Looking Back, Moving Forward
Seven decades have passed since six autonomous local unions came together in 1939 to form what is now Local 18 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Initially chartered as the Hoisting and Portable Branch of the International Union of Operating Engineers and amalgamated as Locals 18, 18A and 18B. (Local 18C was chartered in 1941.)
Territorial jurisdiction was 85 of Ohio’s 88 counties and four northern Kentucky counties – Kenton, Campbell, Boone and Pendleton. (Local 66 in Pittsburgh has jurisdiction in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbia counties in Ohio.)
Records were merged in Cleveland, then the nation’s sixth largest city, and each of the original locals turned in its surplus to a common treasury. Local officers continued as district officers, and their duties and functions remained the same as they had been earlier.
It seemed as if good times were just around the corner. The Great Depression was nearing an end, but nobody realized a great war would replace it just two years later. If there can be any kind of positive side to war it is that the economy – and employment – improves when a nation goes to war.
The War Years – and the Decade Beyond
Throughout the war years (1941-45), Local 18 was involved in several major defense projects, employing from 45 to 1,000 members. Projects included the Ravenna Ordnance Plant, Curtiss-Wright plants in Cincinnati and Columbus, Plum Brook (now a NASA facility) near Sandusky, a naval ordnance plant in Canton and improvements at Patterson and Wright (separate at the time) airfields in Dayton.
In non-defense work during that period, Local 18 members were active in construction of the seven-mile $8,600,000 Columbia Parkway in Cincinnati.
The post-war boom brought huge growth in home construction and while homes were being built up, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was trying to tear unions down. Among its negative aspects, the bill narrowed union actions in support of collective bargaining, banned sympathy strikes, mass picketing, secondary boycotts and political contributions. It also outlawed the closed shop and authorized states to pass legislation which superseded federal labor law.
The ’50s – The Up and Down Years
The union situation in the early 1950s can well be explained by a simple description of newly elected Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet as “eight millionaires and a plumber.” The plumber, Martin Durkin, former president of the Journeymen Plumbers and Steamfitters Union, resigned as secretary of labor within a year.
But there were good times, too.
In spite of opposition from business owners on U.S. Rt. 20, concerned it would turn their areas into ghost towns, work began on the first segment of the Ohio Turnpike, between Youngstown and the Pennsylvania state line in 1953. It opened on December 1.
Work really “kicked in” in 1954, when the following equipment was being used on the job during double shifts. There were 518 dozers, 368 scrapers, 731 haul trucks, 99 graders, 21 loaders, 79 roller/compactors, 131 cranes, 65 pavers, 29 mixers and 17 batch plants on site. The entire 241-mile turnpike opened in 1955 – two years before President Eisenhower promoted the interstate highway concept.
In January, 1954 Local 18 dedicated its new facility on Prospect Ave. This new home replaced rented space on the second floor of a building at High and East Fourth streets.
Business interests were not only concerned about the so-called hardship the turnpike would cause them, many were sure it was the right time to pass a right-to-work amendment to Ohio’s constitution.
Republican Governor C. William O’Neill led the fight, and it was definitely a losing one for Ohio’s commercial and industrial interests. When placed on the ballot in 1958, it not only lost by a two-to-one majority, the amendment won in only 16 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
A Changing World in the Changing Sixties
Republicans did gain a measure of revenge in 1960 when Richard Nixon, a candidate for the U.S. presidency, received a larger plurality in the state than anywhere in the nation, even though he lost the election to John F. Kennedy.
That overwhelming vote did carry the Republicans to victory in both houses of the state legislature. That impetus held over for a few years and helped James A. Rhodes get elected governor in 1962.
Because he authorized building of airports, state office buildings, prisons and other public structures, including several two-year colleges, Local 18 members were kept busy. The one job they did not get to work on was the governor’s idea to build a bridge from Ohio across Lake Erie to Ontario, Canada. The Canadians weren’t of a similar mind and the idea never got off the ground (literally). And Local 18 members lost out.
In 1964 the public voted for a maximum of $500 million to be used for road construction. It was necessary to have the issue voted on because the state’s constitution of 1851 still required the state’s bonded indebtedness not to exceed $750,000. A lot of money in 1851, but not very much in the 1960s.
With that increase available, work began on a freeway to connect Cleveland to Cincinnati, and I-71 became reality.
In 1968 Local 18 began issuing a new publication called the Buckeye Engineer. It was the first publication put out by the local since an earlier publication, The Operating Engineer, had appeared for several years in the 1950s. Among the first items discussed in early editions of the new publication were plans for a new training site near the Akron/Canton Airport and organization of Local 18’s first steward classes.
Downtime in the ’70s
Remember that fellow who lost the 1960 election? By the beginning of the decade of the ’70s, Richard Nixon was president and not only did he withhold money from the Highway Trust Fund, he suspended Davis-Bacon provisions on all federally funded projects, which gave new impetus to non-union and open shops.
The construction season of 1970 was one of the worst ever, and it did not improve rapidly. In 1973 the state’s road expenditure for the year was only $207 million, the lowest in 10 years.
Perhaps, as a result of the government’s indifference to working people, union membership in the mid-1970s had climbed to 21.7 million, the highest in history. Among that number were three new Local 18 apprentices, women, for the first time ever. Two were working in District 5 and one in District 2, and they were fortunate to be working since unemployment in the state in 1975 was 433,356.
