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The very institution of apprenticeship in steamfitting traces its origin to the training program established in Chicago in 1919 as a result of the initiative of Local 597 and its Business Manager, Charles Rau.

The first step that led to this program was the merger of local 598, the Helpers union, with 597 in April of 1915. Under the terms of the agreement to merge, any helper with 5 years experience in steam fitting, automatically became a journeyman with 597. Other members of 598 would become members of 597 after they completed a five-year term of work as a helper. Since no new helpers were to be admitted to the union, this in effect started the gradual elimination of the institution of helper in Chicago steam fitting and opened the door for formal apprenticeship.

For many years, Chicago was the only city that had a systematic apprentice program. The major obstacle with other locals was the institution of helper. The trade of steam fitting was a two-man team, with the helper being a permanent occupation. This arrangement offered little opportunity to train apprentices. Also, as long as employers could recruit journeymen from the rank of helper, they saw no need for a formal apprenticeship program.

Charles Rau, with the joint efforts of cooperation from the employers association, the Board of Education and Local 597, the institution of apprenticeship was created in 1919. The apprenticeship program was conducted by a Joint Board of Arbitration composed of representatives of Local 597 and the Master Steam Fitters’ Association. The apprenticeship term was set at five years, an employer had to keep an apprentice for at least ten months each year. Class work was originally set at eight hours a year and with night school for eight weeks, of each of the first four years of apprenticeship. This was soon changed to one full day of class work, every two weeks, for the entire apprenticeship.

The classes, held at Washburn Trade School, were math, science, and mechanical drawing. Welding was being taught at night and many older members were attending classes to make themselves more proficient. Formal classroom curriculum, nationwide for the steam fitters, occurred in 1938.

An agreement was reached regarding “Apprentice Rules” in 1921 and wages were as follows:

  • First Year -$0.45 per hour
  • Second Year – $0.50 per hour
  • Third Year – $0.65 per hour
  • Fourth Year – $0.70 per hour
  • Fifth Year – $0.80 per hour (This rate to go into effect January 1, 1927)

During the 5 year period, an initiation fee of $250 will be paid to the Steam Fitters’ Protective Association, at the rate of $50 per year. The apprentice will have the same rights as journeymen steam fitters but will not be allowed to attend meetings or vote. The first apprentice coordinator for Local 597 was William H. Davies.

Chicago has played an instrumental role in the development of the piping industry since the inception of unions. The original UA headquarters was located in Chicago. Shortly after the UA was formed, the Steam Fitters’ Protection Association Local 2 of the International Association was organized, holding their first meeting at the Plasterers’ Hall in 1885.

Workers were on the job 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. Safety of workers was not a concern to most employers. Wages were low, and workers had no protection against medical bills if they were injured on the job. With the establishment of the Protection Association, steamfitters were able to negotiate with their employers, striking for the first time in 1886 to get an eight hour work day. Further negotiations brought health benefits and retirement plans to protect workers from unforeseen disaster.

Local 597 has enjoyed a stable history, electing only five Business Managers since 1900 when “Walking Delegates” were replaced by Business Managers. Charles Rau served his Union well for 50 years, 1901 – 1951. Martin J. Ward served as Business Manager from 1951 – 1958.

Francis X. McCartin became a legend in the labor movement during his 43 years as Business Manager 1958 – 2001. The Francis X. McCartin Training Center became Chicago’s first union apprenticeship training facility.

Elected in 2001, James Buchanan served as Business Manager for 15 years and took apprenticeship training to a new level, with the construction of a state-of-the-art training facility in Mokena, Illinois.

In 2016, Kevin Morrissey assumed the role as our 5th Business Manager and has committed to preserving the future of our trade by focusing on mentorship and technological innovations.  Through Mr. Morrissey’s leadership, a satellite training center has been established in Northwest Indiana to serve the membership.

In 1960 John F. Kennedy said, “Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor – those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized – do a disservice to the cause of democracy.” Local 597 has indeed fought to keep America’s standard of living one of the highest in the world, through fair wages, reasonable working hours and the safest possible working conditions for its members.

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