1999 SF Bay Area Carpenters Wildcat Strike
by John Reimann
In May of 1999, some 2000 San Francisco Bay area union carpenters stood up and collectively shook their union officialdom by the scruff of the neck. They were supported in this by some 3,000 of their fellow building trades workers. This struggle holds some important lessons for union activists and for all workers today.
These were the days of the booming 90s. In the Bay Area, a union carpenter basically had to hide under the bed and pull his or her phone out of the wall if they didn’t want to go to work. Carpenters could quit a job in the morning, drive down to the union hall and go back out on another job that same day. (I know; I did it.) But at the same time, our wages were not keeping up with inflation – especially the cost of housing. Especially the younger carpenters were working long hours – ten and 18 hours overtime – just to pay their house notes. On top of that, many had bought homes 50 miles or more from the Bay Area and would have two hours driving time to and from work. It would not be uncommon to call a fellow carpenter at 8:30 in the evening and be told, “oh, Dad’s already asleep.”
This meant a lot of pressure as far as paying the bills, but also a certain self-confidence – a willingness to take job action.
The main reason for the low wages was that the union leadership had been selling the carpenters cheap over many years prior to this. They had been told by the unionized contractors that the union had to help these contractors compete with the non-union contractors. In reality, this meant that the union carpenters had to compete with their non-union brothers and sisters for who would work cheapest and who would bring home the greatest profits to the contractors. The fact that this destroys the very reason for having a union (to eliminate this competition) never dawned on the union officials. And given their cushy benefits, they did not have to suffer from the results of this policy.
Casey Agrees to New Contract
In early May of 1999, the word got out that the head of the Regional Council (NCCRC), John Casey, had agreed to a new five year extension of the already existing contract. He agreed to a $1.25 raise in each year of the contract. Feeling both pinched in the check-book and confident due to the full employment, many carpenters were outraged at this settlement, once they heard about it. On top of this, Casey bowed to the ruling of the Union’s general president, Doug McCarron, that a membership referendum on the contract could not be held. (In fact, of course, they were working hand-in-hand; McCarron’s ruling was just a convenient cover for Casey to hide behind.)
As a cover, Casey called for a special meeting of the NCCRC delegates to vote on this contract. Word got out shortly before this event and a leaflet was put out by some members of Local 713 (Hayward, CA) explaining what was in the contract and calling for a protest at the Council meeting (to be held on a Saturday).
Some fifty to seventy-five members and their family showed up at the protest, which was prior to the meeting. One or two rank and file delegates spoke at it, as well as numerous other working carpenters. Different speeches were made and some of the officials were heckled as they went into the meeting.
Then the NCCRC meeting got started and this carpenter went in as a delegate, with the agreement that after the meeting was over we would report the results and decide what to do next if the contract passed. Inside the meeting, things started off “smoothly” enough. There were numerous speakers both for and against the contract. One thing should be understood: The delegates were elected as delegates by their local members. However, about half the delegates present at the meeting were also full-time officials appointed by John Casey. They were beholden to him for their jobs and their weekly pay checks. Not one single full time official delegate spoke up against the contract. Not one single working carpenter spoke up in favor of the contract. Just as the debate was getting started, a stunning event occurred:
The Membership Crashes the Meeting
The entry doors crashed open and those who had been protesting outside forced their way into the entrance, chanting “No! No! No!” The whole meeting went into chaos, with some of the union officials trying to force the protesters back out. The protesters were not willing to be locked out of their own union’s deliberations about their very future. In the previous 25 years, nothing like this had ever happened before. What it was, in effect, was the signal of a new day in the Carpenters Union; it signaled the tremendous gap that had developed between the working members and the officials. There had always been a gap, but it had grown to a proportion that had not been so obvious up until then.
Eventually, “order” was restored and the debate continued inside the meeting. On a standing vote, the contract was passed by a slim margin. Outside, after the meeting, it was agreed to go back to work on Monday and hold an after-work meeting in the Local 713 parking lot on that afternoon. Having seen this sort of movement rise and fall in the past, this particular carpenter expected some 35 or so to turn up to that meeting. There was also another issue: At Saturday’s protest, one carpenter had called for a walk-off, but nobody else took up this call. Several carpenters and some other union activists met the next day (Sunday) to talk about what would likely happen on Monday. The general consensus was that there was not a mood for a mass walk-off. On both counts, this could not have been more wrong. By the time this particular carpenter arrived there, there were already some 50 carpenters waiting. They were all talking about walking off. By the time the meeting got started, there were at least 75 present.
Planning for the Wildcat
The great majority of these were from the SF airport expansion job – a huge project, said to be the largest construction job in the US by some. In part it was the work situation, and in part just the sheer size of the work force there that gave these members the militancy they felt. We went round the group – every single one of these members agreed that the overwhelming feeling on this job was to walk off. At this point, it was crystal clear that this was not only possible, it was necessary!
A point was put to these brothers: We have to understand that we will be fighting a war on two fronts here – one against the contractors and one against our own union officials. Since most of these brothers were pretty young and new to the union struggle, it was important to at least warn them as to what they were getting into. “yes, yes, we understand” was the reply. In fact, it is most likely that the great majority had not fully thought this all through. They just knew that they were angry, that they deserved more, that they were in a position to win more, and they wanted to do something now about it. This is how almost all such workers’ struggles get started – anger is a great force for change when it’s aimed in the right direction.
