Local 5 History
For over 125 years, organized plumbers in the Washington, D.C., area have stood proudly at the forefront of innovative trade unionism. Since the earliest days of the American labor movement we have striven to achieve the inseparable goals of bettering the life of the individual member while fostering the values and strengths of our country.
The first attempts to organize American workers were scattered and feeble, but in 1869 the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, became the first successful national labor organization in the United States.
The first plumbers’ unions, small groups confined to major cities, tended to fail quickly. Although a plumbers’ union existed in Philadelphia as early as 1835, the main organizing drive did not begin until a boom in construction in the late 1870’s. It was this boom which spurred the revival of old pipe trades locals and the establishment of new ones in several cities, including, Washington, D.C. By the time the Knights began accepting craft assemblies in the early 1880’s, pipe trades unions across the country were eager to affiliate. Among the first to receive a charter were the plumbers of Washington, D.C., who in 1882 affiliated as Knights of Labor Local Assembly 2079, also known as the Franklin Assembly.
Leaders of the Knights of Labor Local assembled in the New York area and formed a national body which they intended to operate as part of the Knights. Originally called the National Association of Plumbers, Steam Fitters and Gas Fitters, the group grew to include assemblies in other parts of the country, including, Boston, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee and St. Paul. After the Knights leadership refused to recognize the new organization as a National Trade Assembly, the group withdrew in 1885 and altered its title to the International Association of Plumbers, Steam Fitters and Gas Fitters, or IAPSG.
In 1886, Samuel Gompers transformed the FOTLU into the much stronger American Federation of Labor. The AFL drew many members away from the Knights, not only because of its basis in craft organization but also because of its more aggressive stand on issues such as the eight-hour day. The AFL captured the attention of workers with a national eight-hour day campaign and support for strikers such as those involved in the Haymarket Riot of May 4, 1886.
While the Knights of Labor declined, leaders in the pipe trades continued advocating the creation of national pipe trades union.
While national pipe trade unions were in trouble, the Washington, D. C. area was thriving. LA 2079 had grown slowly from 45 members in 1883 to 59 by 1885.
In this period, LA 2079 held bi-monthly meetings in the Odeon Building, which was located at 4 ½ Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. - at that time a bustling intersection in the center of downtown Washington, D.C.
Under the leadership of Richard O’Brien, LA 2079’s meeting place would alsosoon become the site of the founding convention of the United Association. A preliminary convention was held in Brooklyn in 1889. Assuming the functions of secretary, O’Brien “mailed invitations . . . . to 75 different unions in the U. S. and Canada”. Some 100 delegates representing those unions met from 29 to 31 July and appointed a committee charged with planning a formal convention to be held in Washington, D. C.
On October 7, 1889, 40 delegates from 17 cities gathered at 4 ½ Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. with the purpose of discussing the issues raised at the preliminary convention the previous July.
The convention proceeded to draw up a constitution for a new organization called the United Association of Journeymen Plumbers, Gas Fitters, Steam Fitters and Steam Fitters Helpers of the United States and Canada. Among the 32 delegates who signed the preamble (including one who later walked out) were LA 2079 members Richard A. O’Brien and John F. Murphy, who were elected general secretary-treasurer and executive board member, respectively.
Although officially funded in October 1889, the United Association did not charter any locals until after the circulation of an official call for affiliation in December 1889. The independent unions and the Knights local assemblies quickly answered the call to join the UA. The Knights’ local assemblies in New York City affiliated in December 1889 as UA Local 1 and 2. On January 2, 1890, the UA issued charter for locals in Denver, Colorado Washington, D.C.; Kansas City, Missouri; Boston, Massachusetts and Rochester, New York and assigned them the numbers, 3, 5, 8, 12 and 13, respectively.
At the time of Local 5’s chartering, wages were about 15 cents an hour and the 60-hour work week was the norm. Within two years, the local had 60 members while the UA claimed a total membership of 4,806. By 1896, Local 5’s membership stood at 107. Membership rose again in 1898 and 1899, but remained at 144 members for the succeeding two years.
