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June 2004 • Vol 4, No. 6 •


The Degeneration of the Carpenters Union

By Jamie McCallum

Mike Griffin has been a carpenter in Decatur, Illinois for five years, but recently he found himself working with the pipe systems that power huge turbines. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) signed a deal with Westinghouse guaranteeing that carpenters can do pipefitters’ work if they agree to work for 10 percent less than the normal pay rate.

“The UBC is teaching apprentices and members that you have to compete against your brother,” Griffin said. “Well, not me.” Members protested, threatening to take action with the AFL-CIO and the contract was renegotiated for more money. Still, Griffin and other rank-and-file members within the carpenters’ union think this is the shape of things to come.

UBC management recently decided to withdraw its founding membership from the AFL-CIO, claiming the money it could be spending to organize new workers is being wasted by “Washington bureaucrats.” However, many members contend management would like the freedom to raid and sign more wall to wall contracts, which could send the wages of over 500,000 carpenters and about 3 million members in the building trades plummeting.

Raiding is the practice of taking workers from one affiliated union to another, which is illegal under article 20 of the AFL-CIO Constitution. At a time when such a small percentage of the workforce is unionized, this clause is designed to encourage unions to organize the unorganized, not to bicker over a group of already-organized workers. A wall to wall agreement, sometimes referred to as a “raid” among the 15 building trades unions, is a contractor-friendly deal where one union does all the work typically performed by many crafts cheaper by undercutting the pay scale of other unions. With more carpenters on the job site, union management rakes in more dues money. However, using economic pressure to gain access to another trade’s work is illegal according to the AFL-CIO constitution, and violates building trades agreements that protect craft jurisdictions.

Now out of the AFL-CIO, the UBC is not subject to those restrictions. While the carpenters were in the AFL-CIO, five different unions (IBEW, AFSCME, IATSE, the Machinists, the Ironworkers) filed article 20 complaints against them since 1995, the year UBC president Doug McCarron took office. “They may have engaged in some disputes in the past which were questionable while they were in the AFL-CIO,” explains Carl Biers, of the Association for Union Democracy. “But now that they’re not bound by article 20, they can go wall to wall unrestrained. It could get much worse.”

“The only thing the carpenters are going to have to offer an employer is a better deal. There will be a race to the bottom in wages and conditions,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor of Labor History at Cornell University.

Because of the intense jurisdictional battles within the building trades, if the carpenters start to aggressively raid the other crafts, the building trades unions will be forced to retaliate in order to compete for the work. “All knives cut both ways,” says Elaine Bernard, executive director of the Harvard Trade Union Program. “If the carpenters start going wall to wall, there’s no reason everyone else wouldn’t go after their jurisdiction.” If that happens, “The building trades aren’t fraternal organizations,” explains John Reimann, a San Francisco carpenter who was tossed out of the union for citations surrounding his participation in a wildcat strike in 1999. “They’ll be business rivals.”

Reimann characterizes the pending fate of the building trades as “a fratricidal civil war,” where unions are struggling against each other and workers are fighting one another on job sites. “I’d say that we could start a betting pool tomorrow as to when the first construction worker will die on a job site, killed by another union construction worker,” says Mike Orfelt, also a San Francisco carpenter and editor of a carpenter’s magazine Hard Hat. “I’m talking about, you’re working on the ground, and down from the thirtieth floor comes a bolt or rivet or spud wrench. What do you think happens to your flesh when that opinion arrives? When you f—k with a guy’s ability to put food in front of his children, how do you think he feels when he sees someone from the carpenters’ union doing his work? And let me tell you, that’s how we talk about it. ‘Hey, that’s our work’. ”

“That’s exactly what employers want,” says Bronfenbrenner. “When workers fight among themselves, it takes pressure off the boss. They can’t organize that way.”

But many carpenters opposed the move to disaffiliate. David Johnson, an Illinois carpenter, recently hosted a workshop/teach-in for carpenters to learn about the implications of disaffiliation. Ken Little, a carpenter in Tacoma, Washington, helped found the Carpenters for a Democratic Union International, and ran against McCarron in a guerrilla campaign for national president at the UBC convention last August. The organization is a union within a union, trying to raise consciousness about business unionism and to encourage the spread of dissent as well as union values.

Still, UBC spokesperson Monte Byers stressed his union’s dedication to organizing as the reason to leave the federation, claiming the union has committed half its resources (more than any other union) to organizing, having hired about 600 full-time field organizers over the last four years.

“I don’t buy it,” says Bernard. Bronfenbrenner agrees. “Why now? Certainly you get more today than you did ten years ago in terms of organizing, support for organizing, and training for organizing [from the AFL-CIO],” she says.

“Plain and simple,” explains Leon Rosenbladt, a labor attorney in Hartford, Connecticut. “Unions that cannot organize the unorganized try to take a short cut by raiding the already-organized.” Certainly, the UBC fits this description. Work In Progress reports done by the AFL-CIO, which track organizing successes for all affiliated unions, show the carpenters have only organized 982 new workers since 1998, 833 of them joining in 1998.

“It’s suicidal for the UBC to leave now. They’re crazy if they think they’re stronger going at it alone,” she says. “In a global society, solidarity matters. Workers’ power rests on their ability to stop work. Who’s going to walk the picket line with the carpenters if they pull out? They need the building trades more than the building trades need them.”

No one knows for sure what will happen now that the UBC has disaffiliated, but many members worry the results could be disastrous for them and their families, as well as an important part of the labor movement. “Building trades unions survive by collectively bargaining prevailing wage standards and working conditions,” explains Bronfenbrenner. Outside the AFL-CIO’s protection and without the support of the Building Trades Councils, however, that leverage is gone. She adds, “Disaffiliation weakens the union and weakens the labor movement, which empowers employers which means wages go down.” “The rank and file in the UBC is going to pay,” says Griffin. “We may self destruct. It’s going to be terrible. It will be a union in name only, and I’m not sure if it’s even much of a union now.”





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