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The Ancient Order of United Workmen was a fraternal organization in the United States and Canada, providing mutual social and financial support after the US Civil War. It was the first of the "fraternal benefit societies", organizations that would offer insurance as well as sickness, accident, death and burial policies.
The order began when John Jordan Upchurch, a mechanic on the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad living in Meadville, Pennsylvania became dissatisfied with a grew he had joined, the League of Friendship, Mechanical Order of the Sun. The latter society had established a lodge, called a subordinate League, in Meadville on April 20, 1868 and it membership was composed almost entirely of mechanics, engineers, firemen and day labors working on the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad and in the local shops. Upchurch joined the local lodge on June 16, its eight meeting, and soon rose to become its presiding officer. Another person who would go on to have an important role in the AOUW, William W. Walker, was a charter member. The League of Friendship, Mechanical Order of the Suns avowed purpose was to advance and foster the interests of its members and provide financial assistance on an ad hoc basis. The local lodge was reported to have had a peak membership of about one hundred. Dissension began, apparently, over accusations of improper conduct on part of the Grand Council, the governing body of the League. After the Grand Council ordered a tax from the Meadville League that members thought was inappropriate, many members left on on October 27, 1868 the subordinate League decided to disband.
Upchurch's original idea was to have an order which would unite the conflicting interests of capital and labor, but it soon became more interested in ameliorating working conditions for its members and establishing an insurance fund. The later became the prime focus after October 6, 1869, when the Provisional Grand Lodge accepted an amendment to the charter suggested by Upchurch to reorganize the insurance fund. Previously the Order would simply pay out $500 on the death of a member to his legal heirs. Upchurch's reform instead required each new member to pay a $1 initiation fee to the insurance fund and granted a $2,000 death benefit. When a member died, the fund would be replenished by a new $1 on each member. Those refusing to pay the assessment, and subordinate lodges which failed to forward the money to an insurance fund within a month were ejected from the order. This system came to be called the post mortem plar or the assessment as needed plan.
Providing insurance for workingmen was a novel idea in the late 1860s. Previously, insurance was usually limited to businessmen and manufacturers. Numerous bankruptcies of commercial life insurance firms and religious objects had also hindered the development of insurance. The AOUW was convinced that their fraternal structure and less expensive overhead costs made them more likely to succeed than commercial life insurance firms.
The organization prospered and by 1885 the Order was the largest fraternal benefit group in the United States. by this point many other groups had imitated the fraternal insurance concept. In 1886 the AOUW took the initiative in calling sixteen of these groups together for a conference to discuss their common issues. The result was the National Fraternal Congress, a group that still exists today as the National Fraternal Congress of America.
The Supreme Lodge structure was abolished in 1929, replaced by a congress. In 1952 the AOUW dissolved and each state affiliate was left to decide its fate. In Massachusetts the state society merged into the New England Order of Protection. In North Dakota the affiliate became the Pioneer Mutual Life Insurance Company, while in Texas the group simply went into receivership. Only the affiliate in Washington state kept the Order active and under its original name. In 1979 the Washington based Order had 3,000 members, published a AOUW Emblem and met in a "supreme lodge" biennially.
Notable buildings of the Ancient Order of United Workmen include: