As a young ironworker traveling through the American heartland in search of work in the late 1970s, Stephen F. Lynch began to exhibit some behavior that his buddies found bizarre.
When a blizzard shut down his work site in Wisconsin in 1979, Lynch enrolled in night school. His fellow laborers tried to talk him out of it, while his sisters back home in South Boston were “baffled” by his action.
When shortly afterwards he declared himself a vegetarian at a diner in Wisconsin, the burly ironworkers crowded around the table roared in disbelief — and promptly helped themselves to the steak remaining on his plate. But when he adopted a diet of tofu and hummus and joined a local food co-operative, Lynch had clearly crossed a line.
“We thought Stevie was off his rocker,” declared Bobby “Batman” Maguire, one of a group of ironworkers who occasionally traveled with Lynch, a US representative for more than a decade. “We are steak guys, meat and potato guys. What he was doing was not the behavior of an ironworker.”
Now running for a seat in the US Senate, Lynch maintains that his 18 years on the high iron have instilled in him a far better understanding of America’s working men and women than his Democratic opponent, US Representative Ed Markey, whom he portrays as a remote Washington insider, will ever have.
But if Lynch can identify with his fellow ironworkers, he also emerged as distinct among them from the time he first unfurled his cherished Wall Street Journal while eating a sandwich on a steel beam.
If what was different about him sometimes baffled his co-workers, it also fast became a reflection of his emerging ambition. The son of an ironman, Lynch worked for many years as a “connector” bolting steel beams hundreds of feet high in the air, one of the most dangerous jobs in the trade, and was an outspoken advocate for worker safety early on. At 33, he was elected the youngest president of his Local 7 of the International Association of Ironworkers ever, his victory heralded as the start of a more enlightened era for the trade.
But that turning point
Markey has the backing of half a dozen of the state’s large “white collar” unions such as SEIU and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and says he has the backing of roughly half of the state’s union workers, according to his campaign.
In a surprising blow to Lynch’s campaign, the AFL-CIO last month decided not to endorse either candidate in the Democratic primary. Some union stalwarts say they are troubled by Lynch’s vote against President Obama’s health care bill and his once-conservative tilt on issues such as abortion and affirmative action.
Lynch, however, accustomed to the role of long shot in his nearly two decades in politics, is undaunted. Over a bowl of oatmeal at a Newton diner, he is quick to point out that he has 89 unions on his side, never mind that some of them are small locals. “I don’t cry about the ones I don’t have,” he declares. “We’re getting there.”
Amid the thick wad of cards that fill his wallet, Lynch keeps a worn Local 7 card that bears his union “book” or membership number, which begins with the digits, “901.” The number indicates the apprenticeship class he entered on graduating from high school in 1973. The ‘901ers,’ as his classmates are called, are a graying group now, so senior that a plaque in their honor hangs in the local’s union hall.
But in their day, the 901ers were legend, and not just because so many of them went on to positions of prominence. Theirs was a breakthrough generation, tough-talking “cowboys of the sky,” as they were once dubbed, who would also lead the union’s gradual awakening on matters of health and safety.
Many had fathers who dropped out of school to work the iron. They followed those men up the steel beams that rose over Boston’s skyline in the 1970s and 1980s untethered to any of the safety lines that are now de rigueur, working at heights where a rogue wind or errant steel beam could easily knock them to their deaths.
“If they tried to make us hook up, we complained,” recalls Lynch, 58. “The steel is swinging and it’s heavy, and I believed that if you were hooked up to something you could not get out of the way.”
It is the kind of job most reasonable people would refuse to do. It is the kind of job, as one union official guffawed, “where you aren’t going to find Ed Markey.”
And it was a job that Stephen Lynch, raised in the Old Colony housing development in South Boston, was born to. His father, an eighth-grade dropout, worked as an ironworker for four decades, while his mother worked the night shift at the post office. The only boy among six children, Lynch, as his sister Karen O’Leary recalls it, “was spoiled by all of us. But he still had to wait in line for the bathroom.”
Francis Lynch, now 91, was a “rod man” who routinely carried several-hundred-pound bundles of steel. To little Stephen, he was a hero. On good days, the elder Lynch brought home the company truck crammed with tools and rigging and rope and allowed the neighborhood children to play in back. When he worked overtime, the entire family often took the bus to his work site and met him for lunch.
