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Published: Monday, 9/1/2003

2 unions to mark 100 years by leading Labor Day parade

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Before the stock market collapse in 1929, Toledo's unionized ironworkers were sky-high.

Members of Ironworkers Local 55 were busy building their premier project: the Anthony Wayne Bridge over the Maumee River.

But the good times collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression. Wages sank from $1.38 an hour to 90 cents for some members. The union treasury contained just $10.23 during one especially bleak period. The local was nearly broke.

But Local 55 survived. And this Labor Day the Ironworkers and another Toledo union that suffered through tough times are celebrating 100th anniversaries.

Teamsters Local 20, which like the Ironworkers was chartered in 1903, is scheduled to march first in Toledo's Labor Day parade.

“We're going to have a team of horses to show how we started as real teamsters,” President Bill Lichtenwald said, referring to the union's beginnings, when men drove beer wagons and other commercial carts pulled by teams of horses.

Following the Teamsters in the parade will be the Ironworkers, whose longtime former business manager, Joe Blaze, Sr., is grand marshal.

His son, Joe Blaze II, current business manager, noted that 1903 was the year that the Wright Brothers took to the skies, Ford Motor Co. sold its first car, Pepsi Cola became a registered trademark, and the Harley-Davidson was born.

“It's awesome to have a union anywhere in the United States last for 100 years,” Mr. Blaze said. “We're proud of that.”

Early jobs in which union members were involved included viaducts for the Wabash Railroad, the Spitzer Building, and the Ohio Building.

The union was guided for 25 years by William R. “Big Bill” Walters, who served as business manager from 1910 to 1935.

Membership was paltry at first, averaging just 34 in the first 25 years.

“Death and accidents seemed ever present on iron work,” a union history book states. “Between 1911 and 1956, 68 members of Local 55 died - 20 of the deaths coming from on-the-job falls, electrocutions, and accidents.”

The union has 900 members today. Its premier project, as in 1929, is a bridge: the Maumee River crossing.

Teamsters Local 20 is much larger, with 7,200 members. Over the last year, plant closings and layoffs have trimmed the membership by 10 percent, however.

The local went through a difficult period in the 1970s and early 1980s when a leadership battle between longtime President Harold Leu and rival Omar Brown turned violent.

While no serious injuries were reported, the feud included a car-bombing that damaged the union hall.Both sides denied responsibility.

Despite the problem, the current president points out that Local 20 avoided the corruption that infected other locals and prompted a virtual takeover of union national headquarters by the U.S. Justice Department in 1989.

He credits that to the example set by Larry Steinberg, Local 20 president from 1955 to 1970.

“Larry ran a clean local,” Mr. Lichtenwald said. “He had an open-door policy for members. At a lot of locals, members had to be buzzed in.”

Mr. Steinberg and 3,500 co-workers in the Toledo area affiliated with the Teamsters in 1949 after they left the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store union over that organization's political views.

He became president of the new Local 22, which later merged with Local 20.

Mr. Steinberg was among Toledo's most high-profile labor leaders in the 1950s and 1960s.

He was an assistant to the late Jimmy Hoffa, controversial former Teamsters national president and father of the current president.

But he left that post after a disagreement with Mr. Hoffa over Mr. Steinberg's decision to order flags over union headquarters in Washington to fly at half staff after the assassination of President Kennedy. Mr. Hoffa had a long-running feud with Mr. Kennedy's Justice Department.



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