“I’ve done the job he’s doing. It’s amazing at his age to still be forging.”
Not many people can say they’re still working an extremely physical job at age 70. But after 50 years in the Boilermakers as a working forger, Local 1506 (Catasauqua, Pennsylvania) member Barry Batz has earned that distinction. Batz, who began working at The Phoenix Forge Group in 1971, went to his first day on the job at 19 and grew roots, putting him at the same company for half a century.
“Barry has been a member of the Boilermakers in good standing for his entire career as a forger and is still going as strong or even stronger than forgers more than half his age,” says Frank Spaits, secretary-treasurer for L-1506.
Forging involves taking blocks or cylinders of raw metal and heating it at high temperatures so it can be shaped into usable tools, fittings or any variety of products.
And it’s not easy work, according to L-1506 President Scott Brobst, who worked alongside Batz for 18 years. “I’ve done the job he’s doing. It’s amazing at his age to still be forging,” Brobst says. “It’s unbelievable.”
Batz’s first day on the job is seared into his memory. He drove his 1965 GTO to the shop. As he walked toward the forge, he realized he’d locked his keys in the car. But that’s not the only event the made the day memorable. After his shift, he freed his keys, drove to see his girlfriend, Barbara, and proposed. When July of ’72 arrived, they tied the knot and are still going strong today.
Before Batz worked at the forge, he had a job at Goodyear. He fixed alignment, front-end, tune-up, transmission—just about anything. When work slowed at the garage, layoffs commenced. He was safe but his coworkers, who only performed one specific vehicle repair, weren’t. He disliked that system and wanted a union job with union protections. He found that at the forge.
The Phoenix Forge Group, founded in 1882, produces fittings for pressure vessels, tank and cylinder fittings, electrical fittings and various other forged components. They produce quality union-made products but the work isn’t easy. It takes strength, determination and skill to lift a 120-pound billet coming out of an induction furnace. Batz can hook and lift a billet, the same as he did in his 20s.
Brobst knows how hard it is and knows the skill it takes to do the job. “Forging is a continual learning process,” he says. “It’s a dangerous job. But you get in there and get past the fear.”
“It’s not everybody that’s a member of the union who works 50 years at the same place.”
Batz is still working well past retirement age and not only at the forge. He also moonlights at a funeral home, works at a golf course and until a few months ago, completed deliveries for a local pharmacy. That’s only his current slate of jobs. In the past he’s bartended, worked at orchards, an auction house and tree farms.
“Well, let’s put it like this: All my life I’ve seen people, my father-in-law for one, have two jobs,” Batz says. “He worked for a beer distributor and did wallpapering on the side.”
His father-in-law retired at 62 and enjoyed life for only a few years before his death. Batz says he’s seen “too many people who’ve worked hard all their life who sat down and became a couch potato. They didn’t live long after that.”
Batz enjoys being active. He and his wife enjoy travel. Working past retirement allows them to travel without financial worry. And if Batz doesn’t have enough to occupy the 24 hours he gets each day, he also volunteers his time. He once made 250 crosses from scrap wood to give away to anyone who wanted one.
His journey through life hasn’t always been easy. Batz remembers a time at the forge—which pre-dates the current owners—when management locked out the Boilermakers for 16 months. He hustled to find work to care for his young family. It was a hard period in his life but there ended up being a bright spot.
The year before the lockout, Larry Hollis started as a foreman at the shop. He and Batz became friends. Since he was management, he wasn’t in the union. And when the lockout commenced, Hollis was told to get on the floor and do the work, which he did for a short while. But he’d finally had enough and quit instead of helping the owners succeed against the union. Batz admired the decision and they’re still close friends today.
Batz embraces his life—and job—with the enthusiasm of youth. He says the work is not as physical as it used to be. The shop has changed since he started.
“We used to have like 13 to 15 hammers running. It was hell during the summer. And during the winter it was artic cold,” he says. “Working conditions have really improved in the 50 years I’ve been a forger.”
While another 50 years is statistically impossible, Batz doesn’t know how long he’ll stay as busy as he does today. For now, he’s happy. He’s content.
“It’s not everybody that’s a member of the union and works 50 years at the same place. He didn’t miss a day through COVID,” Spaits says. “He’s still a forger. And he’s one of our better forgers. He makes it look easy.”