Born from Many Voices
In 1881, McGuire could see that trade was evolving. A once predictable carpenter’s life suddenly began to change as individual master carpenters could no longer keep up with the growing demands of labor and capital that it took to run a site.
The old system was crumbling, now contractors directly supervised jobs while journey men and apprentices directly wielded hammers and saws. The number of large building employers multiplied, threatening the average carpenter’s dreams of becoming an independent master.
McGuire recognized the possible effects of a new way of working. His insights and observations about the trade were based on field experience. In January 1881, he wrote a letter to a friend describing his current job, building a self-supporting roof 120 feet in the air in “arctic weather.” Work was hard to come by, and he did not complain: “I keep the job because it will last until summer and is $2.50 per day of nine hours.”
He also recognized changes in the trade through the eyes of an experienced organizer. He believed that workers must organize in order to fight the overwhelming lack of power an individual tradesman had. If carpentry as a trade was under attack, there was only one thing to do—protect and defend the trade through the collective strength of the workers.
The Chicago convention that gave birth to the UBC led to difficult years. The union grew slowly, from a membership of 2,042 in 1881 to 5,789 in 1885. Some cities were very well-organized, while others remained entirely nonunion. Peter J. McGuire spent 18 hours a day speaking, writing, and organizing to keep the union afloat. The national office followed his every move—to St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York—as he moved around, responding to one crisis after crisis. He rarely collected his $20 weekly salary, and if he did, it immediately went toward union expenses.
The year of 1886 became known as “the year of the great uprising of labor.” Never before had so many American workers acted for a common goal: 340,000 workers demonstrated for shorter hours in cities across the country. As the Wisconsin Commissioner of Labor stated, “The agitation permeated our entire social atmosphere… It was the topic of conversation in the shop, on the street, at the family table, at the bar, in the counting rooms, and the subject of numerous able sermons from the pulpit.”
Workers from almost every industry participated in the movement, but building tradesmen were the central force. UBC locals led marching columns in every city, inspiring others with their solidarity and resolve. And, not surprisingly, the Brotherhood’s commander in chief was one of the major national spokesmen for the strikers. McGuire zig-zagged the country, calling for reduced hours in front of countless crowds. His involvement was so in depth that he had to temporarily suspend the regular business of the UBC.
McGuire, along with General President Gabriel Edmonston, devised a May 1st general strike—a tactic that paid off with handsome rewards. Union carpenters won higher wages and better conditions in 53 cities. The successes of the union and the dynamic character of its leader attracted thousands of unorganized carpenters. By the end of summer 1886, the Brotherhood had bellowed to 21,423 members and just four years later, membership topped 50,000. McGuire reported that the UBC was “now the largest and most powerful organization, numerically, of any specialized trade in the whole civilized world.”
The eight-hour strike of 1886 and another in 1890 transformed the fledgling Carpenters’ Union into a flourishing organization. Through most of the 1890s, the annual budget was in six figures. In addition to his skill as an organizer, McGuire was increasingly recognized as an astute and capable executive. McGuire was so amused by his newfound influence and fame, the he once commented on the change from the past, when “labor agitators were a much-despised class, often without a dinner or a meal. Now they have mayors and governors to welcome them when assembled in convention.”
Beating the Open Shop
The start of the 20th century was a rocky one for the UBC. An aggressive and calculated open-shop attack was launched against the brotherhood. Employers blocked union carpenters in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Houston, Milwaukee, and a number of other cities. Frank Duffy, the general secretary who succeeded McGuire, wrote in a 1904 issue of Carpenter magazine that building employers had “organized, combined and affiliated with one another, with the avowed purpose and firm determination of putting our local unions out of existence altogether.”
Despite the intensive efforts of open-shop contractors, membership in the Carpenters Union reached 200,000 by 1910. A dues card became as symbolic to a self-respecting carpenter as a complete set of tools. For those who knew the industry, it was common knowledge, “the craftsman without a card is a man without a trade.”
