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Plumbers one of San Diego's oldest building trades

San Diego's history is the struggle for water. A century ago, one man became known as "Mr. Water" for his key role in bringing water to the arid region. History books credit Fred Heilbron for leading the charge for sustainable sources of water, through projects such as the El Capitan dam in Mission Gorge and the Colorado River Aqueduct, which made development possible in San Diego. What is less known about Fred Heilbron is that he was a plumber tradesman who founded the Plumbers Local 230.

Fred Heilbron's vision did not end with securing sources of water for San Diego. He also created a skilled workforce that made San Diego proud of its sanitary health. In 1901, in response to unprecedented challenges in bringing water to the region, the plumbers and gasfitters of San Diego established the second apprenticeship program to be certified in the state of California. (What was California's first certified apprenticeship program? Cigar rolling!)

The history of trained plumbing is tied to the history of our city itself. For their role in the development of the city, plumbers were honored at the 1921 Balboa Park Exposition. Six years later, journeymen plumbers of Local 230 aided in creating a modernized Indian Village in Balboa Park, with workmen's services donated to provide sanitation and an outdoor bathing pool. The result was an innovative system of water supplied by three lines into what was then the largest outdoor swimming pool in San Diego.

Heilbron's legacy lives on in San Diego's thriving business-labor partnerships for workforce training. Today, more than 200 apprentices in San Diego are being trained under a state-of-the-art curriculum jointly designed by contractors and the trades. This is part of a $100 million yearly effort by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting, Sprinkler Fitting Industry (UA) to train 100,000 tradesmen in North America. With a network of 400 training facilities, the trades are able to meet any need, equipped with a work ethic to do it right the first time.

Although technology changes over time, the basic needs of sanitary water, sewer and ventilation systems do not change. Plumbers and steamfitters are skilled, trained crafts-workers who install, maintain and service all plumbing, process piping, vacuum, oxygen, natural gas, hydraulic heating, refrigeration, air conditioning and cooling systems, as well as the industrial instrumentation and the sophisticated automatic control systems that control these processes.

Carrying on the mantle of securing our region's water supply, the UA is proud to be working on the Olivenhain Dam, Lake Hodges and San Vicente. The dam's 24,000 acre-feet of storage is part of the San Diego County Water Authority's plan to provide an emergency water supply. Through a network of waterways and pipes connecting nearby lakes, we have built an emergency system that is internationally renowned for its ability to withstand earthquakes.

With our deep historical and personal ties to the military, the Building Trades in San Diego actively support our troops. One such example is the UA partnership with the Marine Corps to place veterans in private sector employment. The Veterans in Piping program locally has trained over 150 service members in welding at mobile training units at Camp Pendleton, so they can enter skilled trades after serving the nation. When the training is complete and the veterans are discharged, they are placed in a local union apprentice program with time credited for experience. They are able to go to work for a contractor and then receive the additional training to become UA journeymen. The Military Officers Association of America recognized the UA this year with a Distinguished Service Award, a historic first among labor organizations.

With 110 years of service, the plumbers are one of the oldest building trades in San Diego. In this new column, I will be writing about the value that our different trades bring to the local community -- value that is on display, every day.


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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Bob Lamb 9:07am June 16, 2011

The Union Plumber and Pipefitters protect the health of the nation. Working families, working together. What could be more American than that? Oh yes , fully supporting our military men and women. Thank you United Association for your continued good works on the behalf of Americans and Canadians.