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125 Years Strong – An IUOE History

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Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the founding of the International Union of Operating Engineers


INTERNATIONAL UNION OF OPERATING ENGINEERS Brother William M. Finlay (left), former International Union of Steam and Operating Engineers fifth vice president and editor of the union’s International Steam Engineer journal, and Brother James Limbaugh, both members of Local No. 293 of Cleveland, served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Upon his return from the war, Brother Finlay was elected business manager of the local. Company and provided each member’s beneficiary with ,000 of insurance upon his death, with premiums based on the ages of individual policy-holders. Prior to that year, the union also never had a central headquarters, the offices of its general president and general secretary-treasurer up to that point being wherever they happened to live. But the 1912 convention had granted the union’s officers the authority to seek a central location for official general offices, and delegates at the 1913 convention voted to purchase the former residence of “a prominent Chicago businessman” at 6334 Yale Avenue in Chicago to serve as headquarters, into which the union moved its international offices in early 1914. But almost immediately after the move, Chicago-based Local No. 69 and the international office were at odds over a number of conflicting policies. Perhaps most notably, a new business agent of the local began forcing the members of stationary Local No. 401 off jobs on uncompleted buildings and declined to place them on new jobs while retaining the temporary jobs for his own members. He also refused to follow the practice of allowing members of stationary locals to work, by permit, on building jobs when hoisting and portable locals could not supply the needed workers. (1) When Local No. 69 subsequently rebuffed the I.U.S.O.E.’s protests over those actions and others, the international revoked the local’s charter by unanimous vote of the General Executive Board on April 29, 1914. However, that evening, General President Comerford was attacked while walking a few blocks from his home, severely beaten and hospitalized with a broken collar bone although the attackers were never identified. The Chicago Federation of Labor supported the expelled local and refused to recognize the newly chartered replacement, Local No. 569, despite A.F.L. intervention on behalf of the I.U.S.O.E. Brother Comerford had been a popular president in the early part of his administration, according to The Economic History of a Trade Union, but his penchant for revoking the charters of locals that departed too drastically from international policies and chartering new locals in their place turned many local officers and members against him. Charter revocation had been used twice as a disciplinary measure by previous I.U.S.O.E. administrations, but President Comerford revoked at least 10 charters between 1909 and 1916. (1) He was able to attend the union’s now-biennial convention that opened on September 14, 1914, in Peoria, Illinois, during which delegates passed directives decreeing that no member of the I.U.S.O.E. could have membership in any other trade union and recommending that an organizer be dispatched to establish locals along the Panama Canal construction project. Among its other business, by the end of the conference, the union also re-elected all of its sitting officers for additional terms. A ‘Brighter than Ever’ Future Out in the field, many of the union’s engineers remained busy that year and into 1915 on construction of the Arrowrock Dam on the Boise River near its namesake town in Idaho, which had started in early 1912. When the concrete arch dam, on which equipment utilized by operators included a refurbished 70-ton Atlantic steam shovel and two 18-ton “dinkey” excavators, was completed and dedicated on October 4, 1915, it was the tallest dam in the world and would remain so for nine years. Construction of the Panama Canal had also been concluded for its opening on August 15, 1914, and the I.U.S.O.E. took a particular interest in the great Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, held in celebration of the canal’s completion. Not only had members of the union worked on construction of the canal, but they had taken a prominent part in the erection of the exposition, which was the first ever built entirely with union labor. In recognition of the engineers’ contributions, November 6, 1915, was set aside as “Union Engineers’ Day,” for which special ceremonies were held at the exposition’s Palace of Machinery. Members of Local No. 232 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, operate the largest shovel ever built at the time, a Bucyrus-type machine weighing 400 tons and with booms up to 110-feet long, while working on the Queenston-Chippawa Hydroelectric Plant on the Niagara River just north of the Niagara Falls in 1921. A record 172 delegates in attendance at the union’s Fifth Biennial Convention held in Newark, New Jersey, in September 1916 elected Brother Milton Snellings, the union’s first vice president, over Brother Comerford to succeed the general president in his position. During the convention, delegates also adopted resolutions that included one condemning the ongoing continental war in Europe (which would grow into World War I with the United States’ entry in April 1917), and another strongly opposing proposed federal laws prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol (which would not go into effect until January 1920 when passage of the 18 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution created prohibition which lasted until December 1933). The convention representatives also decided that I.U.S.O.E. locals should initiate steamshovel operators for membership in the union. Shortly after the conference adjourned, the union successfully organized steam-shovel men in Chicago into a branch local assigned as LABOR OMNIA VINCIT WORK CONQUERS ALL

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