With the onset of World War I, the union faced a new challenge. Wartime needs for temporary military housing, shipbuilding, and ammunition factories pushed the federal government into a massive construction-spending program. When President Woodrow Wilson allowed open-shop contractors on federal construction sites, William Hutcheson refused to participate in the government’s oversight boards. “While we have every desire to assist the government in the crisis we are now passing through,” he said, “we have no intention of waiving our rights to maintain for ourselves the conditions we have established.”
Despite extraordinary pressures, the union leadership held firm. On November 7, 1917, 1,300 building trades workers in eastern Massachusetts participated in a general strike on all military work in the area to protest the use of open-shop builders. The strike continued in spite of threats from the U.S. War Department. The strike was settled quickly but, the larger issue remained unresolved until April 1918 when the federal government approved a new system that guaranteed union shops in those areas that had them before the war. Hutcheson’s decision to stay the course preserved union standards for carpenters.
While the war in Europe had ended, for union carpenters the battle was just beginning. Employer associations of all kinds launched a furious assault on union labor under the guise of the “American Plan.” Building employers, supported by large industrialists and local Chambers of Commerce, pitched in. They took on construction unions in Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Seattle.
Contractors in Chicago insisted on a wage cut in January 1921 and locked out workers after the unions rejected their demand. In June, all crafts except the carpenters and painters agreed to submit the dispute federal arbitration by judge Kenesaw Landis. The judge’s drastic decision hacked wages beyond the initial contractor proposals and weakened long-standing union work rules. The UBC refused to recognize the judgment and led the fight against the “Citizens Committee to Enforce the Landis Award” for five years until union shop conditions finally returned to Chicago.
In San Francisco, the Industrial Association broke the 20-year reign of one of the country’s mightiest union shops in the building trades. Financed to the tune of $1.25 million and in control of the building materials suppliers, the Builders’ Exchange refused to call off a lockout even after the city’s Building Trades Council meekly accepted the contractors’ original wage cut demand. Determined to demolish all of the unions, the employers of San Francisco settled for nothing less than open shop and an end to mandatory collective bargaining in the building industry.
While the American Plan did take its toll, the San Francisco experience was especially severe. The Brotherhood survived through the 1920s. The number of union carpenters took a substantial declined from 400,000 in 1920 to 345,000 in 1928, but this drop in membership compared favorably to the losses of other labor unions in the prevailing anti-labor climate. Wages actually rose by roughly five percent a year. The onslaught of the anti-union campaigns slowly started to fade by the end of the decade.
Depression and Boom
While the “American Plan” of the 1920s may have challenged the status quo of the union building trades, the Great Depression of the 1930s threatened to extinguish them altogether.
The stock market crash in 1929 led to an astonishing unemployment rate of 4,000 workers a week. In 1932, the Chicago Carpenters District Council urged the UBC national leadership to lead the fight for an unemployment insurance system, at the same time that New Deal programs began.
Rank-and-file carpenters and locals welcomed the New Deal. Unemployed carpenters wanted jobs and benefits, not welfare and unemployment insurance. They eagerly greeted President Franklin Roosevelt’s alphabet soup of public works agencies (PWA, CWA, CCC, and WPA) instituted to help revive the ailing economy. Conflict initially arose between unions and the federal government as the unions commitment to a decent wage clashed with the governments principals to put people back to work at any cost. By 1936, however, federal and union policies coincided to enable skilled tradesmen to move into their customary roles.
New Deal initiatives created jobs for millions of Americans, but the initiatives did not end the Depression. Almost 9.5 million people were still out of work in 1939. This was only ended by the daunting task of preparing to enter into World War II. This massive build up was finally able to generate enough work to eliminate Americas joblessness. The war-driven building demand and the general post-war prosperity finally provided American carpenters with reasonable opportunities and greater financial security.
