Local 27 History

The history of the Plumbers Union in Pittsburgh dates back to the late 1870’s, when it was affiliated with the Knights of Labor and later with the American Federation of Labor. By the fall of 1889, it was definitely decided to apply to the United Association for a charter, which was granted on May 17, 1890.

The original membership consisted of approximately 90 craftsmen.

The Officers of the charter membership were Michael Joseph Counahan, Edward F. Welch and James J. McKee.

Mr. Counahan was the father of our esteemed member and popular City Councilman John F. Counahan. He was the Walking Delegate in those days (now called Business Representative). He was the first editor of the United Association monthly journal which was created at the third convention held in 1892. Michael Counahan was elected General Secretary of the United Association at the 1892 Convention and the next year he became the first General Secretary-Treasurer. His office was in his home on Dearborn Street, East Liberty, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He held this office until 1898 and the entire United Association still rests today on the foundation he helped build.

Other officers associated with Local Union No. 27 in the bygone days are Slattery, Bradley, Coleman, Callahan, Kennelly, Drisocll, Mahone, Lee, Coll, Toole, Beckett, Marsh, Wiseman, Savage and Charles Anderson who held the office of Treasurer and later was elected City Council.

The archives of the Plumbers Union contain many interesting facets of our great United Association. They reveal the second convention was held in the old Plumbers Hall at the corner of Market and Water Streets, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1890. They also reveal Financial Secretary James J. McKee was elected first Vice-President of the United Association at the twelfth convention held in Buffalo, New York, August 19, 1901.

Maurice Coll who served on the Examining Board of Local Union No. 27 and Finance Committee for many years was also a Vice President of the United Association.

The following article taken from the 1913 Christmas issue of the Iron City Trade Journal give some interesting data on our early days as a labor organization.

“At the election held in the Labor Temple on Webster Avenue on Tuesday evening, December 9, 1913, the members of Journeymen Plumbers Local Union No. 27 once again chose Mr. Ed Welch as their business agent. Mr. Welch was the first business agent for the plumbers in 1899 and 1900.

The membership in 1899 was about 300 members and their wage rate was $3.50 per day. During that period the plumbers were locked out by the employers on account of the apprenticeship question.

When Mr. Welch was Secretary of the Building Trades Council, there was no national organization of the build-trades, the Building Trades Council in each city stood alone. The Pittsburgh Building Trades Council was one of the best fortified and organized councils in the nation at that time.

During those early days of the organizing movement in this district, strikes and lockouts were the general rule, whereas at the present time (1913) they are the exception.

In 1904, the membership was 650. This does not mean that during this entire period only 350 new members were initiated, actually there were 1300 plumbers initiated during this period, but for several different reasons such as quitting the business entirely, becoming Master Plumbers, and moving to other localities, the membership was reduced to the number given above. At that time the Plumbers Union as one of the best organized trades in the district and was always affiliated with other trades, doing their part to organize the building industry and place it on a solid foundation.

The wage rate of the plumbers had been raised from practically no standard at all to $5.00 per day; the hours were reduced from 10 hours per day to 8 hours per day and 4 hours on Saturday.

The Plumbers Union was one of the first trades to secure this (On Monday, July 1, 1929, members of Plumbers Local Union No. 27 started working a five day week). Since the “Lockout” of 1905 by the Master Plumbers and up to 1913 the Plumbers Union had no labor disputes with the Master Plumbers and had signed an agreement which covered a period of five years, running through to 1917 which called for a wage increase of 50¢ per day in 1915 ($5.50 per day) and 50¢ again in 1917 making the daily wage rate $6.00 per day, as well as creating better working conditions than they had enjoyed heretofore.

The wage rate for the representatives of Plumbers Local Union No. 27 was $33.00 per week at this time. The new Agreement covered practically every shop within the boundaries of Greater Pittsburgh from Verona on the north, McKeesport on the southeast, Carnegie and McKees Rocks on the northwest, including all towns between. On the west the district ran below Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

Plumbers Local Union No. 27 passed through many trying times over the years. In 1905 Local Union No. 27 members struck for an advance of 50¢ per day. This dispute lasted eleven weeks.

Other trying times were during the Panic of 1907 when wages were paid in scrip money. Then the First World War broke out and many of our members went to war in the service of their Country. Those who were not called to service were forced to go to other states to seek work, mostly at army camp installations.

In June 1921, the “Lockout” took place. This was the result of the “American Plan” which claimed it was un-American for employers to sign a labor agreement. This predominately affected the building trades crafts throughout the United States and was similar to the present “Right to Work” effort. Many members of Local Union No. 27 walked the streets for eleven months.

On May 1, 1926, Plumbers Local Union No. 27 moved from the Iron & Glass Building on Fourth Avenue (between Grant St. and Ross Street) to a new location. The following notice was mailed to the members:

At a Special meeting of Local Union No. 27 held on Tuesday evening, March 16, 1926 in the Market House Auditorium, it was unanimously agreed to purchase the building at 1901-03 Fifth Avenue.

