The founding fathers of the National Association of Master Steam and Hot Water Fitters often complained about a marketplace overrun with incompetents, jobs being bid below cost and profit margins squeezed to the bare bone.
Sound familiar? Today’s MCAA members have many of the same concerns, but more than 125 years ago they vocalized them in a way we can barely fathom today. Those pioneers forged an institution through which mechanical contractors could resolve many problems and address ongoing concerns. But, before starting that institution, early heating contractors had no standards, no organization and no consistent means of communication.
When a dispute arose, whether with labor, suppliers or customers, contractors were on their own to resolve it. Mechanical and technical innovations were arising throughout the industry, but they only found out about these developments by chance, or if they themselves were the innovators. They could sense the growing complexity of their trade but could not define any concrete boundaries of professionalism. They watched in bewilderment as steam fitters organized themselves into local offshoots of the powerful Knights of Labor, professionals in the art of collective bargaining. On the other side of the table was the lone master fitter, the owner of the heating shop, intimidated into signing contracts he had little chance to fulfill. As individual voices the master fitters of the 1880s were like falling leaves arrayed against a hurricane.
This was brought to a halt by the top master fitters of the day—particularly those in the bustling, gritty, dynamic town of Chicago—when a group of them organized themselves into the Chicago Master Steam Fitters Association in 1888. As word of their efforts spread throughout the country, master fitters associations sprang up in various other cities.
Then, on April 12, 1889, Chicagoans Leon H. Prentice, Foster W. Lamb and Charles H. Simmons incorporated the National Association of Master Steam and Hot Water Fitters (MCAA’s forerunner) to unite these disparate groups, as well as individual firms without collective representation.
The First Convention
The first convention of the national association took place September 10-12, 1889, at Chicago’s Leland Hotel. George Reynolds, first association secretary, declared, “It is a sin for any contractor to take an unreasonable profit and it is just as great a sin for him to take a contract where he cannot make any money with a more than fair promise that he will lose, and his only reason for this being that he does not want his competitor to have the work.
“What we want,” he said, “is a method of doing business in the future whereby justice may be done every individual concerned …
Many Master Fitters do much harm through want of ability, experience or system in estimating the cost of work.”
Reynolds added: “The public will reap just as many benefits from the Master Fitters working in harmony as the Fitters will themselves, and the growth of the art demands such harmonious work.”
That very first meeting was attended by 70 contractors from 35 cities and 20 states. By and large they were the “giants” of the industry of their time. The primary order of business at the Chicago convention was to unite those disparate groups and individuals under a common umbrella. That was done as delegates voted for a Constitution and by-laws that are not substantially different from those of today’s MCAA. The initial treasurer’s report showed a balance on hand of $490.25.
At that first convention delegates unanimously elected George Reynolds as national secretary. The secretarial post held by Reynolds was comparable to the executive vice president’s position of today. As the top staff executive, Reynolds worked with tireless dedication to unite heating contractors throughout the United States into a national organization.
Charles J. Gillis of New York City was elected the first president, also by unanimous vote. Gillis was co-owner of Gillis & Geoghegan, formed in 1869 and one of the most successful heating contractors of New York City. His partner, Charles A. Geoghegan, would later serve the national association as president for two terms in 1909-1910.
Gillis had begun his career with one of the most renowned pioneers of the steam heating industry, Walworth, Nason & Guild, also of New York. He was a natural leader, combining a friendly, charismatic personality with unsurpassed technical expertise. He addressed the second annual convention in 1890 with a report on steam heating innovations he had witnessed on a trip around the world.
Gillis also was known for his generosity, having personally paid the tuition for several young men to attend his alma mater, the New York Trade School. When he passed away in 1899, his obituary in the Official Bulletin, the monthly communications organ of the Master Fitters, eulogized him as follows: “To great business sagacity he added a gentlemanly courtesy that won the heart, even of his competitors … There is no man in the United States who had responded more
promptly and heartedly to any call for time, money or whatever else was needed for the success of the association.”
The Early Years
The second year of existence for the national association was filled with high hopes. At the second convention, held in May of 1890 in New York City, Secretary Reynolds reported that membership the National Association of Master Steam and Hot Water Fitters had grown to 225 contractors. He estimated the total number of steam heating contractors nationwide—those worthy of the term—at no more than 1,000, so the Master Fitters’ Association probably represented 20 to 25 percent of the reputable firms in the trade. However, Reynolds noted that 80 to 90 percent of the steam fitting work in the country was being done by a small fraction of the firms in the business. Since members of the Master Fitters’ Association tended to be the biggest and best contractors in their markets, it’s reasonable to assume that they accounted for much more than 20 to 25 percent of the wet heating work taking place in the country in 1890.
The treasurer reported a skimpy balance of funds on hand of $189.89, but that was not as significant as favorable reports coming from Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other affiliated cities. In its coverage of the second convention, Domestic Engineering magazine reported:
“The present condition and future of the piping fitters’ business … brought about an entertaining discussion the gist of which was that, instead of wasting time in fruitless discussions of the present condition of the steam fitters’ business, the small amount of profits, and other kindred topics, that the convention should devote all its efforts to strengthening the organization; for as soon as it could be got into strong working shape… the association would be able to act with greater efficiency.”
In addition to promoting the economic interests of members, the national association served very much as a technical society. The earliest meetings featured numerous presentations of papers on uses of steam heating, economies of reclaiming exhaust steam, low-pressure steam heating and other topics of engineering and scientific importance. MCAA’s forerunners also were instrumental in developing industry standards for equipment and materials which paved the way to greater construction productivity.
But there were many hurdles to overcome. The first half of the 1890s saw the country mired in economic recession, and labor strife was common throughout the land. A major labor dispute in Chicago took place through most of the decade, involving virtually all of the building trades and some manufacturing unions as well.
What happened in Chicago and New York back in those days pretty much set the pattern for the rest of the nation. Thus the labor turmoil in Chicago, along with upheaval in New York that would follow a little later, was monitored carefully by heating industry citizens nationwide. Many of the employment policies we take for granted today—the eight-hour day, overtime pay, etc.—originated in agreements negotiated around the turn of the century and have since been rendered as customary.
