Union fights for the working class

Story Image

Local Union
milestones

September, 1899: Carpenters Local 599 formed

February, 1950: Local 500 Women’s Auxiliary forms

February, 1951: Current headquarters at 712 Highland St. opens

September, 1960: Opened the Local 599 Credit Union

October, 1961: Built Trade Winds on volunteer labor

March, 1973: Northwest Indiana Apprentice Training School in Gary is opened.

1984: Local 599 Retirees’ Club started

November, 1987: Mass march and picket of Amoco’s use of non-union labor

October, 1996: Major labor rally at the Lake County Fairgrounds

Article Extras
Story Image

For more than 100 years the Northwest Indiana United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Local 599 has been building the fabric of the region and improving the lives of its members.

From infrastructure projects such as area highways and bridges to the public buildings where students learn and governments work, the union carpenters from Local 599 in Hammond have played their part in building Northwest Indiana.

Retiree Harold Neil is part of that legacy. Neil has been a member of the carpenters union for more than 60 years following in his father’s footsteps. As Local 599’s historian, he has researched the local’s humble beginnings in 1899 and can recall more than six decades of its efforts from his own experience.

“The thing I remember most of my early years in the local is how much members enjoyed coming for the meetings once a week to learn what was going on,” Neil said.

Union leadership would provide details on what jobs were underway, what labor disputes were occurring and where people could find work. In those days members would gather at the union hall waiting for a call from a job supervisor that would put them to work.

Making its mark

Over the past century, Local 599 workers had their hand in building the fabric of the region, much of which is still used today, according to the local’s president, John Winarski.

Local 599’s work can be seen in all of the massive bridgework in the region such as the Cline Avenue Bridge and the Borman Expressway. The foundations of many of the steel mills which formed a cornerstone of the region’s economy were built by Local 599 members.

“It’s the work the average person will never see,” Neil said.

All of the casinos on the lakefront and the marinas were the work of union carpenters. The local built most of the schools in the region and continues to do so today, providing labor for Lake Central High School, and the new Lowell and Hanover Central middle schools. Workers built the original Lake County Public Library on U.S. 30 in Merrillville and are performing the renovations today.

“(Some of) these projects are so big and overwhelming, they could only be done with skilled trained labor,” Winarski said.

Working class heroes

While the physical work of the union can be seen in the roads and buildings around the region, the behind-the-scenes work the union has done to establish good wages, benefits and a safe workplace continue to benefit the working class today.

The early days of the union were fraught with fighting for the rights of workers, establishing a good wage, health and life insurance benefits and improving the overall safety of the workplace.

“This local, through the membership and leadership, fought for ideas of benefits, health care, pension and the credit union,” Neil said.

From mass pickets and labor rallies, to lobbying for legislation that benefits workers, the union is behind the strides made for the working class.

Neil described some of the early efforts of establishing benefits — which many of today’s union members take for granted — as a big fight, not only with employers and legislators, but with the union members themselves.

At the time many members balked at pay check deductions for such benefits as pensions and health insurance. Neil said if the union did not prevail in establishing those benefits, things would be much different for workers and retirees today. A strong benefit package is one of the best things about belonging to the carpenters union, he said.

“It all really began right here,” Neil said.

Neil said the struggles to establish the benefit plan and the wage rate that keeps union members well paid and cared for is mostly forgotten by a lot of the members today.

Winarski agreed.

“It’s always been there, so they don’t know what it took to get it,” Winarski said.

Those benefits have come back under attack when the Statehouse approved right-to-work legislation.

“What people don’t understand is union labor isn’t about our money,” Winarski said. Non-union workers benefit from the efforts of the union as well.

“We set the eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week. We gauge what non-union workers get paid,” he said.

Organized labor is also responsible for establishing safety standards in the workplace for all workers.

Neil said the public has been convinced by anti-labor activists that organized labor is the enemy. That, both men say, is just not the case. They say they need their members to get active again and support the union’s efforts so no more ground for the working class is lost.

“We do a lot not just for the union, but the working class period,” Winarski said.

Provided by Custom Media Solutions for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters