Iron Workers

Iron Workers

Iron Workers Local 751. I have been a member of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers Local 751 since 1977. Local Union 751 was chartered by the International Association in 1953 and given the State of Alaska as it’s geographical jurisdiction. Local Union 751 is a “mixed” local, covering all aspects of the “trade” (rigging, machinery, moving, welding, ornamental, structural, reinforcing, fabrication, and fencing). The local union has 500 journeymen and40 apprentice ironworkers who reside in all parts of the state and work all facets of the trade.

Our members are involved in all phases of construction around the state: construction of Oil Production Facilities in Prudhoe Bay, Fish Processing Facilities in Dutch Harbor, the Ft. Know Gold Mine in Fairbanks, the Ward Cove Pulp Mill in Ketchikan, the Federal Express Airfreight facility in Anchorage, and Fleet Naval Hospital Adak NAS to mention but a few of the projects where members of the local are currently employed. Projects that at the time of their construction were considered world-class engineering feats (Trans-Alaska Pipeline, State Earth Station/Satellite Communications System and Defense Early Warning System/DEW-Line) were constructed by members of Local Union 751. Local No.751 has a 60% market share of all ironwork and steel erection in the State of Alaska.

Better get serious and learn a trade.  After separating from the U.S. Army in 1975 I worked at various jobs around the state for three years (commercial pilot, blaster, driller, and laborer).  In 1977 I decided that I had better get serious and learn a “trade” so I applied to the Local Union 751 Apprenticeship Program. I realized at the time I made application that most of the apprentices whom I had met in the building trades unions were, for the most part, relatives of journeymen who were already  members. Since I had no family in the union or Alaska when I went to the interviews, I was surprised when I was told “if the Indians or the Women don’t beat you out, you’re in kid.” I did not quite know how to take being told that, but felt encouraged. My personal knowledge and experience comes from serving a 4,800 hour apprenticeship in Local No. 751 and working at all facets of the “trade” either as an apprentice or journeyman for 18 years.

From Ketchikan to Prudhoe Bay al all points in between. Upon completion of my term of apprenticeship, as tradition dictated, I bought four bottles of whiskey to give to the members of the Examining Committee and took my journeyman test in hopes of getting my journeyman book.  On the first “dispatch” I took out of the “hall” as a journeyman I was made “steward” by the older members on the project, a 28-story Atlantic Richfield Company/ARCO office building. Over the years while working in the “field” I have acted in many capacities from union steward to foreman “straw boss” and general foreman “pusher”. I have worked and lived in Ketchikan, Dutch Harbor, Nome and Prudhoe Bay, as well as all points in between. I have worked erecting oil platforms, 800′ communication towers, bridges, refineries, Safeway grocery stories, schools, satellite earth stations and pump stations on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Numerous appointed and elected union positions.  Over the years I have served in numerous appointed and elected positions for the local union. In 1985 I was elected to the Local Union Executive Board and appointed to the Local Union Benefit Boards. In 1988 I was elected to the Office of Business Manager/Financial Secretary Treasurer and served in that capacity until being appointed as President of the Rocky Mountain District Council of Iron Workers in 1994. During this period I served as Secretary/Treasurer of the Central Labor Council, Building Trades Council, and Skilled Crafts Council in Alaska.

Started as “a punk”.  I knew no one and no on knew me. When I first began my career as an ironworker I was more than a bit apprehensive. The feeling of anticipation, accomplishment, and fear were not unlike those I felt when entering the Army. Having no family in the trade to show me the ropes when 8 of the 10 of the other new apprentices did concerned me the most. I knew no one and no one knew me. Many of the other apprentices were called by their first names, while I and the other apprentices who had no family ties to the union were referred to as “punks”, a term used in the trade to describe an apprentice. My biggest fear was not being accepted and losing the chance to prove myself.

Never work without a partner.  After working on the first few jobs I found that acceptance was measured in terms of attitude, work ethic, honesty, daring, skill, and being able to get along with my “partner” and fit into the crew “gang”.  Because of the dangerous nature of the work one of the first lessons you are taught is to never work without a partner. The nature of the work also makes all ironworkers very particular about who they will work partners with or even be in the same gang or on the same project with. So as an apprentice you are made to work with many different partners in many different gangs on many different projects so all the ironworkers in the local will get to assess your abilities and character. I soon found by being eager to learn and willing to work hard that before I knew it I was through my probationary period and indentured into the local union as an apprentice.