By October of 1900 an agreement was reached between many Chicago Master Fitters and the local steam fitters union. Key provisions included:
- “Eight hours shall constitute a day’s work, except Saturday, when work shall cease at 12 M., with four hours’ pay for that day.”
- “The rate of wages for steam fitters shall be $4 per day.”
phc“There shall be no limitation to the amount of work a man shall perform on his working day, no restriction on the use of machinery or tools or on manufactured material, except prison made.”
Another noteworthy development of the 1890s was that the Official Bulletin came into being in 1894. At an annual subscription price of $1.00, this publication was one of the true information bargains to be found anywhere. Published monthly, it kept members informed about association activities, committee work, economic data, individual company accomplishments and various other topics of interest to contractors. Advertising helped support the periodical, which typically provided 40 pages to 50 pages of thorough coverage of association and industry activities.
The Official Bulletin was published by the national association continuously through 1954, when it evolved into a full-fledged magazine entitled Mechanical Contractor. By 1970 burdensome printing costs forced a downsizing of the MCAA communications organ to that of a newsletter, now known as the MCAA Reporter.
No single issue so thoroughly occupied the attention of the Master Fitters’ Association in its first quarter-century of existence as that of trade protection. Specifically, the Master Fitters tried to bring into fruition this declaration by George H. Reynolds at the very first convention—“The manufacturer of steam and water warming appliances and fittings must, in all honesty, admit that the Master Fitter is his only agent.”
Eventually, legislation and court decisions would evolve to prohibit many of the trade practices indulged in by many associations of the day, including the Master Fitters’ Association. But until then it acted vigorously to promote the economic interests of the membership in accordance with the laws and customs that prevailed at the time.
The key weapon in its arsenal was the “List In Accord,” based upon Trade Resolutions adopted by the national association. Initiated in 1894, the exact wording of the Resolutions was periodically revised, but generally along the lines of the following language published in 1895: “Resolved— That it is the sense of this Association, that manufacturers and wholesale dealers … should abandon the practice of selling materials direct to consumers altogether, and should seek, as the only proper and legitimate outlet for the product, the contracting master steam and hot water fitters.”
Another resolution called upon manufacturers to refrain from contracting work and “further refrain and desist from guaranteeing or becoming responsible for the construction work done by any Master Fitter or Contractor.”
The Trade Resolutions concluded with the message: “Resolved—That we as members of this Association, do hereby pledge our personal and business honor to assist and further the placing and sale of only such goods as are made by manufacturers in harmony with … our ‘Trade Resolutions’.”
In conjunction with this campaign, the association adopted the slogan, “Who helps me, I help.” For awhile this was reprinted as a running line at the bottom of every page of the Official Bulletin.
In 1900, Secretary Gombers appeared before a Congressional commission investigating trust activity, and issued a forthright defense of the List In Accord. Nonetheless the changing legal climate forced association leaders to water down the Trade Resolutions, and in 1915 they did away with the List In Accord.
Standardized Methods And Materials
The membership of the association realized early on that one of the most positive ideas they could advance was scientific research which could guide their daily work. This thirst for knowledge led to extensive research, and eventually resolutions, on the myriad uses of steam heating, the economy of reclaiming exhaust steam and the idea of heating with steam below atmospheric pressure.
When the association first came into being, valve and fittings manufacturers produced goods of their own individual design and specifications. The bolt holes in one manufacturer’s valve often would not align with the flanges produced by another.
In 1894, the association did a great deal of work in conjunction with other engineering societies to bring order to the chaos of measurements of flanges used in mechanical equipment. The Standard Flange Schedule was adopted that year and became known and used nationwide. By 1905, the national association took up the work of standardizing flanged fittings on its own by revising the first standard.
From 1909 to 1911, association members concerned themselves with standard ratings for house heating boilers, standard boiler codes and standardization of radiator valves. A committee on standardization was formed to work in cooperation with other organizations to reach agreements.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers asked to work with the national association to further the project. As a result of their joint efforts, a new standard was adopted and The 1912 U.S. Standard Schedule of Standard Weight and Extra Heavy Flanged Fittings and Flanges was adopted by the U.S. government. With some suggestions from the government on how to enlarge the scope of the standard, the two groups again produced a 1915 schedule.
“Talk Quality … Deliver the Goods!”
The emphasis on trade protection in the formative years of the association is an inescapable fact of history. Yet it should not obscure the larger body of work accomplished to the good of the industry at-large. In its call for an end to more than two decades of Trade Resolutions, the Board of Directors put the issue in proper perspective in the concluding paragraph:
“Your Directors have attempted to outline to you briefly a few new thoughts in connection with the growth and conduct of our business … our only object being to suggest something possible, tending to the ultimate progress and uplift of our craft. Talk quality, talk it persistently and when the contract is awarded to you, DELIVER THE GOODS!”
Then as now, the larger issues of industry affairs and association policy dominated the historical record. Behind the scenes, however, the Master Fitters were performing innumerable quiet actions to enhance the professionalism of members and the trade in general.
For instance, in the period before and after the turn of the century, the Master Fitters made contributions of immeasurable value to shore up product quality and construction efficiency.
They also exerted pressure upon material producers to improve the quality of goods. “Certain manufacturers have been little by little cutting down, paring, shaving and reducing the quantity and quality of material used in their product,” was an accusation leveled by the association in 1910. In response they resolved to place on all orders for steam heating goods the following stamp:
“This order is given on condition that the firm supplying the goods will pay for replacing any part that, when tested, is found defective.”
In response, most major manufacturers agreed to accept responsibility for legitimate claims. Even more importantly, the quality of goods steadily improved.
In addition, as the years went by the Master Fitters offered members increasingly sophisticated advice on technical and financial subjects to improve their business acumen. Expert articles on estimating, overhead, markup and other business topics appeared regularly in the Official Bulletin.
As the 20th Century dawned, the national association turned its attention to legislative lobbying at both the national and state levels. Besides labor issues, the most intense battles were fought over the issue of separate contracts for the plumbing, heating and electrical trades.
The national association argued that “it costs ‘the trade,’ as a whole, more to estimate for general contractors than is realized from the profits made on all the work obtained from them.” Moreover, “almost invariably in such work our payments are delayed long after the general contractor has received them.”
