jurisdiction. The convention of 1919 acted to clear up these and other potential areas for disagreement with a hallmark set of resolutions that remain today the bases for cooperation and orderly jurisdictional assignments throughout the International. The 1919 convention was held after a period of sustained, substantial growth in membership and influence for the Asbestos Workers. The union, like all of the building trades, was poised to enter the 1920's in a position of strength. The boom times of the war continued, and the labor movement enjoyed much the same prosperity that was found across the country. Despite the redoubled efforts by anti-union employers, new locals were formed, existing locals expanded, and the International took on new responsibilities for protecting the rights and interests of the members. But the boom was bound to end, and the construction industry fell as flat as the stock market with the Crash of 1929. Black Friday stretched into a black decade as all American and Canadian workers suffered the worst economic hardship ever encountered. With little work available, every union was decimated and only the strongest survived. The New Deal of President Roosevelt helped to a degree, but once again it would take a global war to lift the nation out of the Great Depression. When American went to war in 1941, the nation was ill-equipped to arm or supply or transport its fighting forces. A massive domestic effort was required to bring our armed forces up to muster, and again the craftsmen of the Asbestos Workers were called upon to apply their skills, particularly for the awesome task of rebuilding a Navy that suffered such enormous destruction at Pearl Harbor. As they had in 1916, the brothers of the Asbestos Workers responded to the challenge and played a crucial role in the reconstruction of the Navy. When Works War II finally ended, the nation turned itself once again to the task of domestic construction. The earlier experiences of the previous generation of craftsmen were repeated in that the International gained membership by the hundreds and the members as well as the union itself embarked on a new ear of prosperity. It was not long, though, before the successes of this period were tempered by frightening new evidence that confirmed long-held suspicions by the International's leadership. For years, Asbestos Workers officials had sought hard, positive proof of what they suspected to be true - that workers who were exposed to asbestos died in hugely disproportionate numbers from cancer. The suspicion hung on, but medical records on deceased members were inaccurate or unavailable, and the asbestos industry itself coldly rejected the union's charges and covered up its own suspicions and records. But the International fought on, alone. It would take years for anyone other that the union's membership to listen to the pleas for formal investigations and medical documentation. But the International continued its battle for full disclosure of the truth, and when it was finally successful the facts proved to be even worse than had been suspected. Medical evidence now conclusively proves that exposure to asbestos fibers produces an extraordinarily high risk of contracting cancer. The most recent authoritative study shows that one Asbestos Workers member in five dies of lung cancer in one form or another. The early outcry from the Asbestos Workers proved to be, if anything, understated. The cancer rate among the union's members - as well as members' families - is a national tragedy that possibly could have been mitigated if not avoided. Manufacturers, however, have a long and disgraceful history of suppressing their own investigations that led to the same tragic conclusions decades ago. Another aspect of asbestos exposure is that related diseased often do not show up for 20 or 30 years. As a result, those same craftsmen who rebuilt the U.S. Navy to fight World War II are now fighting for their own lives because of the materials they used then. Just as the Asbestos Workers initiated and led the fight years ago to uncover the truth about asbestos exposure, today the International is leading the fight to gain adequate, fair compensation for its members who face so uncertain a future. But through its long and proud history, the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers has never shied away from adversity or allowed negative factors to impede the achievement of those admirable goals set out in the International Charter of 1910.