Living, breathing, eating and sleeping the trade. Working in Alaska as an ironworker is unlike working as an ironworker anywhere else in the United States. First, in most parts of the country different local unions are established in the same geographic area and given jurisdiction over different facets of the trade or work process. Second, most local union geographical jurisdictions are the size of counties, cities or portions of a state organized around a major metropolitan area. In Alaska, our jurisdiction covers 586,000 square miles. The vast distances between the union hall and jobsites often necessitate ironworkers traveling by two or three different types of conveyance to reach a project.  On occasion I have worked on projects over 1,200 miles from where I lived and stayed at the worksite for 3 months working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. It is impractical for ironworkers to come home on weekends and evenings. Because of the unusual circumstances that we work under, you quickly develop relationships that grow from the work experience and tend to dominate your life both on and off the job. The dangerous nature of the work makes you dependent on your partners to stay alive or keep from being injured while at work. Living and eating together strengthen these professional and personal bonds. In this environment you become totally immersed in the subculture of being a union ironworker living, breathing, eating and sleeping the trade. The relationships you develop on the job carry over to all aspects of you and your family’s personal and social life. From working together, laughing together, drinking together, celebrating a holiday or special occasion, ironworkers in Alaska are galvanized around the union and the trade.

Assembling a gang.  The professional and social relationships between ironworkers is at the core of the employment process. Since everyone in the local union knows everyone as either direct or extended family this serves as the foundation for all jobs. When a job starts, the company chooses a foreman “pusher” to place “calls in the hall” for workers. The ironworkers on the out-of-work list look at the information on the “call” but more importantly they look at who the foreman is and for the most part make a decision to accept or reject the call based on the foreman’s reputation and the other ironworkers he is known to associate with rather than the location or duration of the job.

Knowing who the foreman is pretty much tells you who you will be working with on the job if you take the call. For a foreman to be able to assemble a good crew “gang” he must be skilled as an ironworker, fair, able to stand up to the company for his crew and always be looking out for the crew’s safety. (Note:. In Local 751 we have an exclusive hiring hall that prohibits the employers from soliciting for workers and the workers from soliciting “panning” their own jobs. This situation precludes a company or foreman from depending on getting their workers from past jobs and makes the reputation of the foreman primary in assembling a good crew.)

Once a name is given it generally stays with you throughout your career. From the first day, an ironworker apprentice is evaluated and judged. This process goes on every job and in some cases off the job too. In many cases nicknames are given to ironworkers that signify certain abstract or physical qualities. Some of the names given based on physical qualities are “Lurch”, “Dink”, “Beetlejuice”, “Hairball”, and “Greek”. Other names that denote good or bad qualities are “Red Lead”, “Dangerous Dan”, “Mean Gene”, “Blues Brothers”, “Bullshit Bill” and “Popeye”. Apprentices are told early in their career that “you can tell the Joes by their fingers and their toes”. Anyone that is called a “Joe” is considered dangerous and is to be avoided. A foreman with a nickname such as “Dangerous”, “Mean”, or “Killer” will generally have a difficult time assembling a gang even on jobs that working overtime or in good locations. Once a name is given it generally stays with you throughout your career.

Matching  jobs to experienced apprentices, young workers and older workers.  An example of specialization and the organization of work would be that found on a “structural” job. The “Raising gang” is composed of the pusher who is generally an older ironworker who often was a “connector” earlier in his career. The two connectors who freely climb the structure and erect the beams and columns are young light-weight ironworkers. Two “hook-on men” rig the columns and beams on the ground for hoisting to the connectors. These two hook-on men are older ironworkers who are generally not as physically able as the connectors. By using this division of work the older ironworkers are put in less physically demanding positions and the younger ironworkers are put in the more physically demanding and dangerous positions. The “bolt-up gang” is composed of young and old ironworkers as well as experience apprentices. This is where the apprentices get their experience “air time” walking the structure bolting the steel frame together. The older ironworkers “stuff” bolts while the apprentices and younger ironworkers “punk” the bolts upon the structure and make up all the “hard points” by “reaming” and “driving pins” to line up the holes. The “plumb-up gang” is composed of both young and old ironworkers as well as experienced apprentices. The younger ironworkers climb the columns to place the guy cables and the older ironworkers stay on the ground or lower levels and attach and tension the guys squaring and plumbing the structure. The “deck gang” is composed of young ironworkers and experienced apprentices who place and weld down 200 to 300 pound sheets of corrugated deck to form the floors of the structure. Once the decking is in place it is welded by the same ironworkers who laid it thus giving the younger ironworkers and apprentices experience welding. The “welding gang” is composed of older ironworkers or ironworkers who have been injured and are not able to perform the more demanding aspects of the trade.

