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Amalgamated Transit Union makes historic move into new headquarters

ATU is making the second major move in its 123-year history, and like the move to Washington, DC, in 1957, the new site will improve the Union’s ability to respond to the challenges it faces now and in the future.

“It’s clear that ATU will have to be even more proactive than it has been in the past in both the U.S. and Canada if it is to withstand the corporate onslaught of groups like the Koch-brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and their political allies that seek to eliminate unions,” says International President Larry Hanley. “The new international headquarters and training facility site will allow us to do just that.”

The new ATU international headquarters’ location on the former campus of the National Labor College in Silver Spring, MD, will greatly increase the Union’s educational capabilities, while retaining its proximity to AFL-CIO’s national office and the U.S. government.

ATU has also established a new international conference center on the campus that will provide labor and progressive movement activists with the instruction they need to bring about change in their communities.  The International will, itself, be able to reduce expenses by bringing many of the training programs it has sponsored for members throughout the U.S. and Canada in-house, into its own state-of-the-art facility.

For 123 years the movement of the Union’s international offices has been a story of accepting an ever-larger role in promoting the rights of its members and working families in general.

ATU’s move to Washington 58 years ago allowed it to be much more effective in representing the interests of our members to the U.S. government.  The new move will provide the Union with greater opportunity to train a new generation of labor and progressive activists who will go back and do that same advocacy in their states and communities.

It all started 123 years ago, in September 1892.


Detroit

The headquarters of the Amalgamated Transit Union was moved even before the founding Convention adjourned in September 1892. The delegates to the founding Convention initially chose Indianapolis – the city where they were meeting – as their national headquarters. 

Three men ran for national president at that Convention – J.W. Newhouse of Indianapolis, J.E. Husted of Toledo, and William J. Law of Detroit.

Law, who had been very vocal at the beginning of the Convention, probably lost votes because he was inexplicably absent during the balloting. Husted won by just 10 votes. Law was elected chair of a group of three trustees for the Union, and a committee was formed to go find him.

Thinking their work was done, some delegates returned home early. But there were many among those who remained who were unhappy with the results of the election.

Law reappeared during the final evening session and made a motion to reconsider the election of officers.  That motion carried with a margin of just 46 votes.

It then occurred to the delegates that they had no money to open an office in Indianapolis.  No problem, said Law, who offered his division’s (Division 3) office in Detroit as national headquarters.  And if he were elected president, he said, he’d work for free until the Union got on its feet, and he’d convert his division’s monthly publication into a national journal for the organization.

Well, after that Husted’s support dwindled to two delegates, and a young man from Columbus, OH, stepped up to nominate Law president of the Amalgamated – that man was William D. Mahon. 

True to his word, Law opened up the national office in Detroit, and established the Union’s official publication – the Street Railway Employes Gazette (the predecessor of the Motorman & Conductor, and In Transit).

And that’s how Detroit became the city in which ATU’s headquarters was located for the next 65 years.

Unfortunately, Law soon abandoned his responsibilities to the national union when he became embroiled in a controversy between Catholics and Protestants within his division.  The split within the local absorbed most of Law’s time and attention.

Next, the Great Panic of 1893 hit the country, and by the time the Second Convention convened on October 9, in Cleveland, many divisions had collapsed; the Amalgamated was barely functioning. Only 19 delegates were in attendance.

Disappointed with Law’s lack of leadership, the Convention elected the young man from Columbus, OH – W.D. Mahon – to replace Law.  As a Canadian division had been added to the Union during the previous year, W.D. Mahon became the Amalgamated’s first elected international president.

After the Convention Mahon and his newly elected secretary-treasurer, Samuel M. Massey, rushed to Detroit to resolve the rift in Division 3.  There they found that Law had absconded with the Division’s treasury of $1,600, and created a new independent union – seven months before the Second Convention!

Mahon immediately revoked Division 3’s charter, dealt with the internal dispute, and established a new local – Division 26 – in Detroit.

Law was formally “expelled” from the Union in 1894, “as a traitor and an imposter,” and “debarred from becoming a member or affiliating with the [Union] for a period of 99 years.”  As one might expect, the first and only national president of ATU was not around to rejoin the Union in 1993.

The international headquarters’ first home was at 14 Kanter Building in Detroit. We don’t know much about the Kanter Building, but according to Poor’s Manual of Street Surface Railways of 1895, the office was right next door to the offices of the Fort Wayne and Belle Isle Railway.  The railway was the first Detroit streetcar company to switch to 100% electric operation.

International headquarters soon outgrew its space at the Kantor Building and in 1901, moved to 601-603 Hodges Building in Detroit.

In 1915 it was time to move again.  This time, to a brand new building at 104 High Street in Detroit.

The Amalgamated stayed in one place, but its address changed twice, reflecting the burgeoning growth of Motor City. In 1920, the address changed to 260 East High Street, and and changed again to 260 Vernor Highway E., in 1927.  International headquarters remained there until 1944.

A lot of memories were made in the Vernor Highway headquarters. The 1944 move described in the M&C represented more than a simple change of location.  The founders of the union were retiring.  A new, younger generation was taking over. They were taking the Amalgamated “downtown.”

But, ATU couldn’t be held in any location for very long – particularly when many unions were moving their headquarters to Washington, DC to be close to where labor law and regulations are made.

ATU soon decided it would make that move too.  But the Union would not rent space in the AFL-CIO building, or any other building in the nation’s capital.  It was decided that it would build its own international headquarters building in Northwest Washington, DC.

The M&C reported on the building’s progress in 1956.

In 1978, due to the headquarters building’s deteriorating condition and the Union’s need for greater space, the General Executive Board, at International President John Maroney’s urging, approved a proposal for a new five-floor office building with underground parking on the former building site.

Construction was delayed by a zoning ruling which forced the building to be changed to a mixed commercial and residential property. Despite these obstacles, the structure was finally completed at a total cost of approximately $9 million.

The international executive officers and staff first moved into the new building in March 1982.

Thirty-three years later, with challenges not seen since the early 1900s, ATU decided that it had to find a way to re-energize its political activism.  In 2014, the AFL-CIO decided to sell its National Labor College and campus, providing ATU with an opportunity to acquire the property and offer a much more expanded training program for its members as well as other union and activist organizations.

In November 2015, ATU moved to the new campus inaugurating a new era of ATU advocacy.