A Special Assessment of $25.00 was placed on each member to be paid at no less rate than $5.00 per year or as quickly as possible.

On and after May 1, 1926, the office of Local Union No. 27 will be at this number and meetings will be held on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at the new hall, 1901-03 Fifth Avenue.

In the following years the building assessment was combined with the initiation fee.

Charles J. Lawrence was elected Business Representative on Tuesday, December 11, 1923. Brother Lawrence had a very successful career as Business Representative which lasted for 31 years until his death on Wednesday, April 6, 1955.

Brother Vincent Leffler was elected to serve the unexpired term of Brother Lawrence and served as Business Representative until December 31, 1957.

The trying times continued in the Depression of 1931 when Plumbers Local Union No. 27 was confronted with a drastic wage cut from $13.75 per day to $12.00 per day. Employment was extremely low, with less than 20% of the membership working. Construction was seriously affected, with over 70% of the tradesmen in the Building Trades unemployed at the time.

As the winter of 1930-1931 moved along, the Officers and Members of Local Union No. 27 realized that only through unity would they be able to survive and hold Local Union 27 together. In a special order of business at the regular meeting held on Tuesday evening, February 3, 1931, after a long and lengthy discussion on the floor, it was moved and seconded that each member who was working be assessed $2.00 per day to be effective Monday, February 2, 1931. By a majority vote the motion was concurred in and the plan was put in effect.

An Unemployment Fund Committee was appointed, Brother Maurice Coll was Chairman. Reports would be made at each meeting, amount of funds collected, amounts disbursed, and total number of unemployed members reported. An unemployed member would receive $10.00 per week. These figures fluctuated for several years, depending upon employment, amount of fund collected, etc. Finally, the weekly unemployment fund check was reduced to $7.00 then $5.00. Also the working members assessment was reduced to five cents per hour. In 1937 as conditions improved the Unemployment Fund and Working Assessment was abolished.

We owe our forebearers a sincere vote of gratitude for their determination, sacrifice and fore-sight. We humbly accept the many advantages we enjoy today.

The year 1938 marked a period of reorganization. Because many members abandoned the Local during the Depression years, it was necessary to elect a second Business Representative. The election took place on Tuesday, April 19, 1938. Brother John F. Counahan was elected. After a very successful career of organizing and handling the affairs of Local Union No. 27, Brother Counahan was elected to City Council in November 1951.

Our late Brother John F. McCaffrey was elected Financial Secretary-Treasurer on Tuesday, June 7, 1932, following the death of Brother James J. McKee on May 11, 1932. Brother McCaffrey served in this position for 23 years until his death on Monday, August 8, 1955.

As a result of some strenuous collective bargaining between Plumbers Local Union No. 27 and the Plumbing Contractors Association of Pittsburgh and Vicinity, Inc., an Agreement and Declaration of Trust was made and entered into on the 1st day of December 1952, covering life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment, sickness and accident hospitalization, surgical benefits and dependent coverage became effective January 1, 1953. Effective March 1, 1965 the Board of Trustees of the Plumbers Welfare Fund increased benefits in the Plan.

A Pension Fund for eligible retired members of Local Union No. 27 was established through collective bargaining between Plumbers Local Union No. 27 and the Plumbing Contractors Association of Pittsburgh and Vicinity, Inc. which was made effective June 1, 1956.

Competent actuarial, legal and accounting guidance helped develop Local Union No. 27’s Pension Fund on a sound basis.

Effective January 1, 1965 the Board of Trustees of the Plumbers Pension Fund proposed to the members additional changes and improvements to the plan.

A Blood Bank was established in January of 1962 for any member of Local Union No. 27 who desired to join, and a Credit Union was established in November of that same year for the benefit of all members of Local 27.

In 1964, a three year collective bargaining agreement was entered into between the Associated Plumbing Contractors of Pittsburgh, Inc. and Plumbers Local Union No. 27, which included a package of 67 ½¢. This agreement was in force from June 1, 1964 to May 31, 1967 with a rate of $4.78 ½ per hour.

In 1966 the officers and members of Local Union 27 recognized a non-union condition developing in the residential and small commercial field and the Executive Board proposed to the membership that Brother Leo Bigley, a Board Member, be appointed as the first paid full time organizer of the Local and this was adopted by the membership. Brother Bigley served as Organizer until the construction in the area slowed and Brother Bigley proposed position be terminated.

In 1967, as work in the are picked up, the Contractors Association requested support of the United Association to increase the number of plumbers in the area, even though there was unemployment in the local union. In answer to the contractors request along with Local Union 27’s commitment to organize the residential and small commercial field, the United Association sent Special Organizer Joseph Perry to Pittsburgh to assist with our organizing efforts. Every member of the Local Union participated in the organizational drive through picking or through personal contributions into a picket fund. This practice is still in effect today. The combined efforts of Brother Perry and Local Union 27 were quite successful, a point that is debated pro and con to this day with approximately 100 shops and 400 journeymen being organized.

