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History of Our Trade

Centuries of Craftsmanship

The roots of the trade and of the organization of craftsmen in Britain, for example, are to be found more than five centuries ago. In 1422 a list of the crafts "exercised in London from times of old" includes the coppersmiths and braziers. Half a century earlier attempts by the craftsmen to protect and advance the trade were recorded in the books of the London Guildhall in 1365 when it was recorded that the "good men of the mystery of founders" petitioned the Mayor and Aldermen complaining that:

divers members of the mystery make their work of false metal and use false solder which, when exposed to fire or great strain, break and dissolve to the great damage of those that do purchase them and to the great slander of the City and the whole mystery.

The next 300 years were the era of the Guilds, organizations controlled by master craftsmen, designed for their own benefit, but also striving to maintain the integrity of their trades. The Guilds were fundamentally employers organizations, with journeymen and apprentices under their employ governed by strict and often harsh rules and discipline.

The crafts were diverse and often in competition. Coppersmiths, Braziers and Tin Plate Workers were the largest during this period. Most of the tools of the trades remain familiar today. The Court of Tin Plate Workers in 1760 listed the requirements for setting up a tin plate shop. In addition to a few tools unrecognizable today, the list includes: "large and small anvil, large and small shears, large and small beak irons, smoothing hammers, planishing hammers, hollowing hammers, flate faced hammers, creasing hammers, creasing irons, hollow and flat punches, chisels and gouges, knippers, plyers, squares and rules, soldering shanks, a vide, fire pots and large and small compasses."

The key to control of the trade was control of apprenticeship. Seven years of servitude was established by law. Each master was limited in the number of apprentices, usually three or fewer. Apprentices lived in the home of the master and were fed and clothed, but received no wages. Whipping was legal and an apprentice who fled was prosecuted on his capture.

The Guilds survived and functioned for a remarkably long time. By the middle of the 18th century, however, the system was in decline. Throughout that century the largest London guild, the London Tin Plate Workers Company was locked in a running battle with journeymen. An important means of control was the fixing of prices for the various articles produced. But by 1769 journeymen were in full revolt against the prices established. Repeated court actions to revise prices upwards failed; however, increasingly masters were forced to negotiate their price lists with the journeymen. It was the dawn of the new era of trade societies, resisted fiercely by the employers. Records indicate that as early as 1721 employers complained of these "unlawful combinations".

The first evidence of formal union organization in the trades is a handwritten book of articles of the Friendly Society of Tin Plate Workers of London, dated January 1798. At that time and for several decades after, union organization as we know it was illegal. Accordingly, the stated objectives of the Friendly Societies were deliberately vague, suggesting that their primary purpose was to aid members in distress through unemployment or illness.

By the beginning of the 19th century, coppersmiths were working mainly on vats and boilers for breweries and distilleries, were producing copper utensils and were active in the shipping industry. Tin plate workers were producing pots, pans, kettles, baths, lamps, dairy equipment and a range of other household and industrial items.

Conditions of work in 1815 spelled out the following hours:

In Summer: From six o'clock in the morning until seven in the evening from Tuesday through Friday. Work started an hour later on Monday and finished an hour earlier on Saturday.

In Winter: From eight o'clock in the morning until eight in the evening from Monday through Friday and eight to five on Saturday.

Holidays allowed: Christmas Day and Good Friday.

When Britain began manufacturing tin plate in the 17th century, after its introduction from the continent, the work was centred in Wales. Later Wolverhampton in the English midlands became a major centre. The workers, who were said to be descendants of the old travelling tinkers, included both highly-skilled and semi-skilled workers. The highly-skilled tin plate workers were among the higher paid workers in the region.

An important factor throughout the 19th century was the tramping system. With no unemployment pay for most workers, members of the various trade societies were enabled to leave their home town in search of work. Arriving in a new town, they could register with the landlord at the local society's public house. They were usually provided one night's food, lodging and beer, but if no work was available they were expected to move on. The landlord's records served as a clearing house of information as to the work situation in the town and in nearby towns.

For young men the system was not too hard, but for older men, life on the road and separation from wives and families imposed severe hardship.

Strikes were a rarity throughout the 18th century because most of the industry was operating on a handicraft basis. One British historian was able to record only 433 strikes in all trades in all of Britain between 1717 and the end of the century. In the years that followed, however, industrialization and the development of larger companies created conditions under which tradesmen began to turn to various forms of collective action.

An early struggle of importance was the campaign against the Combination Acts which, from the first passage in 1799, made collective action by workers illegal.

In 1824 the laws were repealed and a wave of wage claims and strikes swept the country. The campaign, which led to repeal, also resulted in establishing the first national union of tin plate workers, uniting local societies from many cities and towns throughout Britain. While the organization only lasted for three or four years, it marked the beginning of the path toward creation of an effective union, years later.

Following a series of strikes and lockouts, union delegates from a wide variety of trades met in London and formed the Grand National Consolidated Union in 1834.

The last half of the 19th century saw the dream of a national union become a reality. The formation of the General Tramping Union of Tin Plate Workers in 1861, followed by the formation of the Amalgamated Tin Plate Workers of Birmingham and Wolverhampton led eventually into a merger as the National Amalgamated Tin Plate Workers in 1900. Later, as the organization embraced other, smaller trade groups, it became known as the National Union of Sheet Metal Workers, Coppersmiths, Heating and Domestic Engineers. In 1983 the union ceased to exist as a separate entity and became the craft section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (Technical and Supervisory Section). A further merger in 1990 created the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, an unusually diverse conglomeration.

The history and development of the sheet metal industry owes much to this legacy of the craftsmanship and trade union commitment of generations of British coppersmiths, braziers and tin plate workers.

The other important historical roots are found in the development of the International Union in North America. Even before the American Revolution, British and Irish settlers in the northeast states had established a tradition of travelling tinsmiths who were the original Yankee peddlers. They travelled far afield bringing their household tinwares to the sparsely settled countryside, often doing customized work to fit farm or domestic needs. During the same era coppersmith shops became common, after the advent of copper mining in the middle of the 18th century. The coppersmiths produced both heavy and light domestic wares, but also produced much fine work, now valued as colonial art. Paul Revere, historically famous as a silversmith was originally a coppersmith. 

By the middle of the 19th century, following the Civil War, the United States was expanding and industrializing at a rapid pace. The demand for skilled craftsmen was great, but an economy, which was experiencing intense boom and bust periods also created great insecurity, even for the skilled craftsmen. Trade union organization was spreading rapidly throughout the country, but employer and government opposition was fierce.

In 1887, Robert Kellerstrass, secretary of the relatively large and well established Tin & Cornice Makers Association of Peoria, Illinois, took the initiative in establishing a national union. For months he communicated with tinners locals where ever they could be found. Finally, a founding convention was set for Toledo, Ohio on January 25, 1988. Delegates from Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and Ohio met for four days, establishing the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers' International Association. In five short years the organization grew to include 108 locals, to be found in most of the United States.

In 1897 the organization became the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers International Association. In 1903 the name was changed to the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers International Alliance. The current name - Sheet Metal Workers International Association - was adopted in 1924.

In 1896 the first local was chartered in Canada first in Toronto, four years later in Montreal and in 1902 in Vancouver.

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