Throwback Thursday: “Taking your brass”

Whether it’s sharing your all-time favorite Atari video game or a photo of your sister’s second birthday party, Thursdays have given us all the opportunity to proudly throw it back. So in honor of Throwback Thursdays, we will occasionally post about antiquated, and sometimes comical, construction methods that have given way to some of the biggest innovations in our industry. Please share your Throwback Thursday ideas in the comment section at the bottom of this post! 

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Anyone who worked construction before or during the 1960s and 70s probably has tangible memories of plucking a brass tag off a wooden pegboard when they arrived on a job site. Back in the day, general contractors employed tradesmen directly and the daily ritual known as “taking your brass” was how the GC tracked everyone’s hours.

The tradesmen each had a tag with a number on it that corresponded to the number on their hardhat. After the workers pocketed their tags each morning, the time keeper would record the missing tags. Starting at 3:30 p.m., the timekeeper would return to the board to note the time each tag was returned so he could log how long everyone worked and how much they should be paid.

On payday, a line formed in front of an armored car that doled out wages … in cash!

Suffolk Construction General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh coordinated  brass-tag systems early in his career before he joined Suffolk. He said some people would have their friend pick up their tag if they were going to be late or miss work. “But we always had someone watching the board,” Greenhalgh said. “It usually worked out pretty well. It was just a lot of work, there were no copy machines, we had no fax machine and everything was calculated by hand.”

On Wednesday nights, the project’s onsite timekeeper, accountant and office manager would stay until 8 or 9 p.m. calculating the payroll. The hardest part, Greenhalgh said, was doing math by hand to deduct union dues and taxes.

At the time, unions stipulated that workers had to be paid in cash. So on smaller jobs, the accountant would go to the bank first thing Thursday morning and bring cash back to the job site, where they would stuff envelopes for each worker. On larger jobs, they reported the earnings to the bank and waited for the armored car to arrive. “There was no other way to do it,” Greenhalgh said. “That was the way it was done. We spent the time to make sure it was right and make sure everybody got paid.”

The brass tag system was eventually abolished in the 70s when the unions abandoned their cash payment rule. At that point the foremen simply tracked everyone’s time each day and walked the site to distribute paper checks on payday. Eventually computers streamlined the process in the mid 80s. Today, foremen still track time but most workers are paid via direct deposit.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe we relied on brass tags for one of the most important transactions in our industry. Thinking about logging all those hours and doing the payroll by hand is like having that nightmare where you’re back in your college stats class. And the armored car! Well, that story is just the perfect TBT.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Justin Rice with input from Northeast General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at jrice@suffolk.com or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.

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