The Ironworker History
Message from the President and Business Manager
At Ironworkers Local 725 it is our goal to continue to provide a safe, productive workforce for our most valued partners, which are our signatory contractors, all while growing our membership and market share.
Since 1950, Local 725 has trained some of the best Ironworkers, Rodbusters and Welders in Canada allowing us to mold and shape Southern Alberta’s skyline. Our dedication to proper training and providing a safety driven product is what gives our contractors the upper hand.
Our membership benefits from the opportunity to work under Local 725’s Collective Bargaining Agreement which ensures higher wages, the best health care benefits in the industry, more secure jobs, safe working conditions, retirement benefits and a pension plan which allows our members to retire at a reasonable age with dignity.
“Thanks for visiting our page, and please work safe!”
President Ironworkers Local 725
A Brief History of Ironwork
The Beginning of Ironwork
The history of ironwork links closely to the Industrial Revolution in North America. Up until this time, carpenters had traditionally built the bridges spanning rivers and lakes in the United States. In the 1880s, however, new kinds of building materials — for example, cast iron — replaced wood and stone, and transformed the construction of bridges and buildings. Overnight, it seemed, bridge carpenters and blacksmiths became ironworkers.
By the early 1900s, a new building form began to take shape. The construction of skyscrapers, aided by the use of cranes, provided more opportunities for ironworkers to work on these structures. The dangerous and daring nature of the job attracted men looking for excitement, decent pay and camaraderie. However, adventure came with a price. The trade’s mortality rate was extremely high as safety equipment was non-existent and terrible accidents were common.
Crafting a Union
In 1896, in response to the rising health and safety concerns, as well as labor issues such as wages and working conditions, the first North American union for ironworkers was formed. Ironworkers organized themselves into craft unions in a number of U.S. cities in the 1880s and 1890s, but on February 4, 1896, delegates from various independent unions met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and formed the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. The choice of Pittsburgh as the first headquarters was apt: Pittsburgh is known as the City of Bridges, for the hundreds of bridges that span its rivers.
The new union soon established a $50 payment for the widows of ironworkers. This endowment covered funeral costs and paid disabled ironworkers $5 a week as compensation for lost wages. These mutual benefits were the forerunners of today’s comprehensive health and welfare, insurance, and pension schemes that are provided to unionized ironworkers.
The Ironworkers Grow
By 1901, the Bridge and Structural Workers Union had 6,000 members. One year later, more than 10,000 ironworkers held membership. By 1903, the union had reached an agreement to uphold an eight-hour day for ironworkers in most major U.S. cities, an achievement that was not matched in other sectors for many years. The first Canadian local, in Toronto, joined the International in 1902. More locals were formed over the next half of the twentieth century, including Calgary’s Local, 725, in 1950.
The Birth of Local 725: The 1950s
The Building Boom
The province of Alberta that emerged after World War II looked different than it had during the first part of the twentieth century. Although the oil and gas industry had always been an important part of Alberta’s economy, between the wars oil slowly overtook agriculture as the key contributor to the province’s economy. In late 1946, after the discovery of a huge oil deposit at Leduc, Alberta turned decisively toward oil production as its main economic driver. This oil wealth, part of the country’s postwar period of prosperity, opened up a new era of growth in the province.
Calgary’s fortunes mirrored those of the province. In the early part of the century, its economy was centred firmly on ranching and farming. By the early 1950s, however, Calgary reaped the benefits of the oil and gas industry. A building boom — both residentially and commercially — expanded the need for skilled tradesmen of all kinds, including ironworkers.
The Canadians Organize
After the war, Alberta ironworkers, a number of whom belonged to the Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, decided to join the International Association of Bridge, Structural & Ornamental Iron Workers. In 1949, General Organizer George Holland came to Canada to organize for the Ironworkers. Two locals were formed in Alberta soon after: Local 720 in Edmonton, in late 1949, and Local 725, in Calgary, on May 4, 1950. The Calgary Local’s first business manager was Tony Richter.
Local 725’s first offices were in the Calgary Labor Temple, at 229-11 Ave Southeast. The local stayed at the Temple until the late 1970s, when it sold its share in the building and moved to a new office.