Looking back after the first quarter-century of existence, members of the Master Fitters Association could clearly see the results in a stronger industry, greater technological sophistication, more productive tradesmen and overall prosperity. Reminiscing about the first 25 years, past president (1901) Stewart A. Jellett proposed the slogan “Better methods, better work, better profits” to summarize the past and ensure the future.
As the second quarter-century of MCAA’s history began, the country and industry began to recover from recession. Prices for fixtures and plumbing supplies were at their lowest. Contractors began to put people back to work and show improvement in profits. All aspects of American life were prospering. President Woodrow Wilson declared that “the wealth of our nation at the close of 1916 far exceeds that of any year in the history of the republic.”
Then suddenly, none of it seemed to matter much anymore.
World War I
The overwhelming sentiment of Americans was for neutrality in the savage European
war taking place overseas. That mood vanished in the same amount of time it took the Lusitania to disappear beneath the waves in April 1917. It was transformed into unrestrained patriotism the likes of which had not been seen before. The National Association of Master Fitters marched in step with the times, as shown by this passage from an Official Bulletin of 1918:
“Business must be encouraged, not for the sake of business itself; not for the sake of the money invested in it; not for the sake of its employees. Business must be encouraged for the sake of the Government.”
The 1917 convention was postponed for a year. A War Service Committee was formed to represent the industry and work with the government in determining how to obtain supplies and carry out high priority national projects. Members were urged time and again to buy Liberty Bonds to aid the cause. They took to heart the national motto, “Serve at the front or serve at home,” by helping with food drives and liberty loan operations and teaching volunteers the service and maintenance of military equipment.
War or no war, contractors still had to be concerned about matters of business. Their number one dilemma was staying in business amid the unprecedented disruption in the national economy. By the end of 1917 the government had suspended all unnecessary building, and the costs of labor and materials soared. The Official Bulletin offered this summary of the situation late that year:
“(Business leaders) are working day and night to make sure, first, that the government gets the best of everything at a fair price and in the shortest possible time and, second, that the great business interests of the country may be developed, strengthened and made ready to stand the ‘acid test’ which must be encountered later on, when the world takes up the task of actually paying for the war waste …
“The United States is actually in a strong position. Underlying conditions are sound … The situation calls for clear thinking and energetic action.”
Necessity became the mother of opportunity. With residential and other nonessential construction at a virtual standstill, heating contractors made a remarkably smooth adjustment to military and industrial markets. “Make NEW Business from OLD Factories” was the rallying cry of a “self-help” series of ads that ran in the Official Bulletin during 1918. Subheads and text advised members that “The Needs of the Nation include Factory Efficiency … Sanitation and Bodily Comfort is More Than Ever a National Necessity … A Factory Comfortably Heated Assures the largest Output and Upholds the Quality of the Product.”
Amid all the turmoil of the war years, the national association took care of some important internal business by instituting the first of three name changes that would take place in MCAA’s 125-year history. The term “master fitter” was becoming rather obscure with the passage of time. In order to identify the association as an organization of employers, and to distinguish employers from journeyman steam fitters, the leadership in 1918 changed the name to Heating And Piping Contractors National Association (HPC).
As the year drew to a close, so did the war. “There is a rainbow in the sky for those engaged in contracting construction business now that the great war is practically over,” declared an editorial in the Official Bulletin.
The Roaring Twenties
Were they ever! The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was bigger than anyone imagined. With five percent of the earth’s population, the United States in 1920 was producing 24 percent of the planet’s agricultural output, mining 40 percent of its minerals and manufacturing 35 percent of its goods. Prices of manufactured goods were declining. “Natural wealth,” an economic measure comparable to today’s Gross National Product, was calculated at $225 billion, almost three times that of the $80 billion garnered by our closest competitor, England. We had a $5 billion trade surplus and half of all the gold in the world. Bank deposits in the U.S. surpassed that of all the other banks of the world combined—with billions to spare!
“With this, it is impossible for things to go wrong,” declared a bank executive citing the aforementioned statistics. “The real trouble in this country today is that there is a premium on idleness,” he added.
“The business of America is business,” was the immortal description of the times offered by President Calvin Coolidge, the quiet man who nonetheless functioned as the nation’s chief drumbeater of economic growth. A giddy editorial in the February 1920 Official Bulletin sublimely captured the spirit of the times:
“As a nation we are out of tune with the infinite. It may be that our national life never vibrated in exactly the same key. Or perhaps the harmony of the spheres has changed from the sweet music of the ancients to the clanging, clattering, ear-splitting noises of a ‘cow-town’ on circus day.
“And how natural for us to be making that kind of a racket. For five years a large part of the world was very much occupied rounding up the Hun and driving him into his own corral.
“The past year has been our circus day. What a wonderful ‘fling’ we have had! We have lived on the top of the world. Nothing has been too good for us. We have thrown our money around in true cowboy style. We have hooted and yelled and let our shooting irons bark on the slightest occasion.”
Were there any down sides to the ’20s?
Labor relations remained testy throughout the decade, but viewed from hindsight, labor and management seemed to be locking horns almost as a matter of habit. Although the October 1920 Official Bulletin ran an editorial complaining about unions being lax in producing a fair day’s work “while enjoying the high wages now so much in evidence in the building trades,” the decade saw comparatively few strikes. “Strife” seldom amounted to much more than verbal bickering. Both labor and management were busy enjoying the fruits of prosperity.
The era also featured rapid technological progress. Engineers and contractors introduced mechanical circulation of hot water via pumps, developed automatic heating techniques using burners, stokers and thermostats. In laboratories and prototype projects they worked diligently to perfect a newfangled development called air conditioning.
To the extent that there seemed to be anything awry, it seemed to involve problems of plenty—how to tap into all the business potential available. Labor shortages imposed some stark limits, for instance. One 1925 survey gauged the number of plumbing and/or heating shops in the country at just under 25,000, but with only about 4,500 steamfitter apprentices learning the trade— some of whom were trying to learn plumbing as well. “We can be sure that at the present time we are not training systematically enough men to take the place of the journeymen who leave the trade and care for the increase in business which comes from the natural growth of our Country,” wrote National Secretary Henry Gombers in the October 1925 Official Bulletin.
As the decade progressed, the horn of plenty seemed to be inexhaustible. The first few years were a time of wonderment for HPC members as the era of affluence washed over them. It was hard NOT to make money! As the decade unfolded, it got even better as contractors transformed their gushing enthusiasm into tangible programs for capturing business unleashed by the national wellspring of prosperity.