Prosperity, Complacency, Trouble
Early on after the close of WW2 the labor unions seized advantage of a prosperous economy to move into new markets. In 1950 the New York District Council of Carpenters negotiated a three percent payroll tax to support a Carpenters Welfare Fund. The idea of health and welfare funds became so attractive that the national office’s Health and Welfare Committee, appointed in 1954, urged all locals to set up programs as quickly as possible. Jointly trusteed pension funds soon followed. Other contract gains such as safety measures, travel time, and coffee breaks were also negotiated. The accomplishments of this period brought additional stability and prosperity into the lives of working carpenters and their families.
Unfortunately, the extended boom and success in the bargaining arena also bred a measure of complacency within the unions. Locals with empty books and busy workers led business agents to reduce their roles to those of office administration, job referrals, and contract negotiations. Organizing and membership education fell by the wayside while work was aplenty.
The post-war construction boom, however, outpaced the unions’ abilities to satisfy all of the labor requirements. This resulted in many non-union contractors popping up especially in the residential market. Many unionists remained unconcerned about the potential threat of these newcomers since work was plentiful in the growing commercial and industrial construction sectors.
Ignoring the emerging nonunion workforce came at a dire cost. While union building trades continued to control around 80 percent of the market, the heavy reliance on big projects and small labor pools lead to non-union contractors gaining a concrete foothold.
In the late 1960s, escalating material costs and labor prices set off alarms in the ranks of building owners, management consultants, corporate journalists, and public policy makers. In 1969, 200 of the nation’s top executives formed the Business Roundtable to put a lid on construction bills. The Roundtable, made up of the heads of General Motors, General Electric, Exxon, U.S. Steel, and DuPont, among others, concluded that the route to financial control over capital construction costs lay in blunting the power of the building trades unions.
The Roundtable put into effect political support that attacked labor friendly legislation, such as Davis Bacon, which protects construction trade wages. It laid out a collective-bargaining agenda to eliminate union gains and many of its members sponsored and subsidized nonunion contractors on their own projects. The recession of the mid 1970’s, along with growing anti-labor sentiment, and the roundtables attack, lead to the open shop movement gaining serious momentum.
Nonunion builders, gathered under the umbrella of the Associated Builders and Contractors, took advantage of these opportunities. For the first time in 3 decades, construction in America was not dominated by unions. Open-shop or double-breasted firms now participated in, and even controlled, many major construction markets. They reduced wages, weakened established safety and working conditions, and changed the way work was carried out on the jobsite. They sought to replace the traditional egalitarian apprentice/journeyman system with the so-called “merit shop” philosophy, in which workers are pitted against one another and have no real shot at quality training or a decent lifelong career in the trades.
Rising to Meet the Challenges
“Our organization was set up to deal with the industry as it was in post-World War II North America,” said UBC General President Doug McCarron when he was elected in 1995. “But the industry has changed drastically since then, and we must change with it.”
Since taking office McCarron has dramatically restructured and reorganized the UBC. Organizing has once again became the union’s number one priority and has redirected its resources to get that job done. The union’s localized—and often politically motivated—structure has also been redefined and streamlined to reflect today’s regional and national construction industry, as well as to ensure that union leaders are more accountable to members for the job they do.
The UBC faces a complex and challenging future. Ever evolving tools, materials, and construction methods are constantly being introduced. In many ways, the carpenter of the 1990s was no different from the carpenter of the 1880s. But all indications are that the 21st century is ushering in much more rapid technological innovation.
Union apprenticeship and journeyman-enhancement training programs are addressing these new developments, while at the same time maintaining a high level of all-around craft competence that union journeymen will always need.
Ultimately the challenges of maintaining and growing the brotherhood rests with our acknowledgement of past short comings, while looking forward to the future with the determination and knowledge to succeed in the market. The UBC’s growth in the future rests on its ability to reach out and open its doors to all working carpenters.
The American workforce may look different today—more multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-lingual—but the underlying principle of organizing all the men and women who make their living at the carpentry trade is exactly the same as it was in 1881, when 36 carpenters met in Chicago to improve their lives, their futures, and their trade.