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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 disagreements with the Building Service Employees International and the Machinists International Union. The following year, at long last, the I.U.S.O.E. absorbed the Brotherhood of Steam Shovel Operators and Dredgemen in 1927, ending decades of antagonism between the two organizations that had persisted from the time they were both founded in 1896. With the amalgamation, roughly 7,000 operators of excavating and dredging machinery in various parts of the United States and Canada transferred into the I.U.S.O.E. Building Icons as The I.U.O.E. As advancements had altered most all of its industry and members were working almost exclusively with internal combustion engines, electric motors, hydraulic machinery and refrigerating systems, on July 1, 1928, the union dropped “steam” from its name and it became the International Union of Operating Engineers. What’s more, as the organization progressed, it had attracted workers from the public sector, making it a truly diverse trade union. While announcing the change to the press, General President Huddell explained: “Our general executive board is of the opinion that this is a forward step for our international union, as the evolution in industry is rapidly changing from steam to other power, and the word ‘steam’ in our title overshadowed every other development in industry and in some places was a hindrance to the progress or our organization This does not in any way change the jurisdiction of our international union.” I.U.O.E. and other building-trades members working on the Rockefeller Center project in New York City line up to receive their pay on Christmas Eve 1931 beside a Christmas Tree they erected, which was reportedly the very first Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. (New York-based Local No. 14 member Brother Horace Gibbs is indicated by the arrow.) Favorable conditions continued for the union through that year, and many of its members were working on massive public-works projects throughout the country. Those jobs included the -million Holland Tunnel, described as the world’s largest and longest vehicular tunnel when it was completed in February of that year, linking New Jersey and New York City under the Hudson River. Members also continued to build the Welland Ship Canal, which was 20 percent complete in May 1928 when that month’s issue of the union’s recently renamed The International Engineer journal described the project as “a prodigious undertaking calling for prodigious use of power-driven excavating and construction machinery.” President Huddell was re-nominated by ovation of delegates and, therefore, without a ballot during the I.U.O.E.’s First Quadrennial Convention in Buffalo, New York, in September 1928 after which conventions would be held every four years. Although the preceding years had been comparatively prosperous for the union, reports made during the conference recounted that its locals conducted 33 strikes during the previous two years, with the international expending ,146 in strike benefits. (1) The following year and seven years after the General Executive Board in 1922 approved a proposal to move the union’s international headquarters from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to be close to the legislative center of the United States the I.U.O.E. moved its general offices to the nation’s capital in 1929. The union’s administrative center was set up in the Carpenters’ Building at 1003 K Street, Northwest, where it would remain for the next 27 years. The union’s engineers continued employment on many large projects during the final years of the decade, as well. Many were kept busy on construction of the replacement Cascade Tunnel, an eight-mile railway passage burrowed through the Cascade Range of Washington state that was one of the biggest digging jobs ever undertaken in the Western Hemisphere, until its completion in 1929. But the Great Depression, the economic and societal catastrophe that officially began with the Wall Street stock-market collapse of October 29, 1929 (history’s “Black Tuesday”) and lingered into the late 1930s, hit operating engineers particularly hard. As a result, membership in the I.U.O.E. between July 1930 and July 1933 fell from 33,705 to 21,502, with membership of its hoisting and portable locals dropping 54 percent and its stationary locals declining 23 percent. Throughout the depression years, the operating engineers, like many other unions during that period, held no conventions. But one noteworthy construction project on which members worked during that time was the Empire State Building in New York City’s midtown Manhattan borough beginning in 1930. When completed in 1931, the 102-story skyscraper was the tallest building in the world. Passage of the Davis-Bacon Act in 1931, which guaranteed construction workers’ wage rates on federally funded projects, helped alleviate some of the union’s stifling unemployment as federal construction provided many of the jobs on which operating engineers were employed during the next three years. Those projects in 1931 included the massive hydroelectric dams across the Skagit River in the State of Washington and the 16-mile-long replacement Beauharnois Canal as part of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Numerous operating engineers were also put to work at that time on construction of the Hoover Dam (known then as the Boulder Dam) in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River on the Arizona-Nevada state line. The 726-foot-tall concrete structure was built at a cost of .8 million until then the largest contract awarded by the federal government LABOR OMNIA VINCIT WORK CONQUERS ALL

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