AWCI's Centennial: 1918-1919
“Men’s minds are working curiously toward a common and co-operative end.”
War and disease devastated the world in 1918. The government nationalized the railroads. It rationed food and fuel. It coerced unions to prevent strikes. The Espionage Act of 1917 suppressed opposers. To gain a voice, business had to play by new rules—the government’s.
The government wanted to eliminate price gouging in contracts and, if possible, work with fewer trades on projects. CPIA needed to play along or risk losing out on potential government contracts.
In effect, the board encouraged all industry players, even competitors, to collude. This was something new and, to a degree, it was beneficial. Industry organization provided “stability and cooperation to meet common goals,” says the Encyclopedia of American Economic History. Trade associations existed before the war. Now, they had de facto government sanctioning, and they grew in numbers and influence.
The association’s origins are in plastering. CPIA saw wallboard and composition board as market threats, even though the category of material was new and undeveloped.
CPIA’s founders felt that they and the unions could align over common issues. The Operative Plasterers and the Lathers, for example, differed over who should install corner bead. They had met many times before the war but never settled the issue. CPIA’s founders saw it as an opportunity to unify the trades—at least to the degree that they could as an organization of employers.
During the war, the government had encouraged big business to support higher wages for union tradesmen so long as the unions didn’t strike. Unions generally kept their end of the bargain. Big business tolerated higher wages in exchange for production stability.
In 1918, CPIA supported the unions. And, Chicago was a kind of trial ground for working out labor and employer issues.
On March 11, 1918, 26 plastering industry contractors met at the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. This first CPIA conference focused on organizing the plastering work at army cantonments.
But CPIA’s first president, Oscar A. Reum of Chicago, was at work even before the association formed.
Beginning in September or October 1917, Reum and Operative Plasterers President Edw. J. McGivern, made calls in Washington, D.C., together for seven months. They pitched programs “to have those in charge of government construction place plastering and cement finishing on the many buildings being erected for war purposes,” said The Plasterer (April 1918).
Reum and McGivern succeeded. The government signed plastering contracts for work on mess halls at 32 cantonments around the country. Plastering appeared in the interiors and exteriors of various military facilities and government housing projects.
Newly elected CPIA President Reum attended the first convention of the new National Federation of Building Industries, which was called by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States.
The goal of the NFBI was to coordinate industry activity so as to restrict materials and labor for the benefit of the war effort. The government was willing to pay mechanics and apprentices $30 to $105 per month to join its new construction division.
The Army’s Construction Division set up a board of eminent experts appointed by Benedict Crowell, then acting-secretary of war. CPIA’s Reum was appointed to the board.
The board recommended the use of the “cost plus sliding scale of fixed fee” contract. The fixed fee ranged from 1.75 percent for large contracts up to 7 percent for projects of $100,000 or less. The fixed fee prevented contractors from running up labor charges and paying extravagantly for materials. It also allowed the “government to push jobs at any speed it may elect” and to “pay only what the work actually costs,” The Times reported.
Reum and McGivern outlined specifications for lath and plastering construction. They also recommended the Army use the cost plus contract method. This type of contract, mentioned earlier, could help control costs and ensure that specialized trades worked on government projects.
Reum and McGivern’s work was invaluable. Many government buildings originally had little work specified for plasterers. Reum and McGivern changed the outcome favorably for the plastering trade.
The Second Annual Convention of the Contracting Plasterers’ International Association was held in Chicago, Sept. 15–26, 1919. The Operative Plasterers sent its entire executive board to the CPIA convention.
Three plastering industry leaders, all from Chicago, served as the primary organizers of CPIA’s first convention: Thomas J. McNulty, Melvin P. “Bud” Riley and Thomas F. O’Brien.
Convention delegates selected two men to preside at this first meeting: John J. Earley of Washington was named convention chairman, and T.A. O’Rourke of New York City, secretary. Later, attendees elected permanent officers for the association: Reum of Chicago was named president. Arthur R. Sanford of Indianapolis became first vice president. Andrew McCallin of Denver was second vice president, and Cincinnati’s W.J. Pugh took the office of CPIA secretary/treasurer.
Oscar A. Reum, the association’s first president, was a natural leader, eloquent speaker and man of virtue and integrity. He was often behind the scenes in private sessions “leading the group in prayer and to good purpose,” History of the CPLIA says.
Reum was secretary and treasurer of Zander-Reum Co., a Chicago plastering contracting company, and president of the Employing Plasterers’ Association of Chicago. He was on the executive committee of the Building Construction Employers’ Association of Chicago. Reum served as president of CPIA until his death in 1945.
He was a Republican. Later in his career he helped organize Republican political rallies in Chicago. An experienced communicator, Reum spoke to lathers, union plasterers, contracting plasterers and architects. The Illinois Chapter of the American Institute of Architects considered him a distinguished guest. In 1929, the governor of Illinois appointed Reum to Chicago’s Lincoln Park planning commission.
Reum wrote articles about contracts, estimating, collective bargaining and workers’ compensation.
Reum was comfortable with technical topics. He understood contract law and authored lath and plastering specifications. He once suggested that Illinois architects specify three coats of plaster instead of two coats on wood lath. Unlike two-coat work, the three-coat system is durable and functions as a fire retardant, he argued. A form of “slow burning construction,” Reum said underwriters should give three-coat systems a preferential insurance rate.
At a time of massive upheaval and uncertainty, CPIA emerged with capable hands at its helm. Its organizers had experience with employer associations. The government wanted control of the economy to further its war effort. CPIA understood this. From the very start, CPIA worked at high levels of power and influence in the country to bring more business to plasterers. In this respect, the association was ideally positioned for what happened next—a construction boom.