One of the recommendations of Brother Perry was that due to the size of the Local Union 27’s territory and with much of the construction moving to the outlaying section of the jurisdiction of the local union that two additional Business Agent positions be created. This was put into practice in January 1968 and the office of Business Manager was established and filled by Brother Johns, who held the position until his retirement in January 1974. Brother Joseph P. Allen served in the office of Financial Secretary-Treasurer until his retirement in January of 1974. Brothers Joseph Steimer and Joseph Holleran were elected to the newly created positions and joined Brother John Francis Landy as Business Agents. Brother Landy continued in the office of Business Agent until his untimely death in February of 1968. In April of 1968, Brother William Wiseman was elected to the unexpired term of Brother Landy.

These Brothers earned great popularity with the members by serving them well.

Brother Joseph Holleran was elected Business Manager and took office in January 1974 and served our Local Union until his appointment to the United Association Apprenticeship Training Program. Brother Holleran recognized the need of journeymen welders in our are and with the help of the Apprenticeship Coordinator, Ray Vaughan, a Holleran appointment, and Brother Vince DeNova, the welding instructor of Local Union 27, initiated an accelerated journeyman welding program and within one year had trained 85 certified Heli-ARC welders from the membership and within two years we had 211 certified welders. This opened many job opportunities for the membership. The welding program continues today and the dividends to both the members and the contractors are far reaching.

In 1974 reciprocal agreements were in place with all Local Union in the state, however, and inequity existed because our pension fund contribution was low, thereby our members working in sister United Association Locals would not receive their full contributions. This was corrected by increasing our retirement security fund. While there was much opposition to the change by many of our members, it has proved to be an excellent move for the members.

Brother Robert Slater was elected as Financial Secretary Treasurer in December 1973 and served in that capacity until his retirement in January of 1983. At this time the membership elected to combine the office of Business Manger and Financial Secretary Treasurer. Brother Slater was a very active member of the Apprenticeship Committee and instrumental in the purchase of the first and present training facilities.

Brother Leo Bigley replaced Brother Joseph Steimer in January of 1971 as Business Agent, a position he held until he became Business Manager-Financial Secretary Treasurer in 1995. Brother Bigley was the Business Manager – Financial Secretary Treasurer until his retirement in January of 2003, during which time he also served as the President of Pittsburgh Building Trades Council.

Brother William Wiseman, after 12 years as Business Agent, replaced Brother Joseph Holleran in January 1980 as Business Manager. Brother Wiseman along with Brothers Vaughan and DeNova continued to promote our welding training and established a program to certify our welders with the Columbia, Equitable and Peoples Gas Companies in the Pittsburgh area. In addition, Local Union 27 became the only building trade union to receive a C.E.T.A. Grant to provide welding training for unemployed members. The teaching of labor history was introduced to the Apprentice Program and the first building project in Pittsburgh was financed by union pension funds. Brother Wiseman is presently a mediator for the Department of Labor and Industry for the State of Pennsylvania.

After one term as Business Agent, Brother Thomas Madigan was elected the first Business Manager / Financial Secretary-Treasurer of Local Union No. 27. In 1983, in an effort to cut the operating cost of the Local Union, the two offices were combined. Brother Madigan successfully promoted the idea again in 1988 with the elimination of one Business Agent. The local now operated with one Business Manager / Financial Secretary-Treasurer and two Business Agents. It remains this way today.

Brother Andrew Hovanec served as Business Manager / Financial Secretary-Treasurer from 1989 to 1995, after serving 5 continuous terms as elected Business Agent.

Brother Robert Fleischel was elected to the office of Business Agent and took office in January of 1989 and served until January 1998.

Brother Reed Martin was elected Business Agent in January of 1995 and served until December of 2002, when he was elected Business Manager / Financial Secretary-Treasurer to fulfill the unexpired term of Leo Bigley and was elected another term and served until his retirement in January of 2006, leaving an unexpired term of Business Manager / Financial Secretary-Treasurer.

The unexpired term was filled by Brother Thomas Bigley, who remains in that position today. Brother Bigley served as Business Agent for three years prior to taking over as Business Manager / Financial Secretary-Treasurer.

Brother James Falconio was elected and began his term as Business Agent in January of 1998 and remains in that position today, with intentions on retirement in January of 2007.

Brother Martin O’Toole was elected Business Agent in 2006 and served until 2012, when he was elected Business Manager, Financial Secretary-Treasurer, where he serves today.

Ronald Reiber was elected Business Agent in 2007 to present.

Edward Bigley was elected Business Agent in 2012 to present.

In 2013, the United Association made the decision to consolidate the territories of Pittsburgh Plumbers Local # 27 and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local # 47. The members of the former Local # 47 were assigned by craft to both locals 27 and 449 respectively. Local # 27 now consists of 15 counties total stretching south from Greene County as far north as Erie. Also added were new Business Agent Thomas Sandell and Organizer William Carl. Brother Sandell maintains the 7 most northern counties of Erie, Warren, McKean, Crawford, Mercer, Venango, and Forest. Brother Carl organizes in all 15 counties.