Local Union 78
Although Local 78 certainly was not the first trade union in the State, oddly enough we are the oldest continuously operating trade union in California. The earliest known plumbers in the LA area were a couple of families from Philadelphia who in 1852 landed in San Diego by ship with tools and equipment to construct and repair a variety of metal works.
They made their way north to Los Angeles, drilling wells with their steam powered equipment, and making tanks of lead and zinc, providing a few wealthy ranchers and farmers with gravity fed water systems and a new fangled porcelain device called a water closet. In 1855 they constructed their first known project in Los Angeles, a brewery.
Over the years many organizations of workers came and went. They prospered sometimes, but any success was often countered by employers who imported cheap labor from China and South America. The construction trades were most successful as their skills were not easily learned and as long as the men stuck together they could prevail against the employers who expected them to work with and train an unlimited number of low paid laborers. The tension between labor and management resulted in the establishment of both unions and management associations with by-laws and membership standards; formal organizations as it were.
From 1871 until about 1876 workmen protective associations were formed in California, the forerunners of today's unions. They were all local associations, but efforts were underway to connect them into national organizations.
Local 78's forerunner Los Angeles Plumbers and Gas Fitters Protective Association was formed sometime between 1871-1876. No exact date is known for the first meeting of the group, except that they first met in 1871; seventeen strong and worked hard to recruit every new plumber who appeared in the area. At least one of the members along with other crafts would meet every ship or train looking for the telltale toolbox or bag. (Plumbers always carried their tools in a canvas valise, or shoulder bag).
For a while our predecessor was associated with the Knights of Labor, an organization modeled after the Free Masons. Their founding principle was the mixed assembly regardless of trade or occupation. They frowned on the separate trade organizations, but did admit some as associates. Any individual could join except those engaged in reprehensible occupations, specifically, saloon keepers, gamblers, lawyers, bankers and stockbrokers. It thrived for a while, but gradually faded when national leaders fought for power and the American Federation of Labor was formed.
In the 1870's, the great cities of the east coast were overwhelmed with a huge surge of immigrants. They had little or no sanitary facilities and water had to be carried in to five story walk-ups from neighborhood wells or faucets. Disease was rampant; cholera, smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, tuberculosis, all diseases abetted by crowded unsanitary conditions.
In the seventies a growing understanding of the nature and causes of diseases brought on the development of health departments throughout the country. The need for safe water supplies and sanitary waste disposal became imperative.
The first plumbing codes were devised by the health departments, and in Los Angeles, the small group of plumbers in the city who were the vanguard of Local 78 worked closely with the City Fathers to develop the health codes. From those early efforts a very effective plumbing code was developed by the City of Los Angeles, almost exclusively the work of Plumbers local 78 and the original Master Plumbers Association of Los Angeles.
For many years the City of Los Angeles maintained one of the finest plumbing research laboratories in the United States and the work done there was the basis of code development throughout Southern California. The Western Plumbing Officials Association began with the Los Angeles plumbing inspectors, virtually all members of Local 78. The last Chairman of this Association was George Campbell of Local 78, when it became the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO).
In 1924 Ralph McMullen a Local 78 member, was certified as the first teacher of Plumbing in California. He taught at the old Frank Wiggins Trade School. Around 1935, Ralph McMullen and Earl Schultz both of Local 78 set up the maintenance department for the City Housing Authority, a large part of which was plumbing. You can see their pictures on the wall at the housing authority offices.
Local 78 also had, and still has, a close relationship with the School board; our members who inspected for them were the toughest inspectors of all. The City Inspectors were no slouches either; they commanded a great deal of respect from the plumbers in Local 78. They knew the code and greatly understood the importance of proper installation.
The department of water and power has employed our members from the earliest days of redwood water mains, on through the construction of the earliest well fields, the earliest electric power plants, the aqueduct from the Owens and Colorado rivers and the vast network of mains in the City.
Local 78 is proud of our membership and our relationship with our employers as a large number of them have come from our rank and file allowing us to enjoy strong ties of kinship and fraternity.