“This was my life’s dream,” Lynch recalls. “All those guys running around the iron, it just looked like a big jungle gym to me.”
Lynch attended St. Augustine’s, a parochial school in South Boston, and had an unremarkable passage through South Boston High School. He played varsity baseball and soccer and nursed a passion for reading before graduating in 1973, a year before court-ordered busing erupted in the neighborhood. At 16, Lynch began working summers on construction sites beside his father.
That he would be in ironworker was never in doubt. The only question was what kind. Lynch and one of his lifelong friends, John White, whose father and grandfather were ironworkers and who lived next door to Lynch, chose to be “connectors.” The job requires two men, working in pairs, and often standing on the highest point of a structure, to grab hold of a steel beam as it is being lowered by a crane and to bolt it into place.
“It was the best job, the most dangerous job, two guys just putting steel together,” said White, who runs a fishing tackle business based in Gloucester. “Everybody else is under you, everybody else follows you . . . You are in charge of your own destiny.”
After graduating, Lynch joined the 901ers’ three-year apprentice program. As a young man, he helped to raise more than a few of the buildings that now dominate the Boston skyline, including One Post Office Square and the Federal Reserve Building. But by the end of the decade, work was slowing down. On a dank afternoon in 1978, Lynch and his father were laid off.
Lynch, then 23, hit the road looking for work, or as ironworkers put it, he “boomed out.” He pooled his funds, bought a pickup truck, and headed for New Orleans to join some buddies from Dorchester on a job.
Over the next several years, he would crisscross the country time and again, often running into friends from back home. A power plant in Maine. A steel mill in Indiana. A car body plant in Michigan. Clad in tattered overalls and flannel shirt, Lynch, who sported a beard and hair creeping below his ears, fast became known for his agility on the highest beams. And every week, at least in the beginning, he sent half his paycheck back home.
“Mom was worried about him all the time,” recalled his sister Karen. “Every time she hung up the phone, there’d be tears in her eyes.”
The itinerant ironworkers sometimes traveled en masse, 10 men in three vehicles with one unyielding agenda: work. When the job ended after weeks or months, they’d call back to Local 7 to find out where there was another to be had. They stayed in trailer parks and hotels, often eating together to save money. Lynch and White, the youngest among the group, found their own way to help make ends meet.
“Sometimes Stevie and me got a hotel room together with one king size bed ‘cuz it was cheaper,” White said. “We’d been doing that since we were kids so it was OK.”
Life on the road had its lighter moments as well. Some of the gang stopped for baseball games in Chicago and Milwaukee. And one night, while Lynch was working on a corn sweetener plant in Illinois, he was arrested along with dozens of others at a Willie Nelson concert and charged with smoking marijuana. He was fined and nothing came of it.
And then came the snowfall in Wisconsin that changed it all — at least for Lynch. It was 1979 and the storm in Kenosha ground everything to a halt, including work on the power plant where Lynch was employed. When Lynch looked around for something to do, he found the University of Wisconsin.
“It was always tugging at me. I felt like if I was going to get to the next level I had to get some education,” Lynch said. “I wanted to be running these jobs, not just working on them.”
During the months that Lynch and the gang spent in Kenosha, Lynch attended night classes whenever he could. When the guys headed out at night for a beer after dinner, Lynch turned them down, even on the weekends.
“When he started studying we thought he was something of an oddball,” said Maguire, who earned his nickname “Batman” from the years he spent working as clubhouse boy for the Red Sox. “We’d go to a party on the weekend and he’d go to the library.”
Lynch decided to swear off meat not long after his father came down with cancer of the lymph nodes in 1978 and had to have a jugular vein removed. All four of his father’s brothers — who were sheet metal workers or “tin knockers,” as Lynch calls them — also had some form of cancer. When Lynch visited his father in the hospital, he recalled the doctor saying that their illnesses might be related to eating meat.
“Well, that took the fun out of eating red meat, I’ll tell you that,” Lynch said.
In an effort to learn how to eat healthfully, Lynch began to visit a local food co-operative and soon adopted a diet of grains, legumes, and tofu. When he began running and working out regularly, he dropped 20 pounds. His fellow ironworkers, he recalls, “looked at me like I was a science experiment.’’
