Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Chicago Pipefitter: the Wages of Work

Plumbers and Pipefitters mural by Charles Johnston
the original is at 254 Higgens Ave, Winnepeg, Manitoba

Joe Mancari graduated from De LaSalle high school with Al Ribskis [They Call Me Mr. MGB] in 1975. Joe’s main memory of that period in history is the looming possibility of being drafted for Vietnam.  He remembers Al as one of the smart kids at school; he sometimes describes his younger self as having been a knucklehead.  He has fond memories of warm evenings spent hanging out with the guys on 26th Street; when he was older he’d spend some time in the fast lane at the Rush Street bars.

Decades later, though, the striking difference between Joe’s path and Al’s is that Joe’s has been steadier.  He’s lived his whole life in 3 houses within 6 blocks of the house his family settled in when they first came from Italy, when Joe’s father was still an infant.  And he’s been employed by just 2 employers in the past 38 years.

Joe’s a union pipefitter -- a servicefitter more specifically, he says the other pipefitters call them sissy fitters because they don’t break their backs welding new pipe, they make repairs on big HVAC and refrigeration systems that are already installed.  He hasn’t been unaffected by changes in Chicago’s economy during those years.  His first job had him working on refrigeration systems for meat packing plants; the second has him maintaining the temperate environment for offices and data centers in the towers downtown.  For decades, the basics of heat, ventilation and air conditioning didn’t change much, but the innovations have accelerated in the last 10 years.  Now equipment makers race to outdo each other in efficiency, green features and electronic controls.  In some cases the equipment’s so new the service fitters are working out kinks the manufacturers can’t tell them how to fix.

So Joe has done well by his wits, but the fact he’s had just 2 jobs in 38 years is related to the fact he’s lived his life in 3 houses within 6 blocks, because the union has helped give his career its stability, and he needed connections to secure a foothold in the union.  Joe’s vividly aware of that because his father, who was a plumber, wasn’t in a union when Joe was a kid. Back then the unions were controlled by the Irish and the Germans, Italians could only get a foot in the door if they paid somebody a bribe.  Jimmy Mancari wouldn’t pay anybody a bribe, even though he was raising 6 kids and earning just a little more than minimum wage.

In his son’s day there would be big fights about integrating the unions.  In the 1970s, the Justice Department filed civil rights suits to force the unions to open their ranks to minorities; in the 80s, the unions pulled their apprenticeship programs out of Washburn Trade School when the Board of Education demanded they double minority enrollment; by the early 1990s a federal judge ripped the pipefitters union in particular for its racism, arguing that African Americans were effectively screened out through “an informal word of mouth system through which many white members are referred to jobs.”  Eventually, Joe’s uncle, Joe Tassone paid the bribe that got Joe’s father into the union; years later he was in a position to help his son access the system that had once excluded him.

Joe’s uncle had an interesting career arc of his own.  They called him Joe Nickels, from his days as a newsboy during the Depression outside the Metropole Hotel.  When Al Capone came out he’d buy a paper from every newsboy out front, and he’d pay them each a nickel, even though the paper only cost a penny.  As an adult, Joe Nickels started a plumbing and heating business in Chicago, but connections drew him out to Las Vegas.

Vegas has been a gambling town since the 1930s, when construction crews brought in to build the Hoover dam first jumped the town’s population from 5,000 to 25,000.  The male laborers, far from their families, were a natural market for showgirls and gambling.  A collection of local businessmen, mafia bosses and Mormon bankers built on that theme, and the city’s population doubled every decade as they did it. Joe Nickels didn’t do plumbing for the casinos, he laid sewers for all the new tract housing springing up around them.  Within 5 years of resettling in Vegas he had 6 trucks and 10 guys working for him, and he was pulling in millions of dollars a year.  But he’d also contracted a gambling habit and he was losing it as fast as he could pull it in.