Passage of the federal Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill in 1978 was designed to reduce unemployment to 4% and inflation to 3% in 1983. Well, by 1983 inflation was over 6% and unemployment was at 9.6%
Unfortunately, there was worse to come.
The ’80s-A Poor Beginning, a Good Ending
If things were bad in Ohio in the 1970s, they were even worse during the decade of the ’80s. In 1986, the centennial of the formation of the AFL, Local 18’s business manager said “this was the worst year in our history.”
Economic times were so difficult, the Buckeye Engineer was changed from a monthly to a quarterly publication.
But things started to improve, but ever so gradually.
The election of Democrat Richard Celeste as Ohio governor was a start, especially when he announced his “Operation Jobs for Ohioans,” six initiatives to improve the state of the state.
One of those initiatives was “Operation Jobs – Highways.,” a $1.9 billion highway construction and jobs program. Other initiatives which affected Operating Engineers dealt with coal and water.
In addition, the federal Highway Transportation Assistance Act of 1984 had made more than $5.2 billion available for the 1984-85 fiscal year to help “prime the road construction pump.” The General Assembly’s passage of a 5.2 cents-a-gallon gas tax to begin to fix the state’s dilapidated highway system was another positive for the union.
By 1987, Local 18 was the closest to full employment that it had been since 1979, and the 1989 50th anniversary celebration meant there could be something to celebrate.
A Century Ends
As the 20th century drew to a close, some of the same old problems, including jurisdictional disputes, arose. The National Associated Builders and Contractors worked to have Ohio repeal prevailing wage and brought up something that had gone down to resounding defeat almost half a century earlier – turning Ohio into a right-to-work state.
But all was not doom and gloom. There was some boom-almost!
In 1993 a new state program, “Access Ohio,” was announced. It called for ODOT to rebuild, construct or improve major portions of the infrastructure that would handle the state’s needs into 2020 and beyond. As great as it sounded, it never became reality.
Although that idea was a “waste,” the idea behind hazardous waste was not.
A year after “Access Ohio” was announced, Local 18 held its first radiation training class as the local signed a historic agreement for hazardous waste removal at the Fernald Uranium Processing Plant.
That same year, Stationary Local 589 became Local 18S as a result of a constitutional change at the International.
A New One Begins
It was the start of what was termed the millennium, but even that brought dissension. What was the real date for the breakdown of all technology, as many were concerned would happen, January 1, 2000 or January 1, 2001. Actually, it didn’t matter because in spite of all the planning and concerns about computers and electronic gadgetry going wild, nothing happened.
But things were happening in the state and with Local 18.
Term limits for elected Ohio officials went into effect in 2000, and they would change the way politicians ran for office.
Changes early in the decade/century for Local 18 included dedication of the Cygnet all-weather training center, and an increasing need for member certifications to be eligible to run various kinds of equipment.
The biggest change was not with Local 18 or the state, but the devastation of September 11, 2001, and the eventual invasion of Iraq. Many Local 18 members volunteered their assistance after 9/11, and many were called to active duty as a result of the president’s actions in Iraq.
As important as it was to Local 18, it seemed a little less important when the Ohio Supreme Court approved Project Labor Agreements .
There was activity in Columbus as Governor Taft announced his $5 billion 10-year Jobs and Progress program that included a great deal of positive action for Local 18. On the other side of the Columbus coin, a right-to-work bill popped up again, although it was to go nowhere.
Labor Day, 2003 was somewhat unique in Local 18’s annals when President Bush came to Richfield to speak to the holiday crowd.
With a changing economy and a changing marketplace, Local 18 began to place more and more emphasis on organizing with a goal of organizing 100% of all of the contractors within its jurisdiction.
There were other changes, also as Local 18 offices in Cincinnati, Toledo and Cleveland were renovated and remodeled.
It was fitting that as Local 18 neared its 70th anniversary, that it too was remodeling and renovating, creating new ideas and concepts not even dreamed of in 1939 as the local began its stretch drive to its centennial.
Living in Interesting Times
There supposedly is an ancient Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times” – that is neither ancient nor Chinese. But it does describe the period during which Local 18 headed toward its 2014 75th anniversary.
There were new markets to conquer and old challenges to resolve. There were positive advances and some negative results. There were changes in government policies and changes in governmental attitudes. It truly was an interesting time.
The fight against Right-to-Work took on more meaning as some neighboring states, known for their strong union membership, reneged on earlier anti-RTW vows, and capitalized on the anti-union attitude of conservative elected officials.
Local 18’s Labor History classes and its Keep Ohio’s Heritage program continued to strongly emphasize the need to continue to fight this insidious movement.
Jurisdictional disputes arose, as contractors defied the contracts they had signed, insofar as operating equipment, primarily skid steers and forklifts, was concerned. Lawsuits kept the NLRB and the courts busy making decisions, both pro and con.
But it was not all doom and gloom.
A prediction in 2011 by then Business Manager Sink about the potential for employment in the new-to-Ohio capture of gas reserves became reality as thousands of Local 18 members found employment in this growth field.
A couple of years later that growth potential achieved new levels when Governor Kasich and ODOT creatively leveraged bond funds for road work and bridge construction. Later, the governor announced creation of a multimillion dollar fund to repair the state’s bridges, another boon to Local 18 employment.
Internally, the union continued to change when a merger between District 4 and District 5 took place, with District 4/5 becoming a new entity with new headquarters.
District 6 also got new headquarters, a new facility built by members from various trades.
It was definitely an “interesting time.”