The Banner Local of the South
by Harrison “Whiz” Whisenant
In 1899, William McKinley was President of the United States. A year later, he would be assassinated, and Theodore Roosevelt would be his successor. It was the turn of the century, and Birmingham was a bustling city of more than 38,000 inhabitants. Sloss furnace had been in operation for eighteen years, and the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company was one of the area’s largest employees. Although organized labor was going through a lot of “growing pains,” its presence was being felt across the nation. The American Federation of Labor was only 13 years old, the United Association of Plumbers, Gas Fitters, Steamfitters, and Steamfitters Helpers had been in existence only 10 years, and in June 1899, Plumbers Local Union No. 91 was chartered.
There is evidence the Local was originally chartered in 1892, lapsed at some point, and was re- instated in April of 1899. Local Union 91 appears in the first issue of the UA Journal in October 1892. By September, 1899, Local 91 had 26 members.
It was clear from the start, Local Union 91 would lead the way in establishing fair wages and working conditions in the South. The first delegate to the UA Convention in 1899, and Secretary for Local Union 91, Charles Barnitz, wrote to the UA Journal in July 1901: “We had notified the master plumbers of the fact we were going to work only eight hours after May 1, 1901, and they did not take to it at once, but did after a few days… and now we have eight hours a day and seven on Saturday, with $3.50 per day. Not so bad for so far South, we think.”
This was somewhat of an understatement, since the average wage earner of that period could expect to make only about half that much. Some so-called “scabs” were doing plumbing work for as little as a dollar per day, and many factory workers only earned about $400 per year, sometimes less.
In Secretary W. M. Cannon’s report to the UA Journal in April, 1903, he proudly notes: “We are working only eight hours a day except Saturdays, and it’s a seven hour day, and $4 is the wages. For all overtime is time and one-half, double time on Sunday and four holidays. Local is fifty strong and only six helpers. They are registered and controlled by the local.”
He also notes: “Of course, Birmingham isn’t all organized yet, but very near it. All crafts are organized, and not to be for the union in this city, and if it once becomes known you are against it, you might as well leave. We believe that union men pay their dues, attend the meetings, and patronize only union people.”
In February, 1904, Local Union 91 became the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local Union 91. This faithful spirit of understanding the necessity of organization did not go unnoticed by the UA, and in August, 1904, the National Convention for the United Association of Plumbers, Gas and Steamfitters was held in Birmingham, Alabama. There were approximately 100 delegates in attendance.
The Convention was a tremendous success and established Local Union 91 as a most hospitable place to visit. Local brother William H. Proctor was elected as fourth Vice President of the United Association. Local Union 91 was presented with a “handsome silver service” for being the host local for the convention.
Delegates to UA Convention held in Birmingham, August 1904
Local 91 started meeting any place they could find in the early years. Places such as the Labor Temple Hall on 21st Street and 2nd Avenue in 1904, or the Eagles Lodge in 1908. It wasn’t until 1942 that the Local had its own building, the Plumbers and Steamfitters building at 419 1/2 N. 21st Street. They met every first and third Friday of each month, a tradition which continued until 1992.
A Union of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Service Technicians
Plumbers and Steamfitters Building
419 1/2 N. 21st Street, 1942
Through the years, Local Union 91 has proven itself a leader in efforts to improve the industry and working standards in Alabama. Now as we stand at the threshold of another century, the 21st century, our membership has grown from that small contingent of 26 plumbers, to an active list of 399 plumbers, pipefitters, and servicemen.
Local 91 represents the pipefitters at U.S. Alliance paper mill in Childersburg, Alabama. We have 165 retired members, 38 of whom are lifetime members, or members having fifty or more years of service. Our apprentice program is second to none, with dedicated instructors and 70 apprentices. Thanks to hard work and help from the United Association, our classrooms have the latest technological training aids to help our future craftsmen to met the challenges of the new millennium. We have an excellent journeyman training program to keep our members abreast of the latest advancements in our trade.
Local Union 91 members have served this nation honorably in both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and, also, in the Middle East. They have reached high offices in the United Association, the Alabama AFL-CIO, and are active in Federal, State, and Local politics. They are always striving to improve the communities in which they live. These “good citizenship” practices, as well as the union principle of a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” have been handed down from generation to generation. One need only look at the list of Local Union Officers in 1903 to find names that are still around today. Names like L. E. Dulion, Jerome Allen, John Tully, and in later years, H. B. Blackwelder, J. E. Ward, M. E. Burke, and so on.
It is with great pride that we celebrate our one hundredth birthday, but it is with great humility that we honor the sacrifices of those who went before us. As the members of Local Union 91 move into the 21st century, may we earn the respect of those yet to come. May God bless Local Union 91. May we always understand that through unity, there is strength, through cooperation, there is progress, and through love for one another, there is greatness. May it always be, in the words of William H. Proctor, President, Local Union 91, 1904, “The Banner Local of the South.”
About the United Association Nationally
The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada or “UA” as it is commonly known is a multi-craft union whose members are engaged in the fabrication, installation and servicing of piping systems. There are approximately 326,000 highly-skilled United Association members who belong to over 300 individual local unions across North America.
The United Association has been training qualified pipe tradesmen longer than anyone else in the industry. The UA boasts the premier training programs available in the industry today, including five-year apprenticeship programs, extensive journeyman training organized instructor training, and certification programs.
Two Nations, One Union
The bonds of brotherhood recognize no political or geographic boundaries when it comes to United Association membership. Ours is truly an international organization with more than 35,000 UA brothers and sisters located in Canada. Working with the same pride and determination as their fellow members in the U.S., our Canadian brothers and sisters continue to demonstrate the high degree of quality craftmanship necessary to construct the homes, schools, office buildings, refineries, power plants and industrial facilities necessary to a strong and vibrant national economy. At the same time, our fellow members north of the border play an important role in helping to maintain and promote United Association solidarity as we join together to reap the benefits of unionism and pride in our united cause.
How Does The United Association Operate?
The United Association is led by a group of General Officers who are elected by the delegates at a convention held every five years. Members who attend these conventions as delegates are elected by their fellow members at the local union level.
The General Office has many departments and functions, including Jurisdiction, Organizing, Training, Legislative and Safety. Each General Officer pledges to uphold the United Association constitution and to protect the interest and welfare of all members.
How Many Locals and Members Are In The United Association?
Currently there are over 300 local unions in the United Association, with in excess of 300,000 members.
The local unions are located in all of the 50 states of America and every province of Canada. Members are free to travel from one local area to another to satisfy the needs of local work conditions.
Founded in 1889, the United Association is one of the most respected and influential building trades unions in the U.S. and Canada today. It serves as a collective voice for workers through negotiation and collective bargaining with employing contractor groups, such as the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, and the National Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors. The UA is also a key member of the Building and Construction Trades Department, the AFL-CIO, and the Canadian Federation of Labour.