Local 442 Experienced Good Times, Bad Times
When the Journeymen Plumbers and Gas Fitters, Local 442, received their charter from the United Association in 1913, business in San Francisco was good.
The city was still rebuilding from the 1906 earthquake, and the building boom meant lots of work for Local 442's members.
This continued through the Transpacific Panama Exposition of 1915 (held in San Francisco, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal), and through the mobilization for World War I.
But the growth of organized labor brought a swift and powerful response from the reactionary business, financial and manufacturing interests throughout the country.
A world-wide "Red scare" in 1920--the Communist revolution in Russia had taken place just three years earlier -- led to the Palmer Raids in which thousands of activists, many from labor, were rounded up and jailed.
And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found fertile soil for a major anti-union campaign called "the American Plan."
In San Francisco, the Industrial Relations Committee of the Chamber of Commerce established the Industrial Association, which, working with the Builders Exchange, an employers' organization, set out to break the back of the city's unions.
In January 1922 the city's Building Trades Council refused to submit to an across-the-board wage cut, and the employers responded with a citywide lockout.
When the unions agreed to accept the new rates, the employers offered to rehire only those men who agreed to work in open shops.
In March 1922, Local 442 and Local 509 held a joint meeting and voted to go on strike against the American Plan. What followed was a brutal, vindictive struggle which dragged on for more than 14 months.
The Builders Exchange required special permits for anyone purchasing building supplies in San Francisco, and issued those permits only to contractors with open shops.
Despite cooperative efforts between the unions and signatory employers to work out a mutual assistance program, no one could handle a complete lack of building supplies.
After 14 months the Local 442 treasury was depleted, only a few employers were holding out, and contributions from outside unions, which had been plentiful at the strike's beginning, were dwindling.
Those members who were working were making heroic efforts to support their union brothers -- some contributing as much as $400 and $500 in addition to their dues.
But perhaps most disheartening was that San Francisco's building boom was continuing--just with non-union labor.
Finally the members of Local 442 and 509 voted to return to work. And bolstered by its victory, the Industrial Association continued its onslaught.
The Association maintained a hotel in town to house scabs recruited from throughout the country. And it opened a plumbers training school on Bush Street--referred to as the "American Plan School."
Members could be fired for just belonging to a union, so many of Local 442's members held their cards in secret.
Union membership declined. Working conditions and wages became deplorable, and got even worse with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.
At that point union and non-union plumbers alike were thrown out of work, and from 1929 to 1933 conditions in the trade hit a new low.
But the next two years brought changes that would put labor on the march.
President Franklin Roosevelt began to get the economy moving, and the Wagner Act, which guaranteed the right of working men and women to be represented by labor unions, became law.
But one of the most powerful pushes came from San Francisco, and from the labor movement itself.
In 1934 being a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks was difficult. The job paid about $10 per week, and men were hand chosen by corrupt dock bosses.
Years of dissatisfaction erupted in May, when 35,000 workers from Seattle to San Diego went on strike. Led by the Industrial Association, the San Francisco police tried to break the strike, and a virtual war was on.
The culmination of the war came in July, when two strikers were gunned down by the police.
Starting with a 35,000 person funeral parade down market street, a "stupendous and reverent procession that astounded the city," San Francisco labor shut down the city for four days.
The San Francisco General Strike is one of the most famous events in the history of the labor movement, and one of the most inspiring.
Once again labor was a power in the city, unionism exploded and construction workers flocked to the building trades by the thousands.
The Industrial Association vanished, and along with it, its brutal permit system. Working conditions began to improve.
In the late 1930s, The San Francisco city employees of the Water Department joined Local 442, and in 1942 UA Local 702, gas and appliance fitters, merged with 442.
Work was growing, labor was expanding, and the 700 members of Local 442 managed to rebuild their once tattered union.