An Octopus Furnace: Front View (adapted to burn gas)

As a kid, back in Chicago, Joe Mancari was following along with his father to help him out on residential plumbing and heating repairs.  He learned all the fittings and saw some very old equipment still doing good service in the basements of Bridgeport.  He remembers the old octopus furnaces that ran on coal and worked by convection – the hot air lofting up from the basement through each arm of the furnace to big grates in the floors.  The coal was held in a hopper and fed into the furnace with an augur.  If a large lump of coal jammed the augur, a pin connecting it to the motor was designed to break, so the motor could spin freely without grinding itself out.  Joe would climb into hoppers to replace broken shear pins his father couldn’t reach.

Today he says the most important thing he learned from his father was his work ethic, it’s the inheritance he’s passed on to his own sons.  He had planned to be a plumber himself, to follow in his father’s footsteps.  But when he went to the plumbers union on graduating high school, the waitlist for the apprenticeship program was 6 years long.

An Octopus Furnace: Rear View

So with his father’s permission he enrolled in Coyne Trade School.  The Campus was in Lincoln Park then, it’s just north of the old meat packing district on Fulton Street now.  Coyne was founded on the eve of the eve of the 20th century to train electricians, an emerging trade at the time.  By the 1950s it was known for its training in HVAC and Refrigeration as well.  After eighteen months of night courses, Joe finished with employable skills, but still couldn’t get a job without a union card, and you couldn’t join the union without a job.

“You had to know somebody,” Joe says today.  His father called Frank Young whose plumbing supply business at 59th and Ashland brought all the local contractors in through his doors.  Frank Young helped match Joe with a piping company called Resco, now Mid-Resco Services, who asked the union to take in their new prospective employee.

Mid-Resco had a north side crew and a south side crew.  In heating and cooling as in life, there was a natural rivalry between them, at least the south side crew would entertain themselves with stories about things the north side crew had done, like by-passing safety controls for quick fixes that blew up on them later.  Among themselves, they made a point of fixing their own mistakes quietly in house.

Joe was just out of school, he was motivated to learn, it wasn’t long before clients were calling up to ask his bosses to “send the kid over.”  Mid-Resco brought him out from house basements to the equipment rooms of big commercial and industrial facilities.  They afforded him a tour of the local meat packing plants while they were still running – Chiapetti’s, Bo Packing, Peer Foods.  He recalls the sound of the cattle crying in the slaughterhouse, the big bins full of animal parts – like the hopper full of eyeballs staring up at him like they were shocked to be there -- and the chill of the workrooms, which were all refrigerated, the workers wore protective steel mesh gloves that carried the cold to the bones of their hands.

The Original Ammonia Refrigeration System: Built by Ferdinand Carre in 1859

The meat plants used old ammonia refrigeration systems.  Ammonia is poisonous and flammable and had been replaced by “safer” chlorofluorocarbons like Freon in most other environments, but it is cheap and efficient, especially at very low temperatures, and so it’s still used for food processing in particular.  Today, the ammonia industry describes itself as the safety refrigerant because it doesn’t destroy the ozone and you can easily smell it if it leaks.

Substances aside, refrigeration in the meat packing plants is based on a cycle of compression and rapid expansion that has been fundamentally unchanged since the 1870s, when it was first used to make ice to replace the stuff harvested from lakes in winter and stored under sawdust through the year. The refrigerant is first compressed and condensed into liquid, then pushed through an expansion valve.  The sharp drop in pressure sparks a flash of evaporation that pulls heat out from the refrigerant, chilling it enough that warm air blown across it turns cold.

It sounds improbable, but apparently it works.  In his second job, Joe would be working on similar systems used to cool the core of the towers downtown.  In winter, the envelope of an office tower is heated, but chillers cool the heat from equipment at the core all year round.

Ammonia Refrigeration Equipment

After 18 years, Joe was ready for a change of scene.  He took a job with Competitive Piping in 1997.  Competitive Piping has been headquartered at the Chicago Board of Trade ever since a heroic rescue job during the great Loop Flood of 1992.

