COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TOM LEMMON

Building bridges and reinforcing San Diego

Next time you gasp at the dizzying view from the upper floors of San Diego's tallest buildings, remember this: An ironworker saw it first — without the benefit of windows, walls or floors.

Ironwork is dangerous, probably the most dangerous of all the trades. It requires classes in fall prevention, the use of safety harnesses and a constant vigil throughout the workday to ensure safety.

You’ve probably seen members of Ironworkers Local 229 erecting the skeletons of the high-rise buildings that make our downtown skyline a collection of strong and beautiful towers, blending residential units with centers of commerce.

Ironworkers have bridged the gap between downtown and Coronado, playing a monumental role in the construction of the Coronado Bay Bridge. Their work stretches from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to Petco Park, the Convention Center, the Great American Tower and virtually every major structure in San Diego and Imperial counties. Among their most recent projects, Ironworkers Local 229 just “topped off” the new terminal building at Lindbergh Field.

You might also have seen the famous photograph of their predecessors working and eating lunch high above New York City on the massive steel girders of a rising Empire State Building. Back then, the structural ironworkers were already focused on safety and the careful training of apprentices. Ironworker apprentice programs began in California in 1946. A few years later, in 1953, Local 229 organized an apprentice program in San Diego. Today, it is a four-year program, with 85 graduates last year at the journeyman level.

So, what do ironworkers do? The full name of the union — the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers — indicates the broad range of crafts involved. They also provide the best trained craftspeople in rigging, metal buildings and machinery moving — always with an emphasis on safety.

Simply stated, if a structure in this region includes iron for strength, the skilled professionals of Local 229 will play a key role in making it a reality that will last. The masters of ironwork do four main categories of work:

  • Structural ironworkers assemble, erect and install fabricated iron to form the skeleton of industrial, commercial and large residential buildings.
  • Reinforcing ironworkers fabricate and place steel bars in concrete forms to reinforce structures like freeways, bridges, drainage channels and commercial structures.
  • Ornamental ironworkers install metal stairways, catwalks, gratings, iron ladders, doors, gates, fences, platforms, railings and other finishes in the construction of large commercial, industrial and residential buildings.
  • Riggers and machinery movers load, unload and move machinery equipment in the construction and maintenance of industrial plants and precast concrete structures.

You’ve seen their work all over town, but it’s important to know that ironwork masters, journeymen and apprentices play a deeper role in the community, actively supporting many key local charities and improving the lives of the less fortunate. In 2007, ironworkers installed playground equipment for the children who depend on the Jackie Robinson Playground at San Diego YMCA for their recreational needs. Ironworkers from Local 229 played a key role in the San Diego FaceLift program, volunteering to revitalize 10-15 homes within a one-block radius in City Heights, a San Diego neighborhood. They also help every year with the heavy lifting involved in food drives by the San Diego Food Bank and the Letter Carriers.

One thing ironworkers don't do is sit on their hands and watch the clock.

The motto of Ironworkers Local 229 says it all: “Ironworkers don’t go to the office. … They build the office.”

It’s dangerous work, and it has made a difference in the look, commerce and lifestyle of our community.


Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO overseeing 23 trades affiliates and 14 joint labor-management apprenticeships.

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