Although people in many manual occupations want "something better" for their children, for many members of the Pipefitters union, there is no trade that's better.
Fitting pipe is exactly what they want their children to do, and preserving the craft is one of the union's most important responsibilities. When James O'Mara, business manager of Pipefitters Local 562 and a third-generation member of the union, talks about his profession, his remarks are laced with concern for the future of his family.
O'Mara's grandfather, who emigrated from County Tipperary in Ireland, joined the union in 1915 and was a member for 50 years. O'Mara joined in 1955 and became business manager in 1993, after Donald Devitt retired. After Jack Kiely died, O'Mara added the title of secretary-treasurer to his résumé. His sons also are union members. Son Kevin managed his County Council campaigns; son Michael is a business agent; son John is vice president of the local. When Jim O'Mara talks to union contractors, he explains his goals by saying he hopes for the day when his grandsons work in the union, too.
Jim and Mike O'Mara also are the treasurer and president, respectively, of Local 562's Voluntary, Political, Educational, Legislative, Charity and Defense Fund, the union's political-action committee. At the end of 1999, the fund had assets of $226,272. In each of the last three years, the fund's contributions to politicians have exceeded $40,000. In 1996, the last big election year, the fund's political contributions totaled $95,000. Jim O'Mara has been treasurer of the fund at least since 1993, which is as far back as the public records at the Department of Labor go, and Mike took the president's spot in 1994, after former state Rep. Patrick Hickey retired. When Hickey left, the fund was down to $51,000. The O'Maras cranked up the local's membership and, on the strength of greater contributions from members, built it up to over $300,000 in 1996.
But the O'Maras aren't the only family with a leadership tradition in the union.
The children of the union's two most powerful figures of the 1970s, John "Doc" Lawler and Lawrence Callanan, followed their fathers into leadership positions. John Lawler Jr. ascended to the business manager's job in the 1970s, and Lawler's grandson John Lawler III is a current officer of the local; Lawrence Callanan's relatives also are on the payroll, including son Thomas, who still receives a business agent's salary from the local. The sons of union leaders who served in the state Legislature, such as Patrick Hickey and Patrick O'Connor Jr., also followed their fathers into union leadership positions.
In a sense, the whole union is like a large extended family. There are no entrance exams to pass to get into the apprenticeship program, but "it helps a lot if I know you," says Jim O'Mara.
Such clannishness can be a source of strength -- and the Pipefitters are renowned for sticking together -- but it can also be a weakness. Some corporations and contractors with good reputations for working with unions oppose passing legislation that ensures work for the Pipefitters. All other things being equal, they wonder whether a family-style union can produce enough skilled workers to meet the demand.