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Ironworking Industry in American Labor History Research Paper

A Brief Introduction to the Ironworking Industry

Ironworkers are considered to have shaped the industrial revolution (Bezís-Selfa 8). Even so, there is very little written evidence of the initial endeavors of these professionals’ labor apart from some contract signatures, short letters, or account books. The industry originated in the 1620s in England, and it was a rather difficult and risky venture back at this time. Ironworks were very expensive, and they required “the marshalling of capital and labor” on a previously unheard of scale and scope (Bezís-Selfa 10). After the American Revolution of 1765-1783, the industry became truly “American” (Bezís-Selfa 10). At first, the ironworking industry utilized slaves who were not fully adept for work of this kind. Thus, it was necessary to modify the conditions of work and educate the laborers. With the end of slavery, the industry started engaging more white workers (Bezís-Selfa 11). Currently, a variety of people from different ethnic groups are engaged in the industry.

The increasing interest in ironworks led to the appearance of such jobs as reinforcing, structural, architectural, and ornamental ironworkers. The contribution of various national and ethnic minorities in the industry cannot be overestimated. A shining example is that the majority of bridges and skyscrapers in New York City were built by Mohawk and other Iroquois tribes (“The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan”). Employees of the ironworking industry are protected by the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers (“Who We Are: About the Union”). Ironworkers have a highly significant but also an extremely dangerous job. Usually, they work outside and at great heights (“Work Environment”). Thus, they need to strictly adhere to safety measures, including the wearing of protective devices. The job is physically demanding and requires much practice to reach perfection in the sphere.

A Brief Historical Background of the Labor Events in the Ironworking Industry

The union was established on February 4, 1986 (“Who We Are: History”). The reasons that led to the formation of the union were concerned with the dangers posed by working in the industry. When steel replaced stone and wood as the dominant material for erecting buildings and bridges in the late 1880s, there appeared a demand for a new kind of workers. Ironworkers were called “cowboys in the sky” (“Who We Are: History”). At first, the men engaged in the industry did not pay much attention to the potential dangers or the challenges presented by their work. However, as the number of individuals in the profession increased, and as they started realizing their responsibility to their families, they needed to consider the options of providing for their dependents during periods of injury, sickness, and death (“Who We Are: History”). The first meeting of the union that had been formed to manage these and other issues was held in Pittsburgh; it was attended by sixteen representatives.

There have been numerous attempts by employers throughout the history of the union to break it up. Owners and employers wanted to hire employees without a membership. Ironworkers, however, did not agree with this suggestion because if they had worked in open shop conditions, they would not have been able to set prices for their work and there would have been discrimination among specialists. Between 1908 and 1911, some notable events affecting the union’s work took place (Robertson 45-46). Prior to these events, ironworkers had a contract with Ambridge (the American Bridge Company). When the agreement had expired, and Ambridge stopped hiring union workers, they arranged a series of protests, and even bombings, one of which was deadly (Robertson 45-46). These and other events led to a stronger unification of ironworkers who wanted to protect their rights as employees.

Current Status: What is Currently Happening in the Industry?

At present, ironworkers perform a variety of duties, including the following:

  • supporting bridges, roads, and buildings with iron and steel;
  • reading sketches and following instructions;
  • unloading and stacking prefabricated steel and iron to make it possible to lift materials with slings;
  • using specialized equipment to cut, bend, and weld reinforcing and structural steel and iron (“What Ironworkers Do”).

The median annual wage of ironworkers in 2016 was $37,040. According to statistics, the average hourly wage for these professionals is $24.44 per hour (“Ironworkers”). In May 2016, reinforcing iron and rebar specialists earned $47,600 p.a. on average. During the same period, the average annual wage for structural steel and iron workers constituted $51,800 (“Ironworkers”). A typical educational requirement for entering the occupation is a high school diploma or its equivalent. To increase competency in the skills needed for the job, new employees have additional training, such as an apprenticeship.