Contractors belonging to the national association were oriented predominantly to commercial and industrial markets, since most homes were heated by wood or coal stoves. It was estimated that fewer than 20 percent used steam or hot water heating. HPC encouraged members to “further the American standard of living” by servicing the largely untapped “radiator heat” market. The campaign dominated many issues of the Official Bulletin in the mid-1920s, replete with instructions on salesmanship, partial payment financing plans, advertising, etc. By the end of the decade the campaign would evolve into a Certified Heating Program emphasizing quality and responsibility “that assures satisfaction to both owner and contractor.”
The plumbing trade also vied for this business. A standard advertisement for radiator heat was published in the Plumber’s Trade Journal, headlined “June in Every Room” and leaving space below for plumbers to publish their name and address. The Official Bulletin kept abreast of this marketplace tug-of-war and rooted members on.
Also published with frequency in the Official Bulletin were developments in the fledgling technology of warm air heat. One article sounded an alarm over the 1925 completion of a $25,000 research laboratory at the University of Illinois funded by the Warm Air Furnace Manufacturers’ Association, and called for a similar facility dedicated to radiator heat.
Association leaders also sounded many alarms about complacency setting into the organization. Members of an HPC Committee on Welding exhorted members to pay more attention to this developing technology. “It is unfortunate that the members of the Heating and Piping Contractors National Association are so slow in availing themselves of the opportunities held out by the ‘Science and Art of Fusion Welding,’ as it applies to piping installations,” complained committee member J.A. McLeod in January of 1929. “Its possibilities are almost unlimited. The physical effort required to install the average welded job is 60 percent less than that required on a screwed joint job.”
To spur members on, Welding Committee members took the lead in establishing the Educational Department of HPC. To run it they hired S. Lewis Land, former education director of Chicago’s Plumbing and Heating Industries Bureau. The first order of business for the new department was to produce a welding manual. Its bailiwick also included authority over Engineering Standards and the Certified Heating Program.
The announcement of the Educational Department appeared in the October 1929 edition of the Official Bulletin. The lead article that fateful month was the FTC’s adoption of a set of official rules of business conduct for the plumbing and heating industries. For the first time it was spelled out with a degree of precision exactly what was permitted in the way of “trade protection” and what was outside the boundaries of the law. HPC had some input into formulation of the rules and accepted them with neither enthusiasm or complaint.
To the extent that the charges of complacency were true, they were uncharacteristic of the national association. But unfortunately, it was all too characteristic of the country in general. By 1929 the headstrong ways of the Roaring Twenties had degenerated into ennui and excess. People began to coast, to rest on their laurels, to look for shortcuts to prosperity. Times had been too good for too many for too long. An opposite and equal reaction was on its way.
In the heady days of 1920, Official Bulletin Editor Henry Gombers reprinted a somber, populist ditty clipped from a newspaper in Fargo, N.D., that seemed curiously ‘out of sync’ at the time. By 1929 the clipping, titled “The Matter With America,” had proven prophetic. It read:
“What’s the matter with America these days?
“Too many diamonds, not enough alarm clocks.
“Too many silk shirts, not enough blue flannel ones.
“Too many pointed-toed shoes, and not enough squared-toed ones.
“Too many serge suits and not enough overalls.
“Too much decolleté and not enough aprons.
“Too many satin-upholstered limousines and not enough cows.
“Too many consumers and not enough producers.
“Too much oil stock and not enough savings accounts.
“Too much envy of the results of hard work and too little desire to emulate it.
“Too many desiring short cuts to wealth and too few willing to pay the price.
“Too much of the spirit of ‘get while the getting is good’ and not enough of the oldfashioned Christianity.
“Too much discontent that vents itself in mere complaining and too little real effort to remedy conditions.
“Too much class consciousness and too little common democracy and love of humanity.”
The Great Depression
Like a hurricane, the Great Depression raged around a center of calm. Although Wall Street was devastated immediately, it took a while for the storm to rampage throughout the economy. “National Building Forecast Supports Hoover Optimism” was the headline of a major feature in the January 1930 Official Bulletin, as an economist whistled in the dark predicting a healthy construction market by year-end.
“Perhaps the demand in 1930 will be less for luxuries and more for practical improvements,” he conceded, countering with the perky opinion that “the building industry will benefit rather than suffer from such a condition because after all the buildings of this country are not luxuries, they are practical machines developed for practical purposes.”
Later that year, addressing the 1930 Convention in New York, HPC President Walter Klie had no such visions of pie in the sky. In a moving speech that seemed to anticipate the full extent of human misery to come, Klie said:
“(Business leaders realize) that the prosperity of our country is directly proportionate to the purchasing power of the masses, … and that this purchasing power is dependent upon employment at wages with a margin over bare living wages. Consequently, the usual stampede to cut wages to the minimum at the first sign of distress, has become recognized as unwise and unpopular … the creating of as much employment as possible, is an obligation and an act of wisdom.”
By May 1932 only one city would report men scarce, eight reporting a supply-demand balance and 216 saying men were plentiful. Afterwards the statistic became so predictable and depressing that HPC dropped the question from its annual survey.
Dodge Reports showed building contract value plummeting from $4.5 billion in 1929 to $3.08 billion in 1930, and then all the way down to $1.92 billion in 1931. Estimates of heating and ventilating volume showed corresponding drop-offs, from $306.4 million in 1929 all the way down to $138.5 million two years later.
In a 1932 survey of members’ financial performance, HPC found only 60 of 165 firms reporting a profit for the year 1931, barely a third, compared with 75 percent reporting profits in 1929 and 67 percent in 1930.
At the beginning of 1932 membership stood at approximately 2,350, but was rapidly eroding. The association realized a net loss of 112 member firms in 1931 and would continue to lose them throughout the decade.
HPC did much more than report bad economic news to members throughout the Depression years. The association tried its best to keep members in business. The Official Bulletin published innumerable articles advising of new markets, technologies and business practices members could employ to, if not prosper—hardly anyone spoke in those terms anymore—at least to stave off disaster.