 Journeymen control their destiny and young workers learn. The older more experienced ironworkers are the foreman and lead men, while the younger ironworkers are used in the more physically demanding positions. Young apprentices are used to do the less dangerous harder “bull” work. Apprentices are generally used for placement of the welders’ work platforms “floats” and to carry “punk” welding rod and steel plate back up strips from the ground up to the welders.  Experienced apprentices are placed in all the gangs to get experience and build their confidence. In a trade as physically demanding as ours, the workers and union, for the most part, strictly adhere to this organization of work to promote safety and create classifications for the older and injured ironworkers. The journeyman can control his own destiny through this type of classification system and the apprentices act in a support role learning as they are rotated from gang to gang.

Top dogs and cowboys. Structural ironworkers are considered by themselves and most ironworkers to be the “top dogs” or “cowboys” of the trade. Reinforcing ironworkers, “rod busters”, and fence erectors, “dirt diggers”, are considered at the bottom of the trade and are held in low regard by the structural “hands” even though in Local 751 their pay and benefit scale is the same.

Earning the confidence and respect of your peers. The work culture of the average ironworker is centered on garnering the confidence and respect of fellow workers. This is accomplished by maintaining good physical condition, working as hard and smart as one can, as well as upgrading one’s skills on a continual basis. Skill upgrading such as welder certification, blueprint reading, first aid training, and structural detailing are but a few of the classes that the Local 751 Apprenticeship and Journeyman upgrading program offers. By taking these training classes the journeymen encourage each other to be the best ironworkers they can be. Respect for each other’s skills and ability is one of the cornerstones of every ironworker’s relationships with the other members of the local union. Respect by one’s peers is earned by performance on the job. In a trade like ironwork, ability and hard work are a worker’s status symbol and claim to fame.

You are the master of the unspoken word.  Many ironworkers claim to be the best and have done everything, while drinking in a bar or telling stories in the “dry shack”. For the most part, ironworkers are “show me don’t tell me” kind of people. The more one talks the less the others believe. When starting out in the trade as an apprentice I was given some sage advice by one of the old journeymen: “You are the master of the unspoken word”. Bragging about abilities and exploits is seen in a negative light and invites ridicule and sarcasm from the other workers.  Usually the younger more inexperienced ironworkers are the ones who will be the braggarts on the job.  This is done to try and gain acceptance into the work culture.

As a young apprentice I saw a few of these braggarts literally challenged, berated and torn to shreds at lunch, coffee breaks and after work in the bar no matter what they said. Ironworkers, much the same as the African Kung tribesman use the same peer pressure to humble individuals who brag about their skills, abilities and exploits.

Left hand wrenches and sky hooks.  As an apprentice I was told to go and get a “left handed wrench”. Not knowing what one was I spent quite a while looking for one and was lightly reprimanded by the pusher for being so naïve. On another occasion I was told to go find a “sky hook” which by then I had figured out did not exist.

A prank with a message.  On a job in Prudhoe Bay in the middle of the winter while attending a safety meeting we decided to tell the apprentices that, since it was dark outside, the phase of the work we were involved in was unsafe and could not be done. The apprentices were told to stay in the dry shack until it got light or was safe. The apprentices did as they were told and stayed in the shack for the majority of the shift. Towards the end of the shift the General Superintendent and Ironworker General Foreman came into the shack to check the progress of the, job and found all the apprentices reading “smut books” claiming the job to be unsafe. They day before, all the journeymen were given a lecture by the new General Superintendent about picking up the pace and improving productivity. We all felt this prank sent him as strong a message as he sent us.

Fiercely independent and brutally honest. Ironworkers as a whole are very independent and opinionated. The structure of the union and the organization of the work lends itself to this independence. On the job or off the job relationships between ironworkers tend to be direct, competitive and brutally hones. Ironworkers in Alaska view themselves as fiercely independent and a breed apart from the rest of the building tradesmen. The local union is viewed by its members as a select club where every member knows every other member. Respect for the union and its leadership is gained in the same manner that individuals gain respect on the job, through accomplishment and ability. The union provides security and a strong identity for all its members through job security, pension, health benefits, training programs and social functions. After leaving Alaska and moving to Colorado, the values and experience gained in Alaska as a member of Local Union 751 are how I judge all others by.

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Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

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