No Gods, No Masters: The Subversive Symbolism of Topping Out

by Seana Miracle

As the many skyscrapers being built in downtown San Francisco near their completion, you may notice a giant American flag proudly displayed near the top, along with an undecorated Christmas tree. The raising of the flag signifies the building has reached its maximum height, but not its completion.  It is a part of the “topping out” ceremony, an ancient pagan tradition adopted and carried on exclusively by American high steel ironworkers since the 1880’s.

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Topping out at 555 California St.

Topping out is one of the oldest and most important customs practiced in the structural steel industry.  While groundbreaking is a highly formalized ceremony that is performed for the “white hats,” (the business owners, architects, politicians and press) topping out is traditionally an informal celebration that is given by the owners as a tribute to the high steel ironworkers, who risked their lives in order to reach this pinnacle of achievement. To celebrate the successful completion of the structural phase, the “final beam” is painted white and signed by the ironworkers, before it is hoisted to the highest point of the building along with an evergreen tree, an American flag, and a banner representing the local ironworkers union. Each of these items has an important meaning, though few today are aware of their significance.

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The topping out ceremony is filled with subversive symbolism derived from ancient foundation myths, and inspired by the early struggles of the labor movement, that were intended to serve as a reminder of the ironworkers role as a powerful counter influence set in fierce opposition to economic inequality, and the horrific consequences of allowing the powers that be to run unchecked. At the topping out ceremony, ironworkers are not just staking their claim, they are overturning the normal social order, making servants of their masters and challenging the tyranny of any god that would try and keep them down.

THE EVERGREEN TREE:

The tradition of topping the highest point of a structure with an evergreen tree likely originated with the Vikings, who would display an evergreen tree on top of the building that was to host the celebration held after a successful raid. The tree is generally meant to communicate “I came, I saw, I conquered,” and it is both a symbol of victory, and a signal that it is time to celebrate that success.  The hardy evergreen tree is also a perfect symbol for the ironworkers, as it is known for its ability to provide shelter, survive harsh conditions, and continually strive to reach new heights.

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Raising the evergreen tree signifies the building was completed without a loss of life.  If anyone dies during the building’s construction, the tree is not to be used. Earlier photos of topping out ceremonies are usually lacking the evergreen tree due to high fatality rates. Today, due to new safety innovations, topping out with the tree has become such standard practice that it’s significance has nearly been forgotten. The one place where this tradition is strictly adhered to is the Pacific Northwest, where the evergreen tree is used for everything from food, medicine, shelter, transportation and fuel, and so the life sustaining symbolism is not lost.

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The American flag is hung once the highest point is reached, just as flags are planted on top of mountains, as a symbol of conquest and a vested stake in the claim. The highest points of buildings or bridge towers are places that ironworkers reach first, where often only ironworkers can go, and reaching the top is every ironworkers ultimate goal. By raising the flag, the ironworkers are claiming their exclusive summit rights. Tradition holds that until that flag is lowered, the building rightfully belongs to the builders and not the owners.  The flag cannot be lowered until the owners of the building provide a tribute of free food and beer to the ironworkers, who then relinquish their claim, signifying that the building is open to the public. This tradition is known as “pannenbier,” which translates as “roof beer” in Dutch.

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Obviously, the American flag is a symbol of patriotism, but the relationship between the American Flag and American ironworkers is much more complex than it may first appear. Raising the flag was originally a tactic employed by early ironworker unions as a defiant response to the anti-union “American Plan,” which discouraged workers from union representation. Ironworkers felt the American Plan was distinctly un-American, and so they displayed the American flag as an act of patriotic defiance to signify that the ironworkers first loyalty was to their fellow countrymen, and not to corrupt politicians and businessmen. Displaying the flag on top of their greatest accomplishments was a bold statement of pride of ownership in the future of the country they had a direct hand in building.

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MAKING A NAME:

Before the final steel beam is hoisted into place at the highest point, it is painted white, and signed by the workers. Signing one’s name to something usually signifies the acceptance of an agreement. By signing the final beam, the construction workers are symbolically signing off on the agreement to relinquish their claim once their job has been completed. Builders have been leaving their signatures in hidden places of buildings since ancient Egypt. Legally, a signature is a statement of identity and intent, it indicates who you are, and shows what you have done. By signing off on a job well done, especially when the job is a monumental engineering feat, means the builders have truly made their mark.  

The signing of the final beam on top of the highest tower, is a reference to a passage in Genesis that is foundational to all builders rites. In the short version of the story, the builders were defying God with their audacity to try and build a tower so high they could reach his domain. The builders said “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” This statement by the builders of Babylon is central to the topping out ceremony as it not only describes the building of a great tower, it also details the work cycle of every ironworker; they build a tower, and once they make a name for themselves, they are scattered to various worksites all over the country.  