Of these new developments, none was as significant as the new technology known as air conditioning. Invented by Dr. Willis Carrier around the turn of the century, air conditioning has been undergoing enhancements ever since to improve its technological performance and economic viability. It became a full-fledged commercial phenomenon by 1930 and sparked, in 1933, the second name change for the group which was to become MCAA.
That year HPC became known as The Heating, Piping And Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (HPACC).
HPACC members cheered the passage of and helped to implement the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the National Recovery Administration and other New Deal programs to provide business and jobs for the country. Economic conditions slowly, but steadily improved as the decade wound its way to conclusion.
The association celebrated its 50th Anniversary at a gala convention held May 31-June 2, 1939, at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. It was the best-attended convention in the organization’s history to that date.
Building volume and air conditioning sales soared in 1941. A new vitality was stirring among association members as the 1940s arrived. The National Certified Pipe Welding Bureau was incorporated in 1944. The first full-scale apprenticeship program began that same year.
Then came the pivotal event of the 20th Century.
World War II
The patriotic outburst inspired by the onset of the First World War was duplicated following Pearl Harbor, but was much different in tone. The high spirits and almost gleeful enthusiasm evoked for fighting “Over There” was replaced by equally fervent, but more sober dedication to the newest monumental task at hand, as evidenced by a March 1942 editorial in the Official Bulletin:
“When this issue of the Official Bulletin reaches the reader we shall be in the fourth month of the War—a World War scattered over three great continents and involving a great majority of the world’s population.
“The final outcome must be a victory for free men. The time required to attain that victory is an unknown quantity depending largely upon the speed with which we can produce armament and train men to use it.
“Whether that period be one year, two years, five years, or ten years we cannot tell but it is self-evident that during this period the attention of the people of the United States and their resources and their energies will be directed to the war effort.
The editorial also asserted: “The contractor has a duty in this period. It is to help himself to stay in business. He should not lean on others for such help until he has exhausted his own resources.”
“Resources” were defined as “knowledge of materials and where to get them … knowledge of labor and how to use it effectively.”
Beginning in early 1942 and continuing throughout the war, the Official Bulletin published lists of surplus tools, materials and equipment submitted by members and manufacturers for distribution wherever they would do the most good. Throughout the war years the bulletin also published numerous articles announcing government directives, along with tips for saving materials or using them more efficiently. For example, approximately 18,000 tons of steel were expected to be saved by eliminating metal jackets from low pressure heating boilers, and 180,000 pounds of brass by eliminating fusible plugs and tri-cocks.
In general, the bigger HPACC contractors handled defense construction and had no shortage of work. Smaller contractors, however, had trouble competing for government contracts and found work scarce in the civilian sector. “Where Can I Sell My Services” was one of many bulletin articles of 1942 and the ensuing years which addressed this problem. The basic advice given was to go after piping jobs in factories, shipyard work and defense housing.
There was much controversy within HPACC about whether to hold a convention in 1942. Some members argued that the time and money would be better spent on the war effort. The consensus, however, was that this meeting was needed more than any other, so a three-day conference was held in Milwaukee in May 1942. Among the pressing issues discussed were defense housing, awarding of government contracts, techniques of heating army barracks, material shortages and apprentice training.
Beginning in late 1942 ration coupons for fuel oil became the norm in the cold eastern and mid-western states. The public endured cold homes in winter and business owners were urged to convert their plants to burn solid fuel whenever possible. On November 5, 1942, the Maximum Price Regulation went into effect, governing the pricing of all construction work “from a doghouse to the Boulder Dam.”
HPACC President George Nachman billed 1943 “The Year For Harder Work.” Top priorities went to coping with shortages of everything from fuel oil to labor. Insurance and safety programs also received a lot of attention.
As battlefield victories mounted, the association began to anticipate a world without war. Nachman appointed a post-war planning committee in March 1943 to study conditions and meet members’ needs after the war. They turned special attention to the residential and commercial fields that were neglected during the war years.
Wanting to avoid another contentious debate, the Board of Directors decided not to hold the 1943 convention. Instead they held a convention by mail—printing in the Official Bulletin all reports that would have been given during the meeting. All members were urged to send information they wanted to share. Government announcements included creation of a 48-hour work week and new limitations on construction. Pleas for conservation continued to be published, the newest urging restriction of long distance phone calls, along with limits on travel, shipping and routing.
Welding expertise was in critical demand to meet wartime needs. HPACC member William Hughes cited a problem in building an ordinance plant in Minnesota that required 164 miles of pipe and 97,000 welded joints, and which had to be completed in time to help support the allied war effort. Of 450 men who took a qualifying test for welders, only 75 passed. The Certified Welding Bureau (CWB), as it was then known, worked tirelessly to qualify and certify enough men. In June 1943 the Public Building Administration of the Federal Works Agency adopted the CWB specifications and certifications as its own. In 1944, the CWB held its first annual meeting.
The entire association also held a convention in 1944 in Cleveland. As the tide of war lifted the Allies inexorably toward victory, people were daring to believe that a happy ending was within reach. The 54th Annual Convention of HPACC thus focused beyond the horizon on topics such as post-war planning, training of veterans, housing and postwar competition—and especially selling. It was recognized that the wartime marketplace of shortages, rationing and business restrictions would turn rapidly into one of insatiable demand and fierce competition.
The feeling of transition gained even more momentum the following year as the Allies rolled almost at will across Europe and hammered Japan mercilessly from the air. The 1945 convention was cancelled in response to a government request to eliminate all meetings of 50 people or more unless it would help the war effort. It was the third and last time there would be no national convention. Again, there was a convention by mail, with an added twist. Members were urged to participate in social events with local association colleagues as if the convention had been held as planned. The association, like the country at-large, was yearning to break into festivities over a victory that everyone sensed was just around the corner.
Hitler killed himself at the end of April. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated in August. The war was over and America’s heyday began.
The Go-Go Years
To make up for past hardships and missed conventions, the national association decided to do something special for its 60th year, 1949.
Members were encouraged to “bring your sons and grandsons along to the 60th Convention. They will probably be running the 75th Convention … so they should get the swing of the association now.” The actual meeting in Detroit was one of the more memorable conventions in association history, filled to the brim with entertainment aimed at every level of brow—music, art exhibits, bathing beauties, sightseeing tours, boat rides. It drew to a close two decades filled almost without relief by economic depression followed by war. America had paid its dues. It was now time for our day in the sun.
