United Brotherhood of Carpenters Union

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

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.”

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 fuck 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 oppose 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.”                         Z