These figures reflect the turbulence of a period when recurrent economic depressions, particularly those of 1893 and 1897, destabilized the construction industry. Labor and management frequently resorted to prolonged boycotts, strikes, and lockouts in order to settle disputes.
Five months before the stock market crash in 1929, Local 5 negotiated an agreement covering the period of May 7, 1929 to June 1, 1931. For the first four months of the agreement, wages were set at $11.50 per day. After August 15, wages increased to $12.00 and were to remain at that level for the term of the contract. While the normal working hours were 7:30 to 4:00, five days a week, the agreement allowed emergency repair work at regular wages on Saturday mornings.
Under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States slowly emerged from the Great Depression in the mid to late 1930’s. Roosevelt pushed Congress to pass legislation which not only relieved the suffering of the unemployed, but also provided government subsidized work. The national Recovery Act, the Public Works Administration, the Civil Works Administration, and the Work Progress Administration created jobs for work-starved building tradesmen. In this period, Local 5 members installed the plumbing systems in many of our government buildings still used today, including the National Archives, a new Post Office building and office buildings for the Federal Communications Commission and the departments of Justice, Commerce, and Agriculture.
The inauguration of a training program was only one of the positive developments of the late 1930’s. After a one week strike in late 1939, Local 5 negotiated the first wage increase since the Depression. Wages rose from $12 to $13.20 per day and to $14 per day the following year. Membership also began to increase as commercial and residential work expanded. Commercial construction extended the boundaries of the retail areas of the day, particularly in Silver Springs, Maryland, where in 1938, Local 5 helped build the first shopping center to cater to automobile traffic.
The entry of the United States into the Second World War in 1941 sharply reduced the amount of private residential work and increased the demand for journeymen on public housing and heavy construction defense projects. As a result, Local 5 admitted large numbers of auxiliary workers to full membership. Between 1939 and 1943, our membership, including the auxiliary, had almost tripled. Wages stayed at $14 per day until 1946, but considerable overtime on defense projects contributed to a rise in prosperity.
In this period, Local 5 members installed the piping systems for Park Fairfax, Fairlington, Greenbelt, the Pentagon, Andrews Air Force Base, Ft. Belvoir, Bethesda Naval Hospital and the National Institutes of Health.
After the war, an expansion of commercial work provided well-paying jobs.
September 1940, the Apprentice committee “reported that the apprentice school will open on September 23 and urged all apprentices to attend”. By 1942, the training school was operating out of Abbott Vocation School on 7th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. registered by the National Apprenticeship Program in September 1944. Local 5 and their sister Local 602 led the drive to establish a modern facility for training and established a new joint training facility known as the “UA Mechanical Trade School” that opened in Landover, Maryland in 1975.
By 1957, wages had increased to $3.76 per hour, with an increase of $4.16 scheduled to take effect in 1959. Remembering the hardship of less fortunate times, Local 5 members used part of these wage increases to support benefit and training funds established in the 1950’s.
The first contributory fund established by Local 5 was the welfare fund initiated in 1950. The fund started with ten-cents per hour contribution when hospital costs averaged $13 per day.
Local 5 members also enjoyed the security provided by a pension fund established in April 1955. In 1980, the local further improved the pension program by merging the plan with the National Pension Plan. Providing training and benefits to our members remained the primary focus of Local in the early 1960’s. In this period, Local 5 members benefited from a construction boom during which we played a vital role in the installation of piping systems in RFK Stadium, the Rayburn House Office Building, and the Hilton Hotel. By 1963, wages had increased to $4.91 per hour and included contributions to not only the medical, pension, and apprentice funds, but also to a newly created vacation fund. In September of 1998, Local 5 members again benefited with the establishment of the Retirement Savings Fund in addition to the National Pension Fund. As of January, 2009 the current wage is $36.24 plus $13.50 in fringes per hour.
Now that we have entered into the 21st century and into our second 125 years of proud service to our Nation’s Capital, we take with us the determination, the skills, and the pride with which we have built an honorable past and a strong foundation for the future. We reflect upon the lessons of our past and recognize the distinct privilege we hold as significant contributors to the structure of American society, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.