The Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association also known as the OPCMIA, represents the member of one of the world’s oldest and most noble crafts. The Union’s 56,000 members are the proud carriers of a tradition that predates the pyramids. As early as man was building shelter for himself, there was plastering. First with mud, clay and reeds or sticks and later with a lime mixture much like what is used today.
As early as 1501 several European nations allowed the plaster craftsmen to set up a standards and a “union type of guild” or charter with the general purpose to maintain quality standards of craftsmanship and materials. The officials could impose fines and assessments for shoddy work or use of inferior materials.
The standards of the European artisans were brought overseas by immigrant plasterers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. These first tradesmen built their reputations in the design of their dwellings to this new land, later to be named the United States of America.
As changes took place, projects that improved man’s lifestyle and surroundings, the cement masons became a productive part of the community. They built bridges, canals, dams, reservoirs and many other feats that would have been impossible without the skills of the cement masons. Together with the plasterers and fellow building craftsmen they placed a key role in shaping the world as we know it today.
As numbers increased in the New World, the plasterers began to organize locals by area and nationally, because each craftsman brought their own way of doing things from the “Old Country” Evidence indicates that the main function of the early organized groups was to ensure quality of craftsmanship.
Throughout the decades of the 1830-1850’s some of the locals failed to thrive while others were able to maintain, this was largely due to the changes in economic times and the arrival of modes of transportation inventions such as the steamboat and trains. Even though a fire destroyed most of the union’s early records and documents, it is believed that the National Plasterers Union (NPU) was formed prior to the Civil War. In 1964 with the war still raging on, the organization decided to regulate, standardize and promulgate wage scales, and working conditions, to establish a traveling card and to institute apprenticeship training.
Early in the 1880’s National Plasterers Union suffered disintegration of the organization, while some of the locals were still able to provide services to its members. In early 1882 the Cincinnati Ohio union went on strike for higher wages and won! The National Organization was set for a rebirth at a convention in St. Louis later that same year. It was at this convention that the name became Operative Plasterers National Union (OPNU). Michael Mulvihill of Cincinnati was elected the union’s first president and J.J. Kennedy of Cleveland was elected secretary.
At the convention of 1883, two resolutions would be become imports part of the union’s legacy, the eight-hour work day was established and the seconded resolution encouraged local unions to do everything in their power to “honorably avoid” un-necessary strikes. During the seconded annual convention the total membership was 1,647 with a per capita tax of one (1) cent per member or $164.70.
At the 1887 convention, the constitution was amended to include Canadian affiliation and the name of the union was officially changed to Operative Plasterers’ International Union (OPIU) of the United States and Canada.
By the decade known as the “Gay Nineties,” the OPIU made dramatic progress. Throughout the early 1900’s there were many innovations in union activities. The OPIU began a tradition of publishing “The Plasterers”, a workers publication promoting excellence that continues to this day. In 1908 OPIU was one of the building trades unions affiliating with the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) as part of the newly formed Building Trades Department.
In 1915, in recognition of the growing number of cement workers who had come into the union, the name of the group was officially changed to Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Finishers International Association (OPCFIA). By the eve of the Great Depression in 1930 the union had a membership of nearly 40,000. The OPCFIA like the rest of the country suffered during the depression and membership dropped to 20,000.
As America went to war in 1941, the members of the OPCFIA, served in a number of ways from completing defense projects to volunteering for hazardous duties for the military. As the nation adjusted to the post-war environment, and with the improvement in the economy, the demand was high for accelerated projects. These projects included building bridges, hospitals, schools and highways. During this time of history and as part of its long-standing tradition of the pursuit of excellence, the OPCMIA began to establish apprenticeship to assure a constant supply of highly skilled craftsman. In 1946 the union joined with the Contracting Plasterers’ International Association and the Associated General Contractors to establish the National Apprentice Training Standards. Working with the Veterans Administration the union indentured a large number of returning servicemen into apprenticeship programs.
Union membership had climbed to 62,772 with 42% of the members working in concrete industry. In 1951, reflecting the fact that its members did more than finish concrete, the union changed its name to Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association. (OPCMIA)
In 1960, the OPCMIA moved its headquarters from Cleveland, Ohio to Washington D.C. The move took place in order to be closer to the where the government was affecting many of the policies being formulated for unions. In its new location the union was even better to face the challenges of the new decade. The OPCMIA, in keeping with their dedication to help with war time efforts worked on military projects to include silos for intercontinental missiles that were designed to deter the threats of war. In accordance with a request from President John F. Kennedy, the cement masons joined other building tradesmen in a no-strike pledge covering crucial defense projects.
Along with other organizations of the labor movement, the union used its considerable political and economic influence to help bring about the reforms called for by great leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The union wholeheartedly supported passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which set the nation down the road to true equality for every citizen regardless of race. During the turbulent sixties the economy was in a tremendous boom. However that strong rate of growth slowed considerably as the 1970’s began. The US economy strained by International competition and the oil embargo, driving up prices and fueling inflation. As the 1970’s progressed and the increase in electronic media, anti-union groups seemed to grow in strength and spread their distorted view of organized labor.
Over a hundred and fifty years after that first gathering of concerned craftsmen, this union continues to live by the principles upon which it was founded and which will continue to be its strength in the coming decades.
Information in this History is a highlight from the OPCMIA, International Website. For a more detailed and comprehensive History of the OPCMIA, please visit the International website @ www.opcmia.org