DETROIT – A century of service, fellowship and good work by Pipe Fitters Local 636 members was celebrated on March 29 at a huge ballroom gala at the Marriott Hotel at the Renaissance Center.
About 725 Local 636 members, spouses and well-wishers celebrated the union’s centennial, with speakers urging those in attendance that it’s important to remember the lessons of past when it comes time to plan for the future.
“One thing is clear,” said Southfield Congressman Sander Levin, who kicked off the round of brief speeches, “labor made the middle class of Michigan and the U.S. Before the labor movement got busy, wages were small, access to health care was small, and there were no pensions.”
His presence at the gala was significant, and symbolic: In the 1960s, Levin literally “wrote the book” to help assemble for Michigan the first state public employment labor relations bill in the nation as a member of the Senate Labor Committee. “It is my privilege to thank you for all you have meant to me all the people you have with their hands and their minds. Keep the 636 flag waving for another 100 years,” Levin said.
The MC of the event, Local 636 Business Manager Frank Wiechert, said the current economic and political strife is similar to the difficulties faced by Local 636’s founders. “As we start another 100 years, we have to remember those who persevered and endured” the difficulties the union experienced when it was started, he said. “The economic strife, the nonunion monkey on our back. But we outwork them, and that helps keep us vibrant and strong.
“Decade after decade the brothers and sisters have worked hard. We’re confident that we’re going to be successful and that the next 100 years will be brighter than the first.”
Local 636 was chartered on March 17, 1914 with the amalgamation of Steamfitters and Helpers Local 588 and Steamfitters Local 8, during an era of strong jurisdictional disputes among the pipe trades and competition from the nonunion.
Prior to the formation of Local 636 in 1914, the standard work-week for fitters was six 10-hour days, at $3 per day. That same year, Henry Ford famously began paying his workers $5 per hour. As Local 636 grew, the eight-hour day and 44-hour week was secured. By 1920, Local 636 was negotiating for $10 per hour – and with the higher wages, the nation’s middle class was beginning to form.
“At one time you would lose your house if you got sick,” said Pittsburgh Steamfitters Local 449 Business Manager Kenneth Broadbent, who was invited to speak at the Pipe Fitters’ party. “The unions started health insurance. The unions started the annuity funds. The unions started pensions. Young people have to be reminded who started all that. Over the next 100 years we have to collectively remember what others started for us: the middle class.
“Pipefitters Local 636 helped create the middle class, and that’s why we should celebrate this anniversary.” he added.
The last 100 years have seen boom and bust years in Detroit and Michigan. Organized labor has also seen its ups and downs over the years, with a right-to-work law being imposed on Michigan last year. Despite having the onerous title of a right-to-work state, “I don’t care what you hear from any politicians. I’m in a union state and I’m in a union town,” said United Association General Secretary-Treasurer Mark McManus. He lauded Local 636 for “doing every part of its charter, from service work to heavy industrial.”
Also appearing at the celebration was Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan who thanked attendees for their support in his successful mayoral campaign last November . He made a special effort to attend the Pipe Fitters’ 100th anniversary “in recognition of the 100 years of contributions you have made to the City of Detroit.”
He said the first thing he looks for when he visits another city is whether there are cranes in the skyline, and if the downtown is vibrant. He pointed out that the week before, construction on two apartment building projects, valued at a total of about $60 million, were announced in Detroit. They would be built, Duggan continued, near the M1 Rail Line along Woodward Ave., and not far from the proposed new Detroit Red Wings arena.
LOCAL 636 BUSINESS MANAGER Frank Wiechert shows a plaque from the UA International recognizing the local’s 100th anniversary. With him on the dais at the 100th anniversary party were (l-r) Pittsburgh Steamfitters Local 449 Business Manager Kenneth Broadbent, UA General Secretary-Treasurer Mark McManus and International Representative Gary Young.