Growing Local 725
The new local moved quickly to bring more of Calgary’s ironworkers into the union, and to certify their employers. On March 22, 1951, Local 725 received its first certification, as the recognized bargaining agent for ironworkers at the Dominion Bridge Company Ltd. Two months later, Locals 720 and 725 signed their first agreement: a one-year, province-wide agreement with Dominion Bridge, setting a journeyman ironworker’s hourly wage at $1.80.
Local 725 looked out for its members in other important ways too. The ‘Good and Welfare’ Fund was established in 1958, and the first ‘Health and Welfare’ Fund in 1959. Members contributed 5 cents per hour of pay to the plan. The premium for complete coverage at that time was $4.62 per member per month. It was the first step toward a full suite of benefits for members, including life insurance (which was set up in 1959) and pensions.
Back then, there was one company, Dominion Bridge, and they worked provincially. And so the crew from Calgary went up to Edmonton, because they had a job up there. And that’s where the certification went in, and they formed the local up there, but it was actually most of our guys that went up there. And then, when that job was finished, they came back here, and they formed the local here. So they granted Edmonton the charter in 1949. And ours was in 1950, in June.
Glen O’Neill, Local 725 President, 1983–85; Business Manager, 1985–2011
The Birth of Local 725: The 1950s
The Roar of 1960s
The postwar boom continued with a roar into the 1960s. It was a period of great prosperity. Sweeping social changes — feminism, the civil rights movement, and waves of new immigrants — changed the face of Canada. Universal health care and other important social programs changed the lives of all Canadians.
A global energy crisis brought on in 1973 by the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo initially brought on a downturn, but the resulting spike in energy prices quickly spurred a new boom in Alberta. In 1975, the provincial government created the Alberta Energy Company in response to the crisis, as a pathway for public-sector investment in the oil sector. As well, new infrastructure and social spending by governments of all levels helped create a building boom in Calgary and Edmonton. Trades workers of all kinds were in growing demand.
A Golden Time for Working People
Alberta’s unions made great gains in the ’60s and ’70s, despite anti-labour legislation that passed in the 1970s and whose effects would be devastating by the 1980s. Public sector workers, for example, finally organized in mass numbers during this time. Construction sector unions signed key agreements with both commercial and residential developers which significantly improved wages and working conditions for their growing memberships. Flush with new members, unions instituted important member benefits such as pensions, health and welfare benefits, and insurance plans.
Local 175 Expands and Celebrates
Local 175’s membership shared in the prosperity of this era, and in its expansion of pensions and more comprehensive health and welfare benefits to members. Both of these plans were implemented by the local in the early 1970s. By 1969, there were 322 members, and labour shortages were a common complaint amongst the local’s certified companies. One year later, Local 725’s 446 members were fully employed and working on a wide variety of projects.
By 1975, as Local 725 marked its 25th anniversary with a gala banquet at the Calgary Inn, there was much to celebrate. Its 525 members were working hard and prospering in a booming economy, and a fast-growing city, that showed no sign of slowing down. In late 1979, the local finally vacated its Calgary Labor Temple offices for a new space in the Union Center Building in southwest Calgary, which the local co-owned with a number of construction unions. The future looked bright; however, unwelcome changes were on the horizon.
In 1970, we got the pension. It was a nickel an hour paid on our behalf, and I got my first pension statement in ’71 and I was going to get four dollars and thirty-five cents when I retired!
Steve Freek, Local 725 President, 1991–2015
Hard Times, Big Changes: The 1980s
By the early 1980s, the boom had come to a crashing halt. A significant recession began in 1981, and deepened throughout the decade. Collapsing oil prices throughout this time precipitated a huge fall in construction starts across Alberta. Unemployment in the construction sector grew significantly. Inflation shot up, reaching 12.5% in 1981 and staying in the double digits for years.
The National Energy Program (NEP), introduced by the federal government in 1980, sought to promote redistribution of, and Canadian ownership over, the country’s oil and gas resources. The program was despised by Albertans; in response to it, Premier Peter Lougheed stopped development on several oil sands project and cut off energy supplies to eastern Canada. The economic crisis deepened, and governments began cutting back programs and slashing progressive labour legislation.