Pent-up demand for civilian housing and consumer goods spurred a march toward prosperity rivaling that of the Roaring ’20s. An association survey in 1950 found HPACC members reporting for the previous year average after-tax profits ranging from 3.5 percent to 6.0 percent, depending on volume. The association as of 1950 numbered some 1,200 firms doing about $1.25 billion worth of business.
Dr. Willis Carrier died on October 7, 1950. Numerous headlines in the Official Bulletin of that year told of his invention becoming an integral part of American construction—
“Resort Climate At Department Store” …
“The Trend Toward Air Conditioned Apartments” (“Public opinion is making air conditioning just as essential as heating and plumbing in nearly every type of commercial building now under construction.”) … “Air Conditioning the Retail Store.”
The Korean War broke out in 1950. There was a partial mobilization of the country and, as always, our association offered patriotic support of the national defense program.
Unlike the previous two wars, however, this one was not central to the nation’s activities. It was almost an afterthought. Life went on for most people and most businesses without skipping a beat. The “conflict” brought a momentary pause in the heady economic growth of the postwar era, but by mid-decade the nation was realizing record-breaking construction volume year after year.
As business resumed as usual, HPACC resurrected separate contracts as a dominant issue in 1950. Five states—New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania— had laws requiring prime contracts for the mechanical trades, and they were being used as models for local associations to follow in drafting similar legislation throughout the land.
Addressing the annual convention of 1950, United Association General President Martin P. Durkin lent his endorsement to the separate contracts concept. His speech also made note of “a plan for creation of a Labor-Management Board of Arbitration for the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry.” A few weeks later the Industrial Relations Council was born.
In 1954 the Official Bulletin disappeared after six decades of sterling performance as the primary information organ of the National association. It was replaced by a new, slicker, more expensive trade magazine called “Mechanical Contractor.”
Mechanical contracting was the compact term that best described a business that had grown to encompass plumbing, both wet and dry heating and air conditioning, all manner of industrial piping systems and more. The name Heating, Piping and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association was already a mouthful and could not stand the addition of anymore descriptive terminology.
So, in May 1955 at the 66th Annual Convention in Houston, the organization became known as the Mechanical Contractors Association Of America, Inc., its fourth and, to-date, final identity.
Rapid changes were occurring in the technology of the industry throughout the decade. Plastic piping began to make an impact, as did heat pumps and central HVAC. The industry as we know it today was becoming recognizable.
A 1955 column in Mechanical Contractor magazine stated, “There is growing concern over the rising importation of foreign equipment, such as pipe, valves and fittings into the country and the impact that this could have on our domestic employment. In the interest of safeguarding our own economy ‘Buy American’ when ordering any equipment used in connection with our industry.”
It was a time of enormous technological and economic progress. Almost anything seemed possible.
SEEMED! Not every new development panned out. Several manufacturers in the mid-’50s introduced liquid heating and cooling systems to compete against the central forced air systems that were becoming ever more popular with homeowners.
The top prize for getting carried away, however, belonged to the “Residential Atomic Boiler.” Rudimentary diagrams depicted a system encompassing an atomic reactor, insulated heat exchanger, absorption refrigeration cooling unit and dual baseboard.
A 1955 Mechanical Contractor article described household nukes as “a practical reality possible within a few years.” It was anticipated to cost around $1,500 for a new installation and $1,000 to convert an existing boiler. “It would both heat and cool the home for about six years on a single charge of fissionable material.”
Such pie-eyed optimism about nuclear power was common throughout the country. The Pentagon, for instance, began in the 1950s to invest megabucks in an effort to develop a nuclear-powered airplane that could stay aloft for months at a time. They would spend about two decades on the project before determining that a fundamental problem was unsolvable—i.e., devising a shield against radiation that would be effective, yet light enough to allow the plane to fly.
In 1954 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik which set off a national panic. On a more mundane level but ultimately more meaningful for the industry, that same year MCAA and the UA formed the National Joint Pipe Fitter Apprenticeship Committee to standardize one basic manual for apprentices and revise the instruction manual for journeymen pipe fitters.
By 1960 more than 10 percent of U.S. households had air conditioning. About 1.2 million families switched it on for the first time in 1959. By the time the ’60s drew to a close, air conditioning would be commonplace throughout America. Rooftop units were coming of age in commercial and industrial applications.
Economically, the 1960s generally continued the heady growth of the previous decade, though many markets were maturing and competition intensified. MCAA financial surveys found members’ net income averaging between 1.7 percent and 2.4 percent for the first five years of the decade, less than half the percentages registered when the ’50s began. The profit squeeze put a premium on more efficient operations, and by mid-decade Mechanical Contractor magazine was featuring articles with titles such as “Space Age Remedies For Dwindling Profits”—focusing on the wonders of computer data processing.
Despite shrinking profit margins, average return on net worth for MCAA members rose from 11.4 percent in 1960 to 19.78 percent in 1964. This was still a good business to be in, and MCAA members continued to be at the forefront of the industry’s technological and methodological innovations. In the 1960s members turned increasing attention to methods of proper testing, adjustment and balancing of air and water systems, replacing trial and error with planning.
MCAA’s Diamond Jubilee celebration took place May 11-14, 1964, meeting in Chicago, the site of the first convention. MCAA has met nine times in Chicago, second to Atlantic City (13 times), as the most frequent convention host city.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of social and economic upheaval in America. The Vietnam War in particular caused severe cleavages in society. Financing the war without calling upon society to make traditional wartime sacrifices, the federal government pursued a so-called “guns and butter” economic policy that set the stage for rampant inflation and rising unemployment. A momentous 1973 oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries put an end to an era of cheap energy that had fueled the American economy for as long as anyone could remember, and added to inflationary pressures.
This era also spawned a proliferation of government regulation over business unmatched since Roosevelt’s New Deal. A new generation of federal agencies such as EPA, EEOC, OSHA and others demanded incredible amounts of paperwork from mechanical contracting firms. This increasing influence of government was the major reason why, in 1970, MCAA moved its national headquarters from its 80-year-old home in New York to the nation’s capital, where it could more easily monitor and influence legislative and regulatory developments.
