New York, NY — Robert “Bobby” Bartels, Jr., is the Business Manager of Steamfitters Local 638 UA, a union whose origins go back almost 150 years.

Enterprise Association of Steamfitters Local 638 of the United Association was chartered in 1884 under the Knights of Labor as Enterprise Assembly #3189. In 1914 the Enterprise Assembly affiliated with the United Association as the Enterprise Association of Steam, Hot Water Hydraulic, Sprinkler, Pneumatic Tube, Ice Machine and General Pipe Fitters of New York and Vicinity Local 638 and the Progress Association of Steam, Hot Water and General Pipe Fitters Helpers of New York and Vicinity Local 639. At the same time, a trade line agreement was drafted which established jurisdiction between the Steamfitter and Plumber, commonly referred to as the 1914 agreement.

Today, Steamfitters Local 638 maintains jurisdiction over all general pipe fitting in New York City, including all five boroughs and all of Long Island, Nassau and Suffolk Counties and is a combination local union representing the Construction Branch and the Metal Trades Service Branch.

Bartels generously made time for LaborPress to find out more about his background, the union he serves, and his tenure at the storied Local 638.

LP: Where did you grow up, and did you have any family members in unions?

RB: I grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, NY. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Local 608 Carpenter and Trustee. My father’s uncle Tommy Baker was a Steamfitter, as well as my father who was also an Officer of Local 638 for twenty-eight years. My brother and son are also Steamfitters along with some cousins. We now have four generations of family in the best Local 638 Steamfitters in the entire country.

LP: How did your career begin and evolve?

RB: I started out as a Laborer in Local 23 in 1982. The following year I entered the Steamfitters’ apprenticeship. After graduating the apprenticeship in 1987, I became politically involved, serving on the Finance and Executive Boards of Local 638, then being elected Business Agent in 2007 and Business Agent at Large in 2016, and now Business Manager of Local 638 in 2023.

LP: What motivated you to serve as an official in the union?

RB: Very early in my career I decided I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and represent the working members of Local 638.

LP: What are the trades and skills of Local 638 members?

RB: Steamfitters Local 638 has the Jurisdiction of Rigging and setting our equipment, HVAC\R, Sprinkler, Pneumatic Tubing, Ice Machines, Conventional and Nuclear Power Houses.

Skills include, for welding for example, those who cut and join a variety of materials, from steel, cast iron and plastic to complex and specialized products used on projects ranging from pipelines and power plants, to pharmaceutical and computer chip factories and more.

In HVAC-R, or Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration (HVACR), Service Technicians install, maintain and repair plumbing, heating, ventilating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors.

Sprinkler Fitters install life and property saving fire protection systems in homes, schools, hospitals, office buildings, hotels and more.

LP: What particular moments stand out to you in your career?

RB: Every time I got elected to a position was a special moment. As well as when I can protect my jurisdiction for my members; it’s always a terrific feeling.

LP: What is your work, as Business Manager?

RB: As Business Manager I am the Chief Operating Officer according to the Local 638 Constitution, handling the daily affairs of the union as well as the Office Staff, two Organizers and nine Business Agents.

LP: What stand-out victories for the members have occurred during your tenure?

RB: One that stands out is when I caught a Signatory Contractor with a NON-Union shop, He denied it, but after getting all my research and facts he couldn’t deny it further, and he paid a large restitution to the Fund.

LP: What is a main challenge for the union?

RB: Non-union and corrupt developers and general contractors who abuse and take advantage of their employees.

LP: What do you envision for the future of the union?

RB: To gain the movement we once had in America for the growth of the middle-class American citizen.

LP: What is the most important to you as far as the members’ well-being?

RB: The protection of the members’ rights and the Healthcare and Pension provided to the members so they can rest assured they will have a comfortable retirement.

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Robert “Bobby” Bartels, Jr., Business Manager, Steamfitters Local 638 UA


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