A long, proud history: Today's well-trained ironworkers come from varied backgrounds

·8 min read

Sep. 5—As a large crane lowers a cable, Nathan Leitch grabs a loop, attaching it to a steel truss.

He then attaches some smaller cross bars to be tightened when the truss is lowered into place to form a ceiling for an addition at the New Life Fellowship church in Seelyville.

Leitch's belt holds a crescent spud wrench, which instead of a long handle, features a round, tapered tang.

"It helps to line up bolt holes," Leitch said.

Other tools Leitch often uses include a sleever bar, which gives extra leverage when positioning steel trusses or beams to align bolt holes; a "beater" hammer; and bull pins used when two pieces of metal to be bolted together don't line up. The pin is inserted or even pounded if needed until the pieces align, he said.

Leitch, 23, is a third-year apprentice with the Ironworkers Local No. 22, working for Misco Crane Services. Apprentices undergo a four-year training, with on-the-job experience as well as classroom work.

He was born in Terre Haute and is a 2017 graduate of Marshall (Illinois) High School and a 2019 graduate of Parkland College with an associates degree in applied science in a Ford automotive program.

"Straight out of high school I went to college for automotive for a while," he said. "I worked while in college, and about six months after graduating I ended up joining the ironworkers.

"Once I decided that working on cars wasn't for me, I started asking around. I heard a lot of things about the ironworkers and had a few guys I knew who were in the ironworkers, so I decided to put in an application and got accepted," Leitch said.

Leitch said he feels it was the right decision, saying he plans to work 30 years or more and retire in the union.

"Walking the steel is probably one of my favorite parts," he said. "It is kind of an adrenaline rush. We are tied off and have a lot of safety. And how far safety has progressed is one great thing about it."

Additionally, he enjoys working with fellow ironworkers.

"There is definitely a brotherhood and it is nice knowing you are part of something that you can see and look at different projects you helped to build," he said. "It is kind of a pride thing."

Leitch worked on the downtown Terre Haute Convention Center, one of his first large scale projects.

"I learned a lot and going from a small job to a big job, it is just a different world," Leitch said. "You have more technical work and just have to go through your checklist and make sure everything is done and in sequence, and that it is done right, or you will have to go back and do it all over again."

A long history

Terre Haute's ironworkers union started in 1929.

Ironworkers Local No. 439 was chartered on Sept. 11, 1929. Like many other unions, it was consolidated into a larger district.

In 2008, three separate unions from Indianapolis, Lafayette and Terre Haute were joined into Ironworkers Local Union No. 22, which had its origins in Indianapolis in 1901.

The consolidated district now spans from Effingham, Illinois, to Muncie in the east to Logansport to the north and Loogootee to the south.

"The locals were merged to give a shared contractor base a larger area to bid work in with the same contract," said Jon Brian, western business agent for Ironworkers Local No. 22 based in Terre Haute.

"Year in and year out we average 1.2 million man hours since we have merged," Brian said.

Ironworkers Local No. 22 has 1,200 members, which includes some retirees. In the western region, which includes the Terre Haute area, there are 300 members.

Intensive training

It takes four years to become a journey-person ironworker. A person can get started with no experience, signing up with a birth certificate, high school diploma or GED, a Social Security card if available and a driver's license.

"We then get them started in an apprenticeship, and through that apprenticeship they will get an associates degree through Ivy Tech" Community College, Brian said.

"We will train them to get welding certification, OSHA training, CPR training and other training [and] while they are going to school they are also working on a job," he said. "We do block training, so they will attend school for two weeks three different times a year," he said.

"So, when they go to our training facility in Indianapolis, that is like work, going in every day and going through their schedule and then back out to work when they are done there.

"That is the typical path of someone that is just looking to get in," he said.

Additionally, someone may have experience in welding or installing rebar, an evaluation is made on experience on where to place them in a training program.

"We will run them through parts [of a training program] they have not learned yet, so that way when any person becomes a journey person Ironworker they are well rounded and know several aspects of the trade," Brian said.

An ironworker apprentice is paid $20.54 an hour to start, and that's based on a journeyman rate of $34.24 an hour. With benefits, that apprenticeship rate is $44.99 an hour.

The training facility at Indianapolis has welding booths, areas to install rebar, has an overhead tower to erect a stair tower and then take it down. There is high-angle rescue training, which is rope rescue training, Brain said. "We also have several classrooms there, too, as we are a regional training facility," he said.

From varied backgrounds

Ironworkers have also made strides to attract women into the workforce, Brian said.

As an example, Brian's cousin, Marty Brock, has worked as an ironworker for more than 25 years. In 2021, she received a meritorious service awards from the AFL-CIO.

There are more than 58,478 iron workers currently employed in the United States, of which 4.4% are women, according to Zippia.com. The average age of an employed iron worker is 40.

"The ironworkers were the first of the trade unions to implement paid maternity leave for our female members. It is $800 a week for six months before the due date and six weeks after the birth date," Brian said.

Vicky O'Leary, who was worked as an ironworker for nearly 32 years and announced the paid maternity program in 2017, will be the featured speaker at the Wabash Valley Chapter of the Southern Indiana Area Labor Federation's Labor Day Banquet at Idle Creek Banquet Center at 5353 Ryanne Marie Lane. The dinner and program start at 7 p.m.

O'Leary is the general organizer and director of diversity at the Ironworkers International union. She started as an Ironworker in 1985 in the Chicago area, later working as bridge and structural ironworker from 1990 to 2016.

Ironworkers come from a broad base of experiences, of which Brian is an example.

Brian, like Leitch, also joined the ironworkers after initially pursuing a different career.

"I went through Vincennes University, with an associate degree in aviation flight with a pilot license, then attended Purdue University, receiving an associate degree and bachelor degree in aeronautical technology, which is working on planes or in the research and development," he said.

"I got out of college, graduating in 2006 and just needed a job," he said.

In 2007, at the age of 26, he started with the ironworkers.

"I had some family [who were in the ironworkers] and I got into it and started working and thought it was just going to be temporary," Brian said. "I thought if I like it I will stick with it; if not, I will go back to messing with airplanes,"

Now 41, Brian said he "ended up liking it and the pay and benefits were good, right up there or even better than some friends who were living in Seattle that has a higher cost of living.

"I stuck with it and when I got out apprenticeship I ran for executive board and won that [election] and did a couple terms on the executive board. Then had an opportunity ... in September 2016 was able to start as business agent and organizer," he said.

"I enjoy it," said Brian, who is from Lawrence County, Illinois.

Some work by the ironworkers includes a current project building a new Sullivan County Jail as well as recent work of the Terre Haute Convention Center, an update of Hulman Center on the campus of Indiana State University and bridges on Interstate 70 spanning the Wabash River.

One past large project is the Duke Energy's Edwardsport station, which became operational in 2013.

The Terre Haute office of the Ironworkers Local 22 is at 110 S. 13th St. and can be reached at 812-232-5421.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com. Follow on Twitter @TribStarHoward.