Even so, on average, the 1970s were prosperous for the American economy and mechanical contractors. However, this was in the same manner that a person with one foot in boiling water and the other in ice water feels “on average” quite comfortable.
Construction during this decade suffered manic-depressive swings between good times and bad. By the late 1970s a new term— “stagflation”—arose to describe an economic phenomenon never before seen, a combination of stagnation in economic growth and burgeoning inflation, which in the past had always been counter-cyclical.
Inflation kept building into double digits and tickled 20 percent by the end of the 1970s. This led to difficult labor negotiations for MCAA members. Unions, like every other interest group, kept escalating demands in response to the rising cost of living. Businesses more often than not gave in without much resistance, because an inflationary psychology made it relatively easy to pass along added costs to the public. Of course, everybody wanted not just to keep pace with inflation but surpass it, so management and labor typically added a little extra into their prices. This gave rise to an inflationary spiral that proved intractable throughout the 1970s.
Labor militancy during this era also spilled over into work rules and jurisdictional disputes. The result was labor agreements specifying more and more pay for less and less work. A 1981 Commerce Dept. study found that construction productivity had declined a stunning 20 percent between 1972 and 1979. In 1983 The Business Roundtable’s Construction Industry Cost-Effectiveness Project produced a scathing report that blamed construction unions and submissive management for this situation.
Construction owners responded by turning increasingly to nonunion contractors to build their projects. Over a period stretching from approximately the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, union construction’s market share reversed from around 60 percent to 70 percent to 30 percent to 40 percent by most estimates. Open shops came to dominate residential and light commercial work, and competed on more or less equal footing with union contractors on large commercial projects.
Open shop companies even began to land major industrial projects, an unthinkable prospect just a few years before. MCAA members used to bidding against one another on major projects suddenly found themselves competing against companies paying half their labor rates. Some observers believe that the reason union contractors survived at all was the Depression-era Davis-Bacon Act, which mandated that prevailing wages be paid to workers on any construction project involving government dollars.
MCAA responded to the difficulties in a way consistent with its history and heritage— by applying ever larger doses of professionalism and education. The headline of the May 1970 issue of Mechanical Contractor announced, “MCAA Unveils Gigantic Education Program!” The plan encompassed management and technical training, the most modern teaching and communications tools, and focused in particular on the critical “know-how” areas for executives, financial managers, estimators and project managers.
In 1971 MCAA began holding regular “College for Contractors” seminars around the country on key issues of the time such as “Nixonomics,” insurance, collective bargaining, bidding strategies, computers and construction cost control. That same year saw MCAA become a partner in the creation of the National Environmental Balancing Bureau as an institution to promote excellence in building environmental systems.
In 1975 MCAA recognized the growing significance of the mechanical service sector by forming the National Mechanical Equipment Service and Maintenance Bureau to advance the professionalism of members doing service work. MCAA’s annual convention kept growing in the amount of education provided. Some years the program was packed with more than 100 seminars and workshops over a four-day period. MCAA was rapidly acquiring a reputation throughout the construction industry as “the education association.”
Good thing, too. MCAA members needed all the professionalism and know-how they could muster to cope with the times. Adept though they may have been at the business of contracting, it became harder and harder to sustain prosperity with so many market forces arrayed against union contractors. The trade press began discussing “The Death of Union Construction”—often without a question mark attached. The low point was probably reached in the 1983-84 period, when commercial-industrial construction had not yet joined the rest of the economy in recovering from the steep recession of 1981-1982, the worst economic slump this nation had seen since the Great Depression. MCAA was losing members at a disturbing rate. Almost every union mechanical contractor worried about its ability to survive.
Labor relations occupied a great deal of MCAA attention during the 1980s. Rising unemployment led many UA local unions to moderate their demands. Many enlightened business managers were cooperating in imaginative ways with their collective bargaining partners to regain market share. However, there were upwards of 400 UA locals across the land at the time, and not all of them shared this progressive outlook. Even as hordes of members rode hiring hall benches, some local unions continued to act as if they had a monopoly on the supply of labor.
National leaders of MCAA and the UA generally enjoyed a cordial working relationship, but tensions developed during the decade over the issue of “double-breasting.” This was the practice of operating both union and open shop contracting firms via a holding company arrangement. Labor law permitted this practice, although contractors had to abide by certain restrictions. Some MCAA members took to this strategy as a survival mechanism. It enabled them to bid less expensive nonunion labor to obtain jobs they otherwise had no hope of landing. Many others were interested in doing so, and MCAA sponsored a few seminars during the mid-’80s to help them learn the legalities of operating dual shops. This did not sit well with the UA leadership.
The issue gradually faded away in the latter half of the decade as business conditions improved and double-breasting lost its allure. The erosion of market share slowed down, and in a few places even began to reverse itself as reasonable agreements made unions competitive once more. Another major reason for the reversal of fortune was the onset of a skilled labor shortage that would plague the industry for the remainder of the century. When the economy was down, open shop contractors had an easy time acquiring skilled workers from the ranks of unemployed union plumbers and fitters. Once union jobsites started humming again, the nonunion ranks had few training programs of their own to fall back on and had a hard time staffing jobs, particularly those requiring elevated levels of expertise.
The UA’s great advantage always has been its vaunted training programs administered
in partnership with MCAA members. This system was tested like never before during the 1980s, but ultimately prevailed.
By 1989 the gloom of the mid-’80s had given way to widespread prosperity and opportunity. In February of that year MCAA celebrated its 100th Anniversary with a gala convention in Orlando, Fla., attended by over 1,500 people. An entertaining opening program featured a staged dialog between first president Charles Gillis and his imaginary counterpart from the year 2089. Their conversation was sprinkled with spirited song and dance performances of period music spanning the first 100 years. Entertainment aside, the program depicted a characteristic balance that MCAA has always exhibited between paying homage to tradition, but with a concurrent focus on the future.
MCAA received a special award at its 100th convention from The Business Roundtable for “outstanding contribution to cost-effective construction for the members of the association and for the construction industry as a whole.” It was the first specialty contractor group so recognized by the organization that had castigated union construction just six years earlier.
Earlier that year, MCAA had established the Institute for Project Management at the University in Texas in Austin, one of its most successful educational ventures ever. The IPM provided intensive training in the fundamentals of project management and managing for profit. With little advertising, the program would sell out every one of its twice-annual classes through the rest of the century. Attendees included project managers, estimators and other members of the project team, novices and veterans alike.