Usually, no prior work experience in the sphere is required for new ironworkers. In 2016, 90,300 individuals were engaged in this job sector (“Ironworkers”). There is a highly positive job outlook for the industry. The growth rate is expected to have increased by 13 percent by 2026 (“Ironworkers”). The anticipated numeric alteration in employment in the period between 2016 and 2016 is 11,400 individuals. The growth of employment in this industry is faster than the median number for all occupations. Such an increase in the need for these specialists is related to the fact that more large projects are and will be built, which will further necessitate the maintenance, rehabilitation, and replacement of older constructions.

Pros and Cons of Current Contract

As with any other sphere, there is a possibility to work under contract in the ironworking industry. Contract work involves some limitations, such as the impossibility to change a place of work until the assigned time or a set schedule that an employee cannot change whenever he or she desires. However, contracts have more advantages than disadvantages. The major benefit of working under contract is that an individual receives a high wage and obtains a health and life insurance (“Get Organized: Benefits”). Under the current circumstances, when dangers of the ironworking industry are understood by everyone, such options are very important. Working under contract allows specialists to make sure that their families will not suffer financially in case of an emergency. Another advantage of a contract is that it endows workers with an annuity fund and a defined benefit pension (“Get Organized: Benefits”). Also, each contract worker has access to help in case of grievance procedures. Thus, when an employee has a conflict with the employer, he or she can expect to receive help and support.

One more benefit of contracts is that they provide ironworkers with better career opportunities through arranging training options. Finally, there is an excellent program recently introduced by the union that is aimed at women working in the industry. In 2017, IMPACT announced a new paid maternity leave (Deffenbaugh). By presenting this program, the union demonstrated its willingness to welcome female workers into the field of ironworking. The program allows female employees to avoid experiencing hardships due to losing the ability to work for some time. Therefore, the union contract presents employees with many benefits that increase the stability of income for workers and their families.

The Future of the Industry

In 2017, a highly-attended ironworkers IMPACT conference was held in San Diego at which participants were able to share their current needs and future goals (Deffenbaugh). Contractors, owners, and workers expressed a positive vision of the future of ironworking. One of the most significant issues to be taken into consideration while developing the industry further is safety (Deffenbaugh). Thus, the association of ironworkers is committed to continue striving to provide the most secure working conditions for its employees. Another issue concerns a well-trained workforce. The industry has committed to arranging regular operations of training centers all over the country where ironworkers will be able to upgrade their skills and be certified. As Deffenbaugh remarks, the certification will bear two crucial functions: it will reward the efforts of employees and it will also guarantee the ability of a worker to comply with the requirements of contractors.

Along with these mentioned prospects, it is expected that the industry will experience a rise in contractor programs. In particular, the participants of the conference agreed that the AC478 accreditation program is promising and has the ability to increase the credibility of the industry (Deffenbaugh). In order to promote this program, IMPACT will compensate the cost of purchasing the AC478 accreditation.

Overall, the ironworking industry is expected to be in high demand in the near future, providing good prospects for job seekers (“Job Outlook”). Individuals certified in crane signaling, rigging, and welding are reported to have the best job opportunities. However, the situation in the industry will also depend on any economic changes. If the level of construction work falls, ironworkers are likely to have poor job opportunities and low wages. Still, based on statistics and predictions, the industry has great potential.

Works Cited

Bezís-Selfa, John. Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. Cornell University Press, 2004.

Deffenbaugh, Paul. Metal Construction News, 2017, Web.

The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, n.d., Web.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2018, Web.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2018, Web.

Robertson, Raymond J. Ironworkers 100th Anniversary 1896-1996: A History of the Iron Workers Union. International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, 1996.

Aboriginal Skilled Workers Association, 2015, Web.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2018, Web.

The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, n.d., Web.

The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, n.d., Web.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2018, Web.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Ironworking Industry in American Labor History." January 6, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ironworking-industry-in-american-labor-history/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Ironworking Industry in American Labor History'. 6 January.

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