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United We Stand

AWCI formed on March 11, 1918, at the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Twenty-six men, AWCI’s founding fathers, took a photo together. One of them was Oscar A. Reum of Chicago, the association’s first president.

Shared Vision

Before AWCI formed, Reum traveled with Operative Plasterers and Cement Finishers’ International Association President Edward J. McGivern to Washington, D.C. Together, Reum and McGivern called on government officials from September or October 1917 through early 1918. 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.


The United States government wanted control. To build cantonments, hospitals and other housing structures, it hoped to work with as few tradespeople as possible and even substitute carpenters for lathers and plasterers. “The lumber and beaver board interests are more active now than ever,” warned McGivern. (Beaver Board, an early wallboard product, is no longer produced.)


In Washington, Reum and McGivern spoke on behalf of plastering employers and laborers, defending the wall and ceiling trade. They succeeded. It wasn’t much work by 1918 standards. It was contracts for plastering the exteriors of mess halls and applying mastic to the plywood roofs of some barracks. But it was enough to show the value of being organized nationally.


The unions were already international concerns. Plastering contractors’ associations existed regionally; Chicago had an employing plasterers’ association and a construction employers’ association. Reum served as president of the former and on the executive committee of latter, so he was the right man to send to Washington to drum up business. Without Reum’s efforts (or McGivern’s), the U.S. government might have chosen carpenters to be its wall and ceiling mechanics. AWCI would have been squeezed out of business 100 years ago.


But that’s not what happened. Four months after AWCI formed, the week of July 15, 1918, Reum was present in Atlantic City, N.J., for the inaugural meeting of the National Federation of Building Industries. He stood on behalf of AWCI along with other “master minds of the building industry,” American Contractor wrote. AWCI worked at high levels of power and influence to bring more business to its members. “Men’s minds are working curiously toward a common and co-operative end,” said Harry A. Wheeler of Chicago, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States.

Collaborative Derring-Do

Now jump ahead 96 years. In 2014, the industry’s problems were less about securing business and more about providing professional development to prepare its future leaders. The Great Recession had left wall and ceiling contractors decimated at their managerial levels. A new generation had entered the management ranks, but they were younger than previous generations and lacked the collaborative skills needed to work as managers. So, AWCI wrote a course in leadership, the Project Manager Development Series.


Once again, success came through a united effort. Executives from Baker Triangle, Grayhawk, LLC and Performance Contracting teamed up to design the course. Why, some of those firms’ leaders served as course instructors in 2014 and 2015, teaching participants about communicating, estimating, contracts, software, safety and more. To date, 109 individuals have earned the AWCI-PM credential, and it’s an example of how profitable unity can be.


How wise it is to organize. How fortuitous it can be. It’s what makes our industry dynamic—not people and ideas in isolation, but people and ideas working in tandem. AWCI’s founding fathers formed a formidable collective in 1918. They developed a shared vision that was so strong nothing could break it apart. Let’s never forget how important it is to remain united. Collaborative derring-do is the key to success. It will be for AWCI’s next 100 years. It can be for your firm, too.  

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing consultant. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at

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