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America is Finally Rebuilding Its Infrastructure, and U.S. Factory Workers are Seeing the Benefits

“The extra money we make filters back down to the community, and the city of Decatur was thrilled when we announced we were building a new foundry here, because of the additional tax money and just shopping in general,” said Chris Frydenger, who works at a factory in Illinois that makes parts for fire hydrants. “You know how it goes. It all filters down. These are good, well-paying jobs.” Photo courtesy Chris Frydenger

Build America, Buy America requirements in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law mean all those new roads, bridges, and water systems are required to be Made in America — right down to the fire hydrants.

When President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021, he said the $1.2 trillion investment into America’s crumbing infrastructure will “reward companies for paying good wages and for buying American, sourcing their products here in America right now.”

More than a year after that star-studded signing ceremony on the White House lawn, manufacturers across the United States are indeed starting to reap the benefits of the historic investment. Mueller Company — which has been in business since 1857 and is touted as America’s pre-eminent manufacturer of fire hydrants — is one of them.

Chris Frydenger has worked at the Mueller Co. facility in Decatur, Ill., for 18 years. He is ecstatic at what the future portends for the factory and its hundreds of employees.

Mueller Co. management is all-in and ready to get to work thanks to the infrastructure funding, Frydenger said, noting that there’s already been a big boost in production. A top reason for the increased business is Build America, Buy America requirements included in the infrastructure law that ensure that federally taxpayer-funded projects use American-made products and construction materials.

“Our management team talks about the infrastructure money quite a bit, and they also talk about the Made in America bill, the one that requires a percentage of it to be Made in America so you can get a federal contract,” Frydenger said. “That has really helped us enforce some stuff and make sure that when they do outsource, it gets done here in America.

“So that’s been a big help, too. Not just the infrastructure bill, but the Made in America part of that has helped us quite a bit, too. Our general manager speaks of the business we are getting from the infrastructure bill during all the new hire orientations, what we’ve got already and what we will get in the future. It has made a big enough impact that he speaks to our incoming employees about it, so that is a good thing. We are trying to do a lot of hiring now because we opened a new foundry and are keeping the old one running. And our machine shop is just three miles down the road.

“This infrastructure package with the Made in America requirement is good for America and good for American workers.”

A fire hydrant made by Mueller Company spotted on the streets on Dallas. Workers in Decatur, Ill., make parts for the hyrdants that are shipped to Alabama to be assembled. Photo by Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch

Soon after the infrastructure bill became law, Mueller Co. asked United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-838 members to renegotiate their contract so the company could give mid-contract raises to its employees and hire additional workers to meet the spike in orders, Frydenger said.

“Because business is doing so well, they want to retain the current employees and be able to recruit more employees for the boost in business so they proposed a contract extension and a wage increase,” said Frydenger, who is the Grievance and Bargaining Chairman at USW Local 7-838. “Everybody got a raise and we did away with the two-tier wage system so that by 2024 we’ll all be on the same wage scale.”

Business has always been fairly steady at Mueller Co., but the employees have never seen a boost like this, Frydenger said.

“Our orders are so backlogged it is astronomical,” he said. “We have other USW locals that are affected by us, so it is really cool to talk with them and have them thank us for our business because that makes their business go up, too. It’s just a big chain reaction.”

Mueller Co. has been good to the Frydenger family. Frydenger is a fourth-generation worker at Mueller Co.’s Decatur location; his father is in his 36th year working at the plant and both his great grandfather and great-great grandfather worked at the factory.

The total number of years Frydenger family members have worked at Mueller Co. nearly equals the number of years the company has been in business.

Frydenger is a utility man in the plant, which means he has the skills to take over most any job on any given day that a worker is absent. At the Decatur plant, approximately 410 USW members manufacture what they call the guts of the fire hydrants – the drain ring at the base of the hydrant; the valve plate that opens up and lets water flow through the end of the barrel; the stem nut at the top of the hydrant; and the nozzles from which the water comes out of the fire hydrant.

“We ship the parts to Albertville in Alabama, where they machine them, make the hydrant shells and then assemble the parts inside the fire hydrant,” Frydenger said. “Albertville is called the Fire Hydrant Capital of the World, but there is 44 pounds of brass in every Mueller fire hydrant, and I am pretty sure all 44 pounds come from Decatur, Illinois.

“Our production increase is like a ripple effect because we are also creating work and jobs for our suppliers like H. Kramer & Co., which is a brass and bronze ingot foundry in Chicago. We also source from Wieland Chase, where they make brass at their plant in Montpelier, Ohio.”

Chad Dickerson is president of USW Local 00065B, which represents the 450 union members at the Mueller Co. assembly plant in Albertville. Dickerson told USW International President Tom Conway of the increased benefits of the infrastructure law for his workforce.

“It just flooded our orders and it’s definitely created some jobs for us,” Dickerson said recently. “We are going to start staffing a weekend crew. It probably added 50 jobs we never would have had.” Dickerson estimated the need to create as many as 100 more new jobs as the Mueller expansion continues.

At the age of 41, Frydenger plans on having many more years with Mueller Company. America’s water systems are badly in need of rebuilding, so there should be no shortage of work.

“More work is feeding to the other Mueller plants, and with the infrastructure bill, there has been a push in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan where they are trying to get rid of all the leaded pipes, and that affects us too because we are a big manufacturer of non-leaded brass,” Frydenger said. “There is stuff we haven’t even seen yet that is going to affect us years down the road that we are not even anticipating yet.

“An upgrade of our national water system will affect us directly and greatly. Once these states start doing all this infrastructure work, it is going to totally shift our market. We are going to pick up a lot bigger share in our business.

“I enjoy being a part of this and enjoy the opportunity. I am proud to be part of this. The future is looking bright here, and the workers are thrilled. Thanks to the infrastructure package, now is absolutely the best time to be working at Mueller Company.

“The employees in the plant are absolutely thrilled. With pay raises and contract extensions, our workers have a sense of job security and know they can make major purchases like a new house or new car.

“The extra money we make filters back down to the community, and the city of Decatur was thrilled when we announced we were building a new foundry here because of the additional tax money and just shopping in general. You know how it goes. It all filters down.

“These are good, well-paying jobs. With the unexpected raises and all the overtime we want, the guys love it. They are writing their own paycheck.”

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