The McNamara Brothers

Like most Irish in America in the second half of the 19th century, John J. McNamara (“J.J.”) found himself engaged in work reserved for his kind, what this historian refers to as “the three Ds,” dirty, difficult and dangerous.

As the oldest child growing up in poverty in Cincinnati, J.J. left school for work while still in his teens to help support his family. J.J. was strong and agile, willing to take risks involved in structural iron work, climbing the scaffolding needed to construct skyscrapers and bridges. He was popular with his fellow workers and was successful in union politics, becoming the full-time secretary-treasurer at the age of twenty-eight. Smashing the stereotype of the roughneck union thug, J.J. was the shining star of the Iron Workers. He was articulate, handsome, built like an athlete, a dapper dresser, and a devout Roman Catholic with the smile of a choir boy. J.J. was downright charming and when he sat down at the negotiating table, it was hard for contractors to dislike him.

Not long after his election as the national union’s secretary-treasurer (essentially, chief operating officer), J.J. continued his education, starting with night courses at a “business school.” In that era, the course of study typically would have been finance, accounting, English composition and typing. J.J. then enrolled in the night school program of the Indiana School of Law, earning a law degree in 1909. By the age of 34, J.J. was the face the labor movement wanted to show to America.

J.J.’s younger brother, James B. McNamara (“Jim”) was six years his junior. Jim was a scrawny, anemic ne’er-do-well who had little use for education, work or church. The only trinity he worshipped were booze, broads and gambling. When he did work it was as a printer, but his combative personality usually led to him being fired. Eventually, Jim was hired by brother J.J. and the Iron Workers. Despite Jim’s general indifference to most things involving work, he admired J.J. and was prepared to be part of a special program: an undertaking J.J. hoped would force contractors to the bargaining table.

Shortly after taking command of the national office in 1904, J.J. McNamara concluded that his union had been targeted for destruction by the major steel contractors. In 1905, fearing the spread of unions in their industry, the steel contractors organized to create the National Erectors’ Association and set out to undermine the efforts of the Iron Workers Union. In the face of the contractors’ belligerence, J.J. grew convinced that the ordinary union methods, namely picketing, had no chance of success. Notwithstanding the courts on their side, plus, the local police and army reserve when strikes grew violent, such violence often instigated by management, the steel contractors made it clear that they weren’t going to bargain but rather wanted to destroy the Iron Workers Union, then J.J. turned to dynamite. From February, 1908 through April, 1911 agents of the Iron Workers union planted explosives at approximately 75 sites throughout the country. Only one caused fatalities. J.J. targeted contracting firms who refused to permit their workers to be organized.

Throughout this period, Jim was receiving training for his new career in explosives. Jim’s first solo mission as a bomber was in his home town of Cincinnati, where in May of 1909, he successfully detonated a bomb that caused minor damage to a new bridge across the Ohio River. Fortunately, no one was injured and the contractor got the message. The explosion in Cincinnati was the first of dozens which Jim and others were responsible for prior to going to Los Angeles. None of Jim’s bombings resulted in a fatality until October 1, 1910.

(Note: Featured photo from

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