I have been researching our Union roots through the Library of Congress for some time. Unfortunately the coverage of Labor concerns in the newspapers starts in the mid-1890’s. I know that our legacy extends back to the 1880’s but I have found references that we may have even earlier roots as part of the Knights of Labor. We were known as the Hot Water & Steam Fitters Local Union 10 in both the National and International Associations of the same name in the 1890’s.
The earliest references that I could find on Local Union 10 strikes date back to 1898 and 1900. Despite legislation passed to establish an eight-hour workday in the District of Columbia, our ancestors had to strike to establish a common practice of an eight-hour/day, six-day workweek in 1898. The strike may have lasted a year before the practice was accepted on all of D.C. construction job sites. Rest assured that we held strong and help to establish the eight-hour work day for the rest of the building trades. Such is our legacy. We are leaders in the building trades.
The newspaper coverage of our 1900 strike was more inclusive. We struck to establish the National Association average wage scale of $3.50/day for fitters in DC. We were working for $.50/day less than that when we struck in July.
The reaction by the contractors was immediate and it was harsh. The Master Steam & Hot Water Fitters Association released the following statements to the public:
“We recognize no union of either fitters or helpers.”
“Our scale of wages will be such as to suit ourselves.”
Predictions on the length of the strike stretched from a few weeks to months. Some believed that it would last until the following spring. Letters were sent to the National Association of Steam & Hot Water Fitters Association asking for their support. They pledged both moral and financial support and further warned that a national strike could result if our contract was not settled. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Either recognize the Fitters and their Helpers and negotiate a fair contract or face the possibility that sympathy strikes would be called in other major cities.
Days stretched into weeks before there was movement. Our ancestors met daily and took a roll call vote to assure that no one was crossing the line. With shame and dishonor some crossed the line but the great majority held strong. Individual owners began to break rank with their association and agreed to sign interim agreements within the first two weeks. By the end of July there was a tentative agreement with the association.
The men returned to work on August 1, 1900 with most issues settled. They eventually received half of what they struck for. Keep in mind that equalled an 8.33% increase in their wages. Couple that with the wage and hour victories from the 1898 actions, our ancestors successfully struck twice in 3 years to increase their wages by nearly 10% while reducing their hours by over 10%.
But the more important aspect of the 1898 and 1900 strikes was that The Master Steam & Hot Water Fitters Association did indeed:
“Recognize a Union of Fitters and a Union of Helpers.”
“Agree that the scale of wages will be a matter of proper negotiations.”
Take solace for we do not march alone. There are a host of ghosts that walk amongst us. They stood tall and struck 110 years ago so that we would have the right to take up the challenge in our lifetime. It is up to us to continue their legacy.
The MCA continues to push for arbitration now and in future negotiations. We have rejected it. The MCA continues to push for a multi-year contract. We have rejected that. The challenge remains…we must continue our strike until they recognize our collective bargaining rights and agree that our wages and all of our working conditions are a matter of proper negotiations.