Lynch continued his vegetarian lifestyle for decades until 2001, when he donated 60 percent of his liver to his brother-in-law, who had cancer. When Lynch’s remaining liver later failed to regenerate appropriately, doctors phoned him and ordered him to eat meat. Immediately. Lynch, who happened to be standing on a nurses union picket line at the time, hung up and ordered a cheeseburger from an outdoor grill. It was, he says, “the best cheeseburger I have ever had.”
On his return to Boston in the early 1980s, Lynch enrolled at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and pursued a degree in construction management. It took him eight years, working construction during the day while taking courses at night and on weekends. When he was awarded a bachelor’s of science degree in 1988, he became the first in his family to have completed college.
At the time, Lynch was becoming increasingly interested in matters of worker safety. While traveling across the country, he had noticed that safety standards were much more stringent where unions were strong. At monthly meetings of Local 7, he increasingly took the microphone to argue not just for improved job conditions, but financial safeguards that some had never considered.
“Stevie would . . . talk about safety programs, but he was also talking health care and annuity programs, things like that,” recalled Jim Coyle, a 901er and former officer of Local 7. “We were beginning to realize that we could change things and make it better for the next generation. We didn’t have to go through what our fathers had.”
As some of the younger ironworkers were contemplating a shift in the union’s role, so Lynch was undergoing some personal changes. In 1981, Lynch, who has acknowledged that as a young man he had a problem with alcohol, began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and stopped drinking. “It was,” he said, “a difficult transition.”
The following year, he met a young art student named Margaret Shaughnessy while listening to a local band. Shaughnessy, who also grew up in South Boston, shared his interest in community activism and the two regularly attended meetings of the South Boston Residents’ Group on their early dates. “Pretty exciting courtship, eh?” said Margaret Lynch. Married in 1992, the couple have one daughter.
Further fueling his interest in worker safety, Lynch came within inches of losing his life while working on a building on Federal Street in 1983. Lynch and fellow ironworker Todd Merner were erecting a large crane about 10 stories high when some rigging came loose and sent a steel ladder directly into Lynch’s back, pushing him forward and snapping Merner’s wrist. Merner grabbed Lynch, arresting his free fall, and the two landed on a platform below.
Not long afterward, Lynch decided it was time to step up his role. In 1985, when he was 30, Lynch won a seat on the union’s executive board. Three years later he set his sights on Local 7’s presidency.
With a campaign logo and stickers for hard hats designed by his wife, Lynch campaigned hard. Although well-liked by the rank and file, he was seen as something of an upstart by the more senior workers. But in the end his assertiveness prevailed, and in 1988 Lynch became the youngest president in Local 7’s history. It was a turning point not just for Lynch, but for the union as well.
“A lot of the old guys were being phased out and the technology began to change,’’ said Jay Hurley, who worked on the iron with Lynch and is now president of the Iron Workers District Council of New England. “Stevie had the vision.”
It was a crucial year for Lynch on many fronts. For some time, Lynch had been considering enrolling in Suffolk University’s night law school, but two months before the union vote he fell down a stairwell while working at the 75 State Street construction site and injured his back. Awarded a substantial settlement and unable to work construction for more than a year, Lynch enrolled in the day program at the more prestigious Boston College Law School. But a broiling union dispute made him three weeks late for class.
It began when Local 7’s nearly 1,800 workers walked off the job that summer, unable to reach a contract with the Associated General Contractors. The strike dragged on for weeks as construction around the city ground to a virtual halt. Anxious for resolution, the Ironworkers International ordered Lynch to sign.
When Lynch refused, angling for a better deal for his members, the international threatened to remove him from his post. When Lynch still would not budge, the International went over his head and signed the contract that he would not.
Lynch, the street fighter, was livid. In an aggressive move that union veterans recall vividly, Lynch filed charges of “coercion” against his own union with the National Labor Relations Board. In the end, he prevailed and the international agreed to back off.
Taking on the international made Lynch something of a hero among the rank and file, but it also shut the door on any aspirations he might have had to rise within the union hierarchy. After he graduated from law school in 1991, Lynch contemplated a different path — politics. Over the next few years, he would keep a close eye on the State House a few blocks from the law firm where he worked and eventually defeated an incumbent state representative.
There were those who suggested that the rough edge of his ironworking days might work against him, but Lynch believed just the opposite.
“When you’re out there hanging iron, your understanding of workers issues is not theoretical,” Lynch said in between campaign stops recently. “You’ve done it. You’ve been there. That makes a difference.”
Sally Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.