Friday, September 12, 2014

Happy Birthday to the history-making Journeyman Horseshoers Union

A souvenir diorama from Utica, New York combines the past and present of the IUJH: a meticulous shoe board, a grandly ornate convention ribbon, a photo of an unknown horseshoer, and a contemporary raceplate, no doubt signifying the union's strength at the racetracks.

It was 121 years ago that a footnote in labor history turned into a solid hoofprint. The International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers was incorporated at Denver, Colorado, on September 12, 1893 after having been affiliated with the American Federation of Labor until July 1 of that year.

The union was organized on April 27, 1874 in Philadelphia. It is one of the oldest labor unions in North America and once had many thousand members. It played an important role in the history of American labor and many of its members went on to hold influential offices in labor and politics.

As the horseshoeing trade evolved in America and employee or "journeyman" farriers were replaced by every-man-for-himself self-employed farriers, the JHU found new strength at the racetrack, where it still represents and provides testing for horseshoers in some jurisdictions.

Kudos to the IUJH for representing the "journeyman" so long ago. How many people know what that word meant in the horseshoeing hierarchy?

In labor terms, a journeyman is a worker who has fulfilled his or her apprenticeship obligation and has gone on to attain independent workman status. Historically, they would set off on a journey to find employment or start a new life as an independent craftsman after finishing an apprenticeship.

In the USA, however, the horseshoeing trade and the growing labor movement were on a collision course, with journeyman horseshoers at the middle of it all in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th.

At that time, American cities were dominated by big horseshoeing shops. Powerful "masters" owned the shops and were organized under the Master Horseshoers' National Protective Association of America; they set citywide wages for their journeymen, who were their employees, sometimes referred to as "qualified men".

In the minds of the masters, if all the wages and hours were the same at all the shops in a city, there would be little incentive for the journeymen to move from one shop to another, or even from one city to another. The masters wanted stability in the workforce to get the most horses shod at the lowest possible cost and to earn the highest possible profit.

It was the age of the great capitalists, and that spirit inspired and guided the masters. But it was also the age of growing unrest and dissatisfaction among workers. Coal mines and horseshoeing shops were two places where labor unions made headlines and had an impact on commerce and people's lives.

The journeymen were powerless against their masters, and often watched prices for shoeing rise without any matching rise in their wages. They were governed by special laws that exempted them from consideration of overtime or any limit to hours. But the union changed everything. Laws affecting the working conditions and wages of journeyman farriers went all the way to the Supreme Court.

A report of the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1908 showed that, even with the union, journeyman horseshoers in that state earned between $2.37 and $2.97 a day for nine hours of work and worked roughly 55 hours a week. Journeymen in Philadelphia were slightly better paid, but went on strike in 1903 to gain the nine hour work day enjoyed in other big cities. They also wanted Saturday afternoons off in the summer months, and payment for overtime, with overtime being prohibited during the hot weather.

When the strike was settled in their favor, it was considered a great victory for labor.

According to an IUJH document, the JHU had 20 locals in the United States in 1890. Ten years later, in August, 1900, it reported 121 local unions and 3,000 members. In June, 1901, there were 132 locals and about 6,800 members. Not only was the union setting up in more cities, but the locals were attracting more and more horseshoers who worked as employees in the shoeing shops. By 1922, the JHU had 322 locals, from coast to coast in the United States and Canada, with an unknown number of individual union members.

The union not only gave the employee horseshoers bargaining power in the workplace, it brought attention to the word "journeyman" in American labor. The association wasn't always positive: the struggle often turned violent during strikes, especially in New York City, where one strike went on for a year. The strikes came at a time when immigrants were pouring into US cities and wanted work, even if it meant as "scab" horseshoers when the journeymen were on strike or to work in a non-unionized shop, often for lower pay and longer hours.

All of this was exclusive to the United States. In Russia, the farrier or blacksmith became a symbol of the ideal worker for whom communism was designed. Farriers and blacksmiths were immediately identifiable; they crossed the lines between the rural peasants and industrialized city workers. While in the USA, left-leaning horseshoers fought for labor rights and a better life, the Russian revolutionaries portrayed the anvil and hammer as symbols of noble hard work for the common good under Marxism.

The original traveling journeyman tradition continued, however, in trades including horseshoeing in Europe up to World War II, when Hitler's Third Reich forbade journeymen to travel in Germany.

The traveling journeyman is enjoying a revival now, as traditional views about formal education are being liberalized to understand that some people are best-served to design their own education plans to learn the skills they need to do the jobs they want to do. And, once again, farriery is an excellent example of a profession that finds it hard to fully educate students in a classroom or university setting. The profession still benefits from field studies or internships or old-fashioned "journeys" to augment formal learning.

One hundred years later, the farrier industry in the United States still uses the word journeyman, and the time-tested horseshoers' union is still around. It seems, however, that the word "journeyman" is one whose original meaning has had a revival lately. 

Beyond horseshoeing, the word "journeyman" has a positive meaning associated with overall self-directed expansion of one's skills and education. It is used often in the arts and especially in the technical side of media to signify someone on the road to becoming outstanding at their craft.

There are no more masters to fear or negotiate with in horseshoeing, so the word "journeyman" may be lost in terms of what it once meant in American legal, labor, and social history. But the continuing existence of the IUJH is a reminder of all that went on in a stormy period of American history and how horseshoers were at the center of it. Not many people know that, but if you look, it's there, and so is the International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers.