Pipe Schemes

The powerful Pipefitters union has a simple plan to provide job security for its members: It wants to take away other people's work.

O'Mara did not win his County Council seat or his $105,000-a-year business-manager job by being stupid. He is a very adept politician, and he showed that in the aftermath of the building commission's vote. Even though the union and the MCA had prevailed, O'Mara didn't take the opposition for granted, and he selectively opened negotiations with some of them.

After Anheuser-Busch abandoned its opposition -- the code never really affected the company anyway, because its brewery and headquarters are in the city -- other major employers followed suit. With the building-commission vote in hand, O'Mara met with a committee from the Council of Construction Consumers and promised to reword part of the ordinance to make it clearer that those large companies could perform any mechanical work they wanted on their own facilities with their own staff. The Council then agreed to drop its opposition.

For O'Mara, long seen as a savvy player, it was a classic move.

Robert Hoffman claims the proposed ordinance could eventually close more than one-half of the heating-and-air-conditioning contractors doing business in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Robert Hoffman claims the proposed ordinance could eventually close more than one-half of the heating-and-air-conditioning contractors doing business in St. Louis County.

If debate about the Pipefitters-backed licensing measure seems to have an air of inevitability, it's probably thanks to Local 562's long history of successful political activism -- something that O'Mara, as business manager, helped refine.

Back in the 1950s and '60s, John "Doc" Lawler, the local's longtime business agent and manager, built a political organization that some observers say came to dominate the Missouri General Assembly. Lawler, who died in 1972, was a Democratic Party committeeman from North St. Louis for 20 years and chairman of the city Democratic Central Committee in 1966. He got his son, John Lawler Jr., also a union official, elected to the Board of Aldermen and, according to news accounts at the time, ran bills through the Legislature with a coterie of pipefitters that included state Sen. Robert Young and state Reps. Patrick O'Connor and Patrick Hickey.

In an effort to ward off a federal anti-discrimination lawsuit against the union in the mid-'60s, Lawler hired civil-rights activist Bill Clay to work for the union as a minority recruiter. In 1968, Local 562 provided most of the money for Clay's successful campaign for the 1st Congressional District. When Robert Young later won the 2nd Congressional District, Local 562 could claim to have two guys in Congress.

Clay's election also brought trouble to the union, however. The elder Lawler, together with the union's most powerful figure, Lawrence Callanan, and vice president George Seaton, was convicted of violating federal election laws that barred unions from spending money on federal elections. The three appealed their convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the verdicts on the grounds that the jury was not instructed to consider the possibility that the money the union spent on the campaign consisted of voluntary contributions from members. That ruling established the principle that still holds: Unions can give money to political campaigns as long as it is money voluntarily contributed by members.

Lawler died four months before the Supreme Court issued its decision. Despite a still-standing conviction, and despite two decades of federal efforts to tie Lawler to organized crime, nearly every prominent politician in the state came to his funeral on Feb. 2, 1972. According to an account in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, mourners included Gov. Warren E. Hearnes, Lt. Gov. William Morris, nearly the entire state Legislature and St. Louis Mayor Al Cervantes.

Lawler's death, which followed Call-anan's by just eight months, plunged Local 562 into a crisis. The new business manager, Edward Steska, was murdered in his office three weeks later, shot five times. Steska's killer was never identified. Sixteen months after the murder, Lawrence Callanan's son Thomas Callanan, also a Local 562 business agent, lost his legs in a car bombing while driving on Redman Road in Spanish Lake.

Such violence tarnished the union's reputation. "There were pretty clear links with unsavory elements of society," says Ray Hilgert, a management and labor-relations professor at Washington University, and those unsavory links cost the union some influence. But violence was not unique to the Pipefitters. During that same period, St. Louis businessmen and professionals resorted to violence to resolve their issues: In the month that Steska was murdered, St. Louis area vending-machine companies used firebombs in their battle for market share, a Creve Coeur dentist hired thugs to scare off his competitors and a prominent real-estate developer went on trial for torching scores of houses along Delmar Boulevard.

The union's political influence continued to wane until 1985, when Jim O'Mara and two other Pipefitter business agents launched something called the North County Labor Legislative Club. With Democratic Party and organized-labor fortunes at a low ebb everywhere -- with Republicans in the White House, the Missouri governor's mansion and the St. Louis county executive's office -- the idea of a political club for labor, independent of traditional party and union bureaucracies, caught fire. Hundreds of labor activists from dozens of unions began showing up for meetings. "The Pipefitters provided the leadership, and the Labor Legislative Club provided a pole for grassroots labor people to rally around," says John Hickey, executive director of the Missouri Progressive Voter Coalition. Soon the Pipefitters started a labor legislative club in South County, followed by others in Jefferson County and elsewhere.

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