Education, Education, Education
Imagine Professor Albert Einstein returning to school to take more math classes, or Michael Jordan attending a basketball camp while leading his team to their championships. Something comparable happened to MCAA in the last decade of the 20th Century.
Here was the widely acclaimed “education association” deciding that it needed to get better at what it already did better than anyone else. As the 1990s dawned, mechanical contractors found themselves faced with unfamiliar business problems. The heavy hand of government and an increasingly litigious society dramatically increased the complexity of managing construction projects. MCAA members frequently complained that instead of spending the bulk of their time with clients and project staff doing things in keeping with their expertise, they were more likely to be bogged down in meetings with legal and insurance advisers. Job profitability often depended not only on the efficient management of labor and materials, but on avoiding claims and worker injuries.
Safety, in fact, became one of the hottest topics in the construction industry during the decade as a correlation was drawn between profitability and safe working practices that cut down disability claims and insurance premiums. Characteristically, MCAA was in the forefront of this movement. In 1997 MCAA began Safety Excellence Initiative. Just two years later, in 1999, MCAA earned The Business Roundtable’s coveted Construction Industry Safety Excellence Award. The award recognized the association’s “exemplary leadership for the implementation of programs resulting in safety enhancement among its members.”
At the same time, computerization was sweeping the business world, as were new construction technologies. MCAA developed its first Internet Web site in 1996 and was intent on staying abreast of this rapidly developing new technology. Furthermore, the challenge from the nonunion sector with its lower labor costs was ever-present. With these regulatory, technological and competitive forces bearing down on the industry, MCAA felt the need to step up its already impressive educational programming to assure continued success for its membership.
Although from its earliest days the association emphasized education, budget restraints always came into play. This thinking gave rise in the late 1980s to the formation of the Mechanical Contracting Foundation, which would qualify under Internal Revenue Service regulations to receive tax-exempt charitable contributions for funds to further industry education. After a couple of years laying the groundwork, MCF trustees received such status on July 27, 1990. This set the stage for an incredible array of educational programming that would top anything done before in the history of this dynamic organization.
MCF set as its objective the securing of commitments totaling $10 million for program development and the creation of a permanent, non-invadable endowment trust. MCF’s founding chairman and tireless cheerleader, Foster McCarl, Jr., remarked, “It is our intent that the Mechanical Contracting Foundation will have a significant influence upon the shape of the industry’s future, rather than react to a future shaped by others.”
MCF began producing useful educational materials dealing with diverse topics ranging from project pre-planning to prefabrication to collective bargaining. Prior to 1994, however, most Foundation attention was directed at fundraising to establish the endowment. The remainder of the decade saw more attention focused on program development, with dozens of new programs introduced. Additionally, beginning in 1998, MCF turned its attention to career development and recruitment of a new generation of mechanical contracting management personnel. By the end of the decade there would be eight student chapters at universities around the country.
In the late 1990s, MCAA continued to add to its impressive array of educational programs. Noticing that the annual convention tended to be populated mainly by business owners, association leaders in 1996 added a Midyear Education Conference filled with programs aimed at middle management personnel who typically do not attend the annual convention.
At the beginning of the decade, the National Mechanical Equipment Service and Maintenance Bureau changed its name to a streamlined Mechanical Service Contractors of America. As the decade wore on, MSCA established its own educational conference and was acquiring a growing reputation for educational excellence on its own.
A particularly imaginative program of MSCA was its annual “Heat’s On” campaign each fall to service and repair heating systems of elderly and low-income citizens. Coordinated by MSCA affiliates throughout the country, the program drew voluntary donations of time, labor and materials from contractors, union pipe trades workers and suppliers. Thousands of volunteers in scores of cities across the country participated in this program each year.
In 1998, MSCA started another high-pro file social program with “Project Home Again.” Working in conjunction with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, MSCA contractors displayed posters of missing children on their service vehicles in hope of reuniting with their families youngsters who had been abducted or run away.
In 1999, MCAA’s National Plumbing Bureau changed its name to the Plumbing Contractors of America. PCA’s goal was to become the predominant group of union-affiliated plumbing contractors in the country, and to increase the services offered to members in that category. The first ever PCA education conference was scheduled for St. Louis in September 2000.
In general the last half of the 1990s was one of the most prosperous and progressive periods in MCAA’s history. In 1992, MCAA’s membership stood at 1,400. By decade’s end the count would rise to above 1,900.
Harmony was the watchword for labor relations throughout this period. A jointly sponsored MCAA/UA Labor Relations Conference was begun in 1997, and featured productive workshops and panel sessions on topics of mutual interest to MCAA and UA representatives. UA General President Martin Maddaloni embarked on a campaign to significantly improve the UA’s already impressive training programs. This met with widespread applause from MCAA members. MCAA members worked as allies on numerous projects. Strikes and work stop were almost unheard of throughout this era.
Despite the almost giddy prosperity of the 1990s, challenges remained. Two trends in particular were on MCAA’s radar screen heading into the new millennium. One was deregulation of the utility industry, which ended the regulated monopoly of electric and natural gas suppliers and allowed them to enter other non-regulated businesses. Many utilities took advantage of this by purchasing mechanical contracting firms, including MCAA members, and built sizable service operations.
The second trend was industry consolidation. During the latter half of the ’90s Wall Street investors bought up numerous mechanical contracting firms around the country under a “roll-up” strategy of forming a single national entity and then taking them public. Through this mechanism, companies such as Emcor, Group Maintenance America Corp. and Comfort Systems USA became the mechanical contracting field’s first billion-dollar corporations. Some MCAA members were purchased by these and other consolidators, as well as by the aforementioned utilities. In almost every instance the acquired entities remained part of their local MCAs. This meant they remained MCAA members and participated in association activities. How to ensure that this situation would prevail into the future was an issue in the mind of association leaders as the century turned.
As the 20th century drew to a close, what nobody questioned was the vitality of MCAA heading into a new millennium, nor of its value to its members and as a force for progress for the mechanical contracting industry as a whole. As 2000 dawned, MCAA looked back with satisfaction on more than a century of progressive service to its members and the industry at large.