As the flood made Chicagoans aware, coal fuel was once fed into deep sub-basements in towers throughout the Loop by a system of tunnels underground.  Later, the tunnels were strung with electric lines, the sub-basements are still filled with mechanical equipment.

In April, 1992, a contractor driving a piling into the bed of the river struck too close to one of the tunnels.  It took awhile for the pressure to break through the tunnel, but after it did, the leak was visible in the river above – it looked like water circling down a giant drain.  Water filled the tunnels and sub-basements, shutting equipment down and creating giant electrical hazards.  The IRS granted disaster extensions on tax returns; the Chicago Board of Trade rattled world markets when it closed for 2 days.

It took weeks to plug the hole and empty the basements; the lawsuits would wind on for years.  Crews were still trying to stop the hole with mattresses when Competitive Piping helped bring CBOT back on line before anybody else.  They flew in replacement chillers by helicopter, they finagled permission from city bureaucrats to operate them from flatbeds parked in the street. They sent divers into the sub-basements with underwater welding equipment to install take off valves in the submerged piping.  The valves tied in hard rubber hose that reached out to the chillers in the street.

Competitive Piping's Headquarters since 1992

Some years later, Joe got to work on another helicopter job for the CBOT.  They were installing cooling towers on the roof.  It was a carefully choreographed performance.  The city shut down the streets, but only for a tight window of time.  Spectators held their breath as the helicopters hoisted the towers upwards, staying steady as they could so the towers wouldn’t start to swing on their tethers.  Joe worked the rigging to prepare them for the lift.

In the years since he started at Competitive Piping, the trading floors have given way to big server rooms for processing electronic trades.  The servers generate great loads of heat that must be cooled constantly and that make repairs more urgent, because anything that shuts them down can cost traders millions in a short span of time.  The constant innovations designed to make heating and cooling more efficient make old equipment obsolete more quickly, particularly the electronic components, and not all the new equipment works right the first time it’s installed.

But many of the basics of the business remain the same.  In the summer, Joe says the most common service calls are for motor repairs.  As ComEd struggles to meet peak demand, the voltage sometimes drops in unannounced brownouts – he says that’s not supposed to happen but he’s seen it on his voltmeter.  When voltage drops, amperage rises, and a surge in amperage will burn a motor out.

In the winter, the most common calls come when tenants under the mechanical floors complain they’ve got water pooling in their ceiling, and that’s usually because water left standing in chill coils over winter have frozen and cracked.  A big building is constantly balancing the air it exhales through the exhaust systems with fresh air it takes in from outside.  Joe says if the balance isn’t right you can feel the resistance when you go to open the doors.  And if the damper that brings in fresh air into the air mixing chamber gets stuck, frigid cold from outdoors will freeze the coils used to condition the air that’s blown through the ducts.

For a big system, the air mixing chamber is the size of room.  It has a door with a tempered glass window on it so you can peer in.  Fans move the air in tornado-force winds inside, so you have to shut them off before you open the door.  Joe will isolate the coils and force air through them, then spray them with a foam that bubbles where the air leaks through tiny cracks. There may be dozens of them, and he’ll patiently braze each of them closed.

Over the years Joe says all that work in very cold environments takes a toll on your joints  - as it probably did for the meat workers with their chilled hands.  But it has also afforded a good life for his family.  His sons are adults – he sent them both to college.  One of them is a materials engineer, the other a doctor of pharmacology.  He and his wife raised them in a house next door to his father.

In fact, the lot their house stands on originally came with the house his father bought for $16,000 in 1966.  Those were his father’s low wage days, he bought it with a loan from the credit union at St. Jerome’s and a spoken guarantee from a friend.   Joe and his wife designed their own house themselves, every detail the way they want it, from the placement of the windows to the extensive insulation, to the materials in the pipes – there is no rattling PVC in Joe’s house.  It reflects what he knows about heating and cooling and pipe, it also reflects the benefits of the union that helped guarantee, over the span of a whole career, fair compensation for work well done.

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