THE UNION BANNER:

The topping out ceremony would not be complete without the banner representing the local ironworkers union.  American ironworkers take great pride in their local unions, because in a country with the most violent anti-union history in the world, ironworkers have had to face a bloody, uphill, and ongoing struggle for the right to organize. When the steel magnates formed an “Iron League” to crush the unions, it was the ironworkers alone that remained standing when all others had been defeated. Ironworker unions have traditionally served as both the vanguard and the rear guard defense in the ongoing class war, and the tree that they raise at topping out, has revolutionary roots that are well fertilized with the blood of the proletariat.

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After the Civil War, during the height of the Industrial Revolution, the new war in America was between labor and capital. As soon as chattel slavery had been abolished there was an immediate call to end wage slavery, in which workers were still treated as property and subjected to a state of servitude. At the time, the techniques for organizing the workforce had been developed from centuries of slave trading, and the working model for the modern workplace was the slave plantation. Upon being hired for his first job, emancipated slave Frederick Douglass had declared “Now I am my own master,” but soon discovered that wage slavery was just as soul-crushing, and began to call for its abolition.

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When ironworkers emerged in the 1880’s, labor conditions were especially brutal. Workers worked over twelve hours a day, seven days a week, doing back breaking labor, and yet they still could not afford to feed their families. Injuries on the job were a regular occurrence, and fatality rates among ironworkers were the highest of all trades, but there was no such thing as insurance. It was estimated that a life was lost for every story built, so a thirty story building would require approximately thirty human sacrifices. There was such a large surplus of immigrant laborers clamoring for work, that while ironworkers were walking the high steel, there would be a crowd of men waiting on the ground, hoping one would fall so they could take their place.

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Things did not improve once ironworkers started to organize. The more the workers fought for their rights, the more they were met with brutal oppression by ruthless industrialists who refused to negotiate or compromise, and any conflict resulted only in defeat, and a subsequent loss of civil liberties. In addition to risking their lives on the high-steel, early ironworkers also had to contend with being beaten, stabbed, shot at, kidnapped, falsely imprisoned or blown up by dynamite. Because the workers only power was in collective bargaining, business owners made every effort to break their ranks. An entire multi-million dollar, anti-union industry of private detectives, strikebreakers, propagandists, and agent provocateurs grew up alongside the ironworker unions, with the express purpose of destroying them from within. Secret agents would be sent to join the union, professing to be ardent supporters of the cause. Their real job was to gather information, create disunity, incite violence, and instill a sense of futility.

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Leading the resistance against corruption and the abuses of power, the trade unionists made no secret of their subversive intent to undermine the foundations of society, as their battle was against wage slavery, the very bulwark of industrial capitalism. While not all trade unionists were anarchists, anarchism was the primary driving force in the formation of early trade unions. The more utopian syndicalists believed that the trade unions were the most realistic way to give control of the economy back to the people, and create a truly democratic society. The more radical anarchists felt that change could not take place without a complete and total revolution, and so advocated for “propaganda by the deed,” or direct action intended to incite a violent insurrection. The friction created from these two antithetical philosophies of organization versus chaos, and negotiation versus conflict, produced the fire in which the early ironworker unions were forged, but in spite of their obvious contradictions, the end goal for both factions was to take the power back from the few, and put it in the hands of the many.

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With the union halls crawling with spies and saboteurs bent on creating an atmosphere of distrust, you really had to know who you could count on, and with whom you could speak openly, and so ironworkers developed a secret lingo intelligible only to the initiated. Workers had to be able to trust one another with their lives, which necessitated master-apprentice based training, vows of secrecy and sworn oaths of solidarity amongst diverse members who might not otherwise get along. In such a high risk and hostile environment, where danger is ever-present and treachery abounds, dependability is a quality prized more highly than any other, and a sense of brotherhood, crucial in presenting a unified front, is instilled through the use of time honored traditions such as topping out.

NO GODS:

The Real Sin at the Tower of Babel

The oft cited tale of the Tower of Babel, one of the oldest stories of topping out, invites a multitude of interpretations. It is broadly used as a story of “mankind’s hubristic folly,” or as way to explain why we speak many languages, but the story has another meaning, one which has variously been used to both justify slavery in America and to incite violent revolt against such oppression. The Tower of Babel is also one of the oldest stories about man’s enslavement by a despotic ruler with delusions of grandeur, and is told as both a cautionary tale about the hidden costs of rebellion, and a practical guide to the strategies of sabotage.

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About one hundred years after the flood, the King of Babylon ordered that a tower be built so high that flood waters could not reach the top, so that he and his followers would be above divine retribution. In order to build his tower, King Nimrod had to scour the countryside for men to capture, trick and enslave into his labor force. He convinced them that God was their true oppressor and to submit to His authority was tantamount to slavery. He then pushed these men to their limits, working them from dusk until dawn building his tower, promising that they would one day be paid, and threatening them with death if they did not deliver. When the tower was nearing completion, Nimrod had a massive stone idol installed on top that would serve as the new God of the City. By doing so, Nimrod, whose name means “let us revolt,” was not just repudiating God, he was inciting his people to a divine insurrection, by building a tower so high they could storm the heavens, dethrone the tyrannical Yahweh, and replace him with a new tutelar deity.