Lockouts, Strikes, and Collapsing Wages
With oil prices in free-fall, double-digit inflation and rising unemployment, a number of contractors used the growing number of unemployed workers to their advantage. In 1984, as collective agreements began expiring, Alberta’s Contractors’ Association implemented a 24-hour lockout of workers. The minute the lockouts expired, the contractors declared that a collective agreement no longer existed and drastically cut wages and benefits for their workers. For workplaces, in which contracts were still in place, contractors created “spin-off” companies, transferring their work from the previously unionized firms to the new, non-unionized entities. Strikes were common in the sector.
Crisis and Betrayal at Local 725
The impact on ironworkers was immediate and devastating. Membership fell from 840 in early 1980, when work was still relatively abundant, to roughly 400 by the early 1990s. A significant number of members moved to other provinces and to the United States to find work. Wages fell significantly as the full impact of the 24-hour lockout was felt. The Local was sometimes forced offer concessions to contractors, as it desperately tried to compete with non-union labour.
Within the local, another crisis unfolded. In the summer of 1979, auditors and the Health and Welfare Fund’s trustees discovered “significant discrepancies” in some of the local’s accounts. It was soon discovered that the local’s Business Agent, Joe Nicolls, had stolen more than $400,000 from its coffers. The International office moved to take control over the local, and in short order, charges were laid against Nicholls, who pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail. It was a difficult time that took up much of the board and staff’s attention for many months, as the local struggled to recover from its financial losses and move forward.
By the early 1990s, Local 725 was depleted with its members and staff demoralized and feeling defeated. Yet small rays of hope were evident. The local’s pension fund was growing steadily and providing a good income for retired ironworkers. By 1992, 320 pensioners were collectively drawing $200,000 in monthly benefits and assets were close to $65 million. The 1988 Winter Olympics, held in Calgary, brought much-needed work to hundreds of ironworkers.
Over time, the lockout provisions made everyone a lot weaker. And we were in dire straits as far as the union goes. When I took over the local in 1985, I think there was $38,000 in the bank. So there was no money. Lots of months, we couldn’t pay the International because we didn’t have the money. We’d pay them at the end of the month but we couldn’t pay them at the beginning of the month. Money was really tight. There was just no work.
Glen O’Neill, Local 725 President, 1983–85; Business Manager, 1985–2011
New Directions: The 1990s
The Rise of Neoliberalism
The 1980s and early 1990s had taken a significant toll on working people in Alberta, and on Local 725 and its members. By the mid-1990s, recovery seemed to be on the horizon. A recession in 1992 was the last major economic hurdle. By the mid-1990s, the economy was slowly beginning to improve.
In Alberta, the ascent of neoliberalism in the 1990s was personified and popularized by Premier Ralph Klein. His right-wing, anti-union mantra and belief in the virtues of privatization ushered in the “Klein Revolution,” a painful period of government cutbacks and program gutting that lasted through the 1990s.
By the early 2000s, the pain had started to ease. Rising oil prices and accelerating development of the oil sands created thousands of new, well-paid industrial jobs for ironworkers and other construction workers. And within Calgary, the oil boom created a demand for new office buildings and residential structures for the thousands of people moving to the city.
Local 725 Refocuses and Rebuilds
For Local 725, the late 1990s was the beginning of a new focus on organizing, training, upgrading, and health and safety. The union had achieved compulsory status for ironworkers in Alberta in the late 1980s (and is still the only jurisdiction in Canada to have this designation). This spurred a need for training that the local was well-positioned to fill. The imposition of new health and safety requirements across the construction sector also meant that ironworkers’ working conditions were changing, and that they needed training that could effectively accommodate these changes.
Local 725 also began to develop training programs for apprentices and journeymen in the late 1990s. Until this time, and since 1969, all ironworker training in the province had been conducted by two post-secondary technical institutions: NAIT (the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) and SAIT (the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology). NAIT and SAIT used the International’s materials, and the Local’s members, to teach its students.
There were however still challenges. Alberta remained a union-hostile environment, and the local was still forced, at times, to make concessions to compete with non-union labour. Newer labour organizations such as CLAC (the Christian Labour Association of Canada), which undercut legitimate trade unions through “sweetheart” agreements with contractors, made inroads into organizing some of the trades during this time.
In 2000, Local 725 celebrated its 50th anniversary with a large banquet and pin party at the Westin Calgary Hotel. Spearheaded by its Business Manager, Glen O’Neill, it also published a commemorative book that detailed the local’s history and honoured all members who had more than 20 years of service.
