A heavy rain early this January nearly ended the illustrious career of the Waco Labor Temple.

Water gushed through a hole in the roof of the three-story building at 702 Franklin Ave., swamping the first floor with 3 inches of water and damaging files and furniture.

The Central Texas Labor Council was in no financial position to renovate or even repair its early 20th-century structure, which is thought to be the oldest labor building in Texas.

But a deal with the developer next door is expected to bring new life to a building and a labor council that have been part of Waco’s history.

Jerry Dyer Jr., developer of the Franklin Place mixed-use complex under construction in the 600 block of Franklin Avenue, bought the Labor Temple and will renovate it for six upstairs lofts and downstairs offices.

The labor council will lease part of the 3,100-square-foot downstairs for offices and a meeting space, funding its own lease by subleasing the remainder of the ground-floor space.

Dyer expects to start the work this month and wrap up by the end of the year.

Nolene Sykora, the unpaid president of the Central Texas Labor Council, said the deal was a lifesaver for a financially struggling organization.

She said she got an estimate that it would cost $400,000 to renovate the building, money the council didn’t have.

“If we hadn’t found Jerry, our building would probably be torn down,” she said.

Dyer said he got to know Sykora as he was developing Franklin Place, and he came to realize that upkeep of the rundown Labor Temple building was a burden on her organization.

He decided renovating the building also would make his adjacent property more desirable.

“I think it’s always good to know your neighbors,” he said. “As we got to know each other, we realized we could be a help to each other.”

Dyer bought the building for $95,400 and plans to put $587,017 into it, according to his application this summer for Tax Increment Financing Zone funds.

He received $75,982 from the TIF fund, which comes from taxes generated from downtown properties.

That money will go to external improvements such as an awning, a new sidewalk, landscaping and lighting.

Once the improvements are complete, the Labor Temple will resume its historic role as a clearinghouse for union activity in McLennan and surrounding counties. The council now holds meetings at Uncle Dan’s Bar-B-Que, and Sykora works from home.

Records from the labor council show conflicting dates for the construction of the union building.

Sykora said she has a photo showing construction of the building dated 1924, but a recent professional survey of downtown buildings for the National Register of Historic Places puts the date of construction at 1910.

Labor unions

Either way, labor unions in Waco far predate the building. The labor council was chartered in 1901, and labor unions that represented trades such as the typographical union had existed in Waco since the early 1880s.

In the 1920s, labor groups went on strike for a 40-hour workweek and agitated for workplace safety.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, local labor unions ran a food bank for unemployed families, according to a booklet the Central Texas Labor Council published on its 100th anniversary in 2001.

In 1940, the labor council supported local bakery workers as they struck for 10 months, and the council would support other strikes through the early 1990s.

The council also supported the Waco Professional Firefighters Association as it successfully won collective bargaining rights in 2002.

Robert Hawkins, the dean of the labor council who has served as a delegate for more than 50 years, said local labor unions grew in size and power after World War II.

Unionized factories such as Owens-Illinois, General Tire and Rocketdyne brought new life to the movement, said Hawkins, 74, who worked at several factories and Texas State Technical College.

The Labor Temple was used to train workers in apprenticeship programs, he said. In addition, it supported civic efforts such as the United Way and hosted a variety of community gatherings, even a regular Sunday school class.

“It was a community center in addition to its daytime work,” Hawkins said. “It was a viable part of the community.”

Hawkins said the union movement wasn’t as controversial here as in other Texas cities.

“In my 54 years of being involved, there has never been an adversarial relationship” with employers, he said.

Organized labor here and elsewhere has lost numbers and influence as heavy industry has waned.

Sykora said union membership in McLennan County has declined to about 3,200 from its peak of about 6,100 in the early 1990s.

Workers’ rights

But she said unions remain vital to protecting workers’ rights, and new classes of workers, such as nurses, are beginning to unionize.

Ed Sills, spokesman for the AFL-CIO in Texas, said other Texas cities have labor buildings, but he knows none as old as Waco’s, and none survive that were known as “temples.”

“The Central Texas Labor Council has a very rich history of advocacy and support for working families,” he said. “Any deal that keeps that building in a condition in which people can see the architecture and actively participate in 2013, in our view, is very commendable.”

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