On the day of the towers inauguration, there was to be a grand ceremony at the top to celebrate its completion, but God could not allow this brazen affront to occur. Rather than kill them all, Yahweh decided instead to divide and conquer. Much like modern strikebreakers, he broke enemy ranks by confusing the communication between workers, making it impossible for them to work together towards a collective goal, and ensuring the tower was never completed. The story of Nimrod, equal parts upstart revolutionary and autocratic leader of an oppressive regime, shows the corrupting influence of power, and cautions against replacing one form of tyranny with another. It is also a warning to not blindly follow false prophets, or make sacrifices for another man’s vainglory. The aborted topping out ceremony of the Tower of Babel illustrates why the successful completion of a man-made tower, the ultimate symbol of mankind overreaching its bounds, is always a cause to celebrate, because it emphasizes that with collective effort, and good communication skills, there is nothing that mankind cannot achieve.

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“…sometimes a cigar may be just a cigar, but a skyscraper is always a big swaying dick vaunting the ambitions of late capitalism to reduce the human individual to the status and the proportions of a submissive worker ant.”

– Will Self

NO MASTERS:

The owners feeding the workers at topping out is an upending of the normal social order that dates back to the ancient Roman tradition of Saturnalia, when masters were expected to serve their slaves. In Rome, a slave had no personhood and was considered property. The first wage slaves were actually chattel slaves that were hired out by their owners and allowed to use some of the profits in order to buy back their property rights, essentially becoming their own master. During the Saturnalia festivities, slaves were temporarily enfranchised, and allowed to sit at the same table and enjoy the same food and drink as their masters, only to have to revert back to their former roles when it was over. This was a conditional liberty, granted only because the occasional taste of freedom was known to make the workforce more productive.

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The tradition of the owners feeding the workers also refers back to the early days of the labor struggle. In 1884, hundreds of the unemployed and working poor took to the streets of Chicago, beating drums and blowing horns to demand fair labor conditions. The rag clad, emaciated crowd marched to the mansions of the leading industrialists, knowing they would be home with their families, enjoying their lavish Thanksgiving meals. They knocked on their front doors and demanded to be fed, screaming “Bread, or Power!” It was the first time the Black Flag, which represents the hungry and dispossessed, was raised in America.

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It is also important to remember that topping out originated with the Vikings. The ironworker “raising gang,” has a lot in common with a Viking raiding party, as they move from one conquest to the next. When the Vikings raided a village, they raped, pillaged and plundered, fully enjoying the spoils of war with the impunity of victors. After several Viking raids, the English started paying tribute to the Vikings in order to prevent their looting, and this included providing food and ale for Viking feasts. The topping out ceremony, which in days of yore included paid prostitutes, is likewise an attempt at keeping a tenuous peace by paying a symbolic tribute.

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Topping out is primarily concerned with property rights, and the settling of accounts. Until the celebration is over, the property belongs to the builders, requiring the owners to appease them in a radical role reversal. This inverted property exchange and communal meal between the ownership class and the non-ownership class is a practical demonstration of the unequal distribution of wealth and power in a pyramidal class system, and a temporary suspension of the normal color-coded hierarchy of helmets on the construction site. Topping out is a bold declaration that while over time ownership may change hands many times, the proprietary rights of makers are non-transferable. While the builders relinquish the “keys to the kingdom” at topping out, they are simultaneously released from their servitude to it. At topping out, they are no longer wage slaves indebted to the property owners, but are defiantly asserting that they are their own masters. They have completed the task at hand, elevating their otherwise lowly social status to unprecedented heights, with such great ambition, that it is a direct affront to the gods. Or, as the average ironworker would say when asked the meaning of topping out: “Good job.”

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“It’s only hubris if I fail.” – Julius Caesar

SPECIAL THANKS:

Special thanks to John William Vincent Law, the Salesforce Raising Gang and the Ironworkers Local No. 378, for not shattering my grandiose illusions of rooftop bacchanalias, and gratuitously piling me with as many history books as my arms could carry. Their shameless displays of fearlessness, declarations of prideful bravado and generally defiant posturing inspired the spirit of this piece. Extra special thanks also goes to historian John V. Robinson, author of “The ‘Topping Out’ Traditions of High Steel Ironworkers,” (among many other contributions) for his invaluable research and support.

SUGGESTED READING:

I.A.B.S.O.R. “A History of the Iron Workers Union, 1896-1996” 

Robinson, John.  “The “Topping Out” Traditions of the High Steel Ironworkers” Western Folklore, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 243-262

Melnick, Scott.  “Why a Christmas Tree? The Origins of Topping Out”

Self, Will. “Will Self on the meaning of skyscrapers – from the Tower of Babel to the Shard”

Cherry, Mike. “On High Steel: The Education of an Ironworker”

Huberman, Leo.  “The Labor Spy Racket”

DeLaSalle, Paul. Anarchists and the Trade Unions 

The International Steam Engineer, Volumes 39-40 “Steel Kings Boast Determination to Enslave Workers”

Kostof, Spiro.  “The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Throughout History,” 1991

Ibsen, Henryk. “The Master Builder”