Our History

From Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers to SMART

By Eric J. Brown, Retiree, former Business Representative (South Bend Area) and Political Activist

The time from 1870 through1900 is referred to as “The Gilded Age” in United States history. Mark Twain coined the term when he used it to satirize a time of serious social issues masked by a thin gold gilding. It was an age of rapid economic growth that benefited skilled workers by rewarding them with higher wages than those in Europe. It was also an era that saw abject poverty and inequality as wealth became highly concentrated and millions of immigrants poured into the United States. Labor unions gained importance in industrial settings. Workers marched for shorter work days and higher wages. Peaceful demonstrations were attacked by police and armed security guards across the nation. It was during this time in the 1880’s that 62 international unions were formed. One of them was the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers International Association.

Robert Kellerstrass was the recording secretary for the Tin and Cornice Makers Association of Peoria, Illinois. He believed a strong national group would give locals, and thereby their members, more strength to deal with labor issues they all faced. In 1887, Kellerstrass began writing to other locals expressing his thoughts and gained support for a meeting to consider forming a united organization.

Archibald Barnes of Kansas City, Missouri and Kellerstrass sent the official convention call. Eleven delegates representing organizations from Peoria, Kansas City, Omaha, Memphis, Toledo, Dayton and Youngstown met in Toledo, Ohio on January 25, 1888. Sessions addressing problems of wages, hours and working conditions, along with labor relations and construction industry matters were held for four days. Delegates agreed on the name of the new organization. They chose Barnes to be the president. A. W. Chatfield of Kansas City was selected as secretary and Kellerstrass became the treasurer. The union grew from seven locals in 1888 to 108 by 1893 and was represented in every major city.

In 1889 the fledgling American Federation of Labor issued a charter to the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers International Association. The union’s finances collapsed after the Panic of 1893 seriously weakening the new union. In 1896 the AFL revoked the union’s charter, even though many locals still existed. The union reorganized at the Detroit convention in 1896 changing its name to the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association. The AFL issued a new charter to the union in 1899.

A group of sheet metal unions from New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Chicago broke from the International Association and formed a rival group calling themselves the National Sheet Metal Alliance in 1901. Both organizations fought to represent sheet metal workers in those jurisdictions. The National Alliance sent circulars to locals of the International Association accusing it of being “in league with the Employers’ Association” and inciting Association locals to strike Alliance locals performing work in disputed cities. The Alliance also accused the officers of the International Association of malfeasance.

The fight came to a head in Chicago when representatives of each side were to meet to settle all grievances. The meeting scheduled for April 3, 1903 never took place. Instead, M. N. Castleman, Hugh Frayne, Lee Martin and James Feeney representing the International Association by previous arrangement went to the headquarters of the Chicago local to try and bring about peace. Chicago newspapers reported a shootout took place in the office and that the International representatives believed they were lured there to be assassinated. Castleman was fatally wounded. Frayne stated, “In the meantime the Pouchot forces had made good their escape. Judging from what transpired it was a deliberate attempt to kill all four of us, and the quarrel picked with Castleman was done with but one purpose, and that was to lead us into a fight and then murder us. When we went up the stairs we had to pass through a gauntlet of men, and when Tallman was picking the fight with Castleman, Pouchot shouted to lock the door.”

On Sunday April 26, 1903, the day before the opening of the Milwaukee Convention, a committee representing the Chicago local of the National Alliance and three members of the Master Sheet Metal Workers’ Association Of Chicago met with the Executive Board of the International Association to ask that a proposal for a conference between the International Association and the National Alliance be put before the convention delegates. The proposal was accepted and on April 30 the joint committee went into conference.

An agreement was struck. The joint committee would write a new constitution to be presented to the convention delegates. Alliance members would be admitted to the convention and be allowed to vote on the adoption of the new constitution. The committee took five days to draft the new constitution and it was adopted by the convention delegates. The changes to the constitution printed in Vol. VIII No.6 of the Journal state, “Article I. Name. Section 1 This association shall be known as the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ Alliance…”. However, the association referred to itself on the cover of the May 1903 Journal as the “Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ International Alliance”.

New officers were elected, General President Richard Pattison of New York City, First Vice-President August O. Herget of St. Louis, Second Vice-President M. O’Sullivan of Pittsburg, third Vice-President Charles S. Penn of San Francisco, Fourth Vice-President John T. McTigue of Nashville, Fifth Vice-President J. S. Annabel of Toronto, Sixth Vice-President Frank O. Mattoon of Chicago and General Secretary/Treasurer John E. Bray of Kansas City. Delegates to the American Federation of Labor convention were J.P. Downey of Albany, C. D. Wheeler of Chicago and Harry Kurten of Philadelphia. Pattison, O’Sullivan, Wheeler and Kurten were joint conference members representing the National Alliance. McTigue and Downey were joint conference members representing the International Association. General Secretary/Treasurer John Bray was the only officer re-elected.

In 1907 the union merged with the Coppersmiths’ International Union. At the 1924 convention held in Montreal, Quebec, delegates voted to change the union’s name to Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association. The current name change came about when a merger with the United Transportation Union took place in 2012 and was consummated at the first general convention, held in Las Vegas, Nevada in August 2014, of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

Source: “The Sheet Metal Workers’ Story, A Chronical of Fine Craftsmanship 1888-1980” by Arch A. Mercey

Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ Journal Vol. VIII No. 2

Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ Journal Vol. VIII No. 5

Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ Journal Vol. VIII No. 6