The modern fire sprinkler industry traces its history back to the time of rapid industrial development in the United States following the American Civil War. It was during that period, between 1870 and 1880 that Henry S. Parmelee, a Connecticut piano manufacturer and inventor, became interested in the fire protection business following the loss of two of his factories to fire.
In the 1890’s, Sprinkler Fitters in St. Louis, Chicago and New York began to organize. The “Sprinkler Fitters Protective Union #6479” of St. Louis, Missouri was chartered on Christmas Eve, 1894 with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Rivalry between the United Association and the International Association prompted representatives from the three Sprinkler Locals to approach the United Association for affiliation. Sprinkler representatives felt that the United Association would better protect their autonomy and approached the Delegates at the 1899 United Association Convention, but no definitive action was taken.
0n June 29, 1901, after persistent negotiations with the UA executive board, the St. Louis Sprinkler Fitters and their Helpers were finally granted a charter and became the first United Association Sprinkler Fitters Local Union. Sprinkler Fitters and Helpers of St. Louis, Missouri were chartered as Local Union #268. A few years later on November 22, 1905, the founding fathers of what has become the National Fire Sprinkler Association met for the first time to negotiate wages in St. Louis.
Minutes kept by Sprinkler Fitters Local 268 Recording Secretaries from 1912 indicate those early meetings were well attended. Members were required to work four hours on Saturday and still managed to attend Saturday afternoon union meetings twice a month.
For the first 50 years, their brotherhood and compassion is often revealed in the minutes. The paying of hospital and funeral expenses were regularly reflected in the minutes and it was not uncommon to see a “$5.00 per week – sick card” to some member. There were endless loans to brothers in need. Their generosity didn’t end with Local 268, as they often gave to other unions who were engaged in conflict with management. These Locals, as well as charitable organizations, witnessed the generosity of the Sprinkler Fitters. When a 1959 Federal Law placed restrictions on how funds from the General Treasury could be spent, the membership continued their generosity from their own pockets.
The Local’s first strike in 1917, a strike of two weeks, was ended to “continue friendly relations with all employers”. It would take 9½ months before they finally resolved the issues and received the raise from $5.50 to $6.00 per day they had requested. Helpers were increased from $2.00 to $2.50 per day.
The union entered the 1920’s in a position of strength, but the stock market Crash of 1929 caused the construction industry to fall flat. In the early 1930’s, even though they had recently negotiated a five day work week, a motion was passed that journeymen would work no more than three consecutive days, followed by at least three days off. A motion passed in 1936 indicates that journeymen who had not been working would be allowed to work five consecutive days. During the period from December 1927, through October of 1944, the initiation of new members, the making of loans, and even the collecting of assessments was often suspended.
Near the end of World War II, the nation once again turned to domestic construction and the local once again prospered. New members were initiated and began to work. In 1946, the United Association reissued charters by creating the Building and Metal Trades Departments and Sprinkler Fitters and Apprentices emerged from the old charter of Sprinkler Fitters and Helpers. Local Union 268, in conjunction with the Contractors Association of St. Louis, formed the “Automatic Sprinkler Industry Joint Apprenticeship Committee” and initiated sixteen new apprentices on September 17, 1948. Most of these men had experience as helpers.
At a special meeting called to discuss the “Right to Work” in September, 1978, the members decided to work at the polls rather than at the “Sprinkler Trade” on Election Day. The measure was defeated at the ballot, but resurfaced a couple years later in the Missouri Legislature. Once again the members took a day off work and traveled by bus joined by thousands of other union members to “March on Jefferson City”. The solidarity displayed that day at the Capitol kept the Right to Work (for Less) from appearing on the Missouri ballot then and the years since.
In January, 1979, the building committee was authorized to purchase a lot on South Broadway and shortly thereafter commissioned to proceed with building a union hall. The Local Union still occupies that building. In 1990, the Local recognized the need for a training center and purchased a building located on North Broadway. As the sprinkler industry continued to grow in the nineties, the officers and members again recognized the need to invest in their future. After a lengthy search for an existing building and reviewing several proposals for a new building, the membership voted to build a new building that “they would be proud of”. The new 25,000 square foot building would house the union offices, hall and training facility and held its first “Official Open House” on August 30, 2006.
Throughout the years, our members have faced adversity in one form or another. We have persevered with the guidance of strong leaders and the united efforts of our members. Under the direction of Business Managers W. Swingman, J. Geary, John Smith, E. Germer, George King, M.J. Geary, J. Rickaby, E. Wagner, Charles E. Green, Frank Grabowski, Rich Mussmann, Al Love, Gordon A. Lundak, Sr., and Michael R. Mahler what started with twenty-two members has grown into a strong, well respected local. By working together toward a common vision, a group of ordinary people have attained extraordinary goals.
We have come a long way in the past 100+ years. Because of the persistence of our early members and their relentless pursuit for a higher standard of living, better benefits and working conditions, our members today enjoy a safe workplace, excellent hourly wages, superior health and welfare benefits and a generous pension. Our Five Year Apprenticeship Program produces some of the best Sprinkler Fitters in the Industry and Continuing Education Training for Journeymen allows for the Local Union to provide our signatory contractors with a productive, highly skilled workforce that is able to keep pace with an ever changing technology.
As we proudly celebrate the 110th year Anniversary of the Sprinkler Fitters, and Apprentices Local Union #268 we pay tribute to all of our past and present members. We thank you for your continued support and dedication over the years. We look forward to future challenges, secure in the knowledge that because of our members, we will remain THE BEST LOCAL UNION IN THE BEST UNION AREA of the United States of America.