I actually saw a couple of people fall after the safety belt came in, right? Because we had the bad habit of getting up and trying to go somewhere and forgetting you’re tied on over there…. So you go to take a step and crash, you’re gone. But, of course, you don’t go very far! Rod Kilbride, Local 725 Recording Secretary, 1974–XX
Ironwork in the 21st Century
After the turn of the century, the Alberta economy roared back to life, thanks to a significant expansion of the oil and gas sector and an increasingly diversified economy. Immigrants — from within Canada and from around the world — flocked to the province, seeking steady work and better lives.
Calgary absorbed most of the newcomers to Alberta, and the city grew to accommodate them. It was the fastest-growing city in Canada between 2001 and 2006 and by 2011, its foreign-born population had increased by 24%. Infrastructure spending expanded in the city and across the province. The new projects employed thousands of construction workers, including ironworkers. The sector still struggled with decreasing levels of unionization and a growing “merit shop” movement, although: in 2010, just 39.9% of construction-sector workers were unionized. In addition, as the economy expanded, the government approved and facilitated the immigration of thousands of temporary (and non-union) foreign workers, a number of whom went to work for large construction companies.
I started in here in September 2001 as the apprenticeship coordinator. I didn’t know what I would be doing; I had no idea. So I started indenturing and then Glen asked me, “Are you able to do some training?” And I said, “Sure.” So I went and got my first aid instructor’s ticket. I built a fall protection course. I took Dale Carnegie, which really helped with teaching in front of people, and just started building all the courses that we have today. Rob Calver, Local 725 Apprenticeship Coordinator, 2001–2010; Business Manager, 2011–present
New Directions at Local 725
Local 725’s membership expanded as the economy grew. It began to put more resources into training and skills development. A new training coordinator, Rob Calver, was hired in September 2001, and he created a suite of training courses. These included falls protection training, first aid courses, health and safety, and foreman training (which expanded under an International initiative, IMPACT, the Ironworker-Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust, a joint labor-management trust begun in 2003).
A new program, Trade Winds. was also developed in partnership with the federal government in 2003. Trade Winds trains young First Nations workers to become apprentices in a number of trades, including ironwork. It is now funded mainly by industry partners. Trade Winds also brought women into the trade for the first time at Local 725, and their numbers continue to increase each year.
In 2005, the local applied for a $200,000 grant from a federal government program targeting union training initiatives. It received $180,000, contributed a matching amount as per the program guidelines, and set about creating a new training facility in an unused docking bay at the base of its office building on 21st Street Northeast. The demand for classes soon outstripped the local’s ability to provide them in this cramped space and the executive set about to buy the Local its own building, using funds from IMPACT and the union’s own resources.
In 2010, Local 725 bought a new building on 36th Street Southeast — its first purpose-built space and present location — and moved in after extensive renovations.
We were over on 2915 21st Street Northeast. And basically we moved within the same building. We went from an office to an office and apprenticeship. And then we moved down into offices and a small bay where we set up our welding. And I vowed I wouldn’t retire until we had our own building paid for. So that’s where it all came from. We started looking and we found this building and did a lot of work in here. Glen O’Neill, Local 725 President, 1983–85; Business Manager, 1985–2011
The Future of Ironworkers Local 725
Celebrating a Legacy
(Present – Beyond)
In 2015, Local 725 celebrated its 65th anniversary. Over those years, it had become one of the International’s strongest and most progressive locals. Its new building and ever-expanding education training programs filled an important role for aspiring, apprentice, and journeymen ironworkers. Its journey had not been without struggle, of course, but the dedication of its members, board, and staff had created a stronger, more accountable organization.
Outreach and services for its members continue to expand. The Local’s new Facebook page, Join Local 725, is one key initiative to grow its membership. Training programs that work with local high schools to help students learn the ironworking trade, and the continuing success of the Trade Winds program, are another important way of reaching, and training, the next generation of ironworkers.
Local 725 represented 721 members in 2015. Its jurisdictional area now covers approximately 150,000 square kilometres, from Red Deer to the United States border, and its members work on both commercial and residential projects within that area, as well as in other jurisdictions in Canada.
Challenges remain, of course. The effects of the oil price collapse in early 2015, for example, are still not fully known, but may have a significant impact on the local’s member. Yet, as its history has clearly shown, Local 725 will rise to this challenge, and others, and continue to serve its membership well into the future.