The next question was how to organize a walk-off. The proposal was made that we put together a leaflet calling for a general walk-off, that the leaflet be produced by the next afternoon and that the walk-off, the wildcat strike, start on Thursday. “Yeah,” one carpenter explained, “but we’ve been talking about this for days now. If something isn’t done now, people will get discouraged and give up.” This is an important point. The brother who pointed this out had a better understanding of the necessity to keep the workers’ morale up than do the union officials. (Maybe they understand it too, but they just don’t want to do it.) “Well, if you explain to them what the plan is, that we’re trying to organize a wildcat for the general area starting on Thursday, would they accept that? Would they still be discouraged?” This was the question asked, and the brother who raised the question agreed that in that case it would be okay.
One little detail was yet to be arranged: Financing for copying off some 5,000 leaflets. We passed the hat and the fives, tens and even twenties were jumping out of the carpenters’ pockets. It was a most visible demonstration of the feelings that existed. It is difficult to describe the exhilaration that was caused by this very concrete expression of commitment.
A Key Debate
The next day we met to get copies of the leaflet. By that time, the world was already out to the officials what was up. One of the Local 713 business agents met us in the parking lot. This particular individual tried to pawn himself off as a more independent official, as something of a militant. “This contract is shit,” he said. “I voted against it. And if you want to wobble a job, go ahead and wobble a job. But you guys are shooting yourself in the foot by walking off the airport job. This is a high profile job with a project labor agreement. If you walk there, you will make yourselves very unpopular.” (NOTE: A “project labor agreement” in construction is one whereby the general contractor agrees that the entire job will be built union and in exchange the contractor gets certain concessions on such matters as overtime pay and additionally the signatory unions agree that even if there is a strike in the industry that this particular job will not be struck.)
A long debate followed. His basic point was that it would be unpopular, be seen as weakening the union, and it would weaken us politically with the judges and the politicians. The answers were that the airport job was the center of this movement and there would either be a walk-off there or not at all. As far as the judges and politicians, the unions were not built by them; they were built by workers like us. “When we are strong and united, we will be our own ‘Project Labor Agreement’.”
The arguments might have been sound, but concern and self-doubt written all over the faces of many of these brothers nevertheless. They suddenly came to realize that anger might be a good starting point, but it wasn’t enough. Finally, a “low blow” (you could say) was struck. It was necessary to reveal this business agent for what he really was. “Okay, Tom, I hate to get personal, but I have to ask you this: You say this contract is shit, how terrible it is, but why didn’t you get up and say that at the Council meeting on Saturday? You could have changed the outcome of the vote if you , a business agent, had spoken up.” All of a sudden you could see the self-doubt of the carpenters who were listening melt away like a snowball in mid-August. Tom gave some weak excuse and slunk away. The strike was on.
These little “details” show how important the consciousness and the mood of the rank and file is at all times.
The Wildcat Gets Underway
The plan was to meet at a parking lot by the airport (Staging area B, it was called) at 5:00 a.m. on Thursday. It was still dark, cold and windy as carpenters started to gather. A pickup truck was used as a platform and various carpenters gave speeches about how important this strike was, the contract, etc. We had to decide how to organize ourselves. It was agreed that we’d picket some five different jobs that morning. How would we decide who went where?
One young brother, fresh out of the Marines, used his previous training. “Okay, everybody line up,” he said. “Okay, now count off from one to five.”
“One,” “two,” “three,” “four” five,” “one”… Every carpenter gave themselves a number as they counted off.
“Okay, now, all the ‘ones’ will go to ___ job; the ‘twos’ will go to ___ job.” That’s how he got us all organized.
But the majority of the carpenters stayed there to picket the airport. Off we marched, down to the construction entrance, some fifty to a hundred of us. Tumult, yelling, chanting, impassioned speeches to our brother and sister construction workers why they should not cross the line. We marched back and forth in front of the construction entrance. At one point, a cop in charge came up and told us that we couldn’t cross the entrance; we’d have to stay on either side. A bit of an argument followed. Finally, this same ex military brother interjected:
“Bullshit!” he roared. “We have every right to walk in the crosswalk, and that’s what we’re going to do. Come on, everybody, follow me!” With that, he turned his back on the cop and started off across the entrance. Dozens of carpenters flocked to follow him and the cop-in-charge was left speechless. (It was interesting to note that this brother, who played such a key role in this first day of the strike later applied for a job with the NCCRC and left the wildcat movement.)
The strike was a roaring success. Almost all the other trades workers honored our unsanctioned picket line and walked off. The truth is that the carpenters are seen as the weakest ones of most of the trades. This is due to the role of our leadership, but this isn’t immediately understood on the job. So many of the other trades workers were immensely impressed at seeing the carpenters standing up like we were. They also understood that if our union leadership could pull this on us, that they would be next. So off the job they came.
Open Air Meetings
We planned to meet at 2:00 p.m. that afternoon to get reports on what was happening on the other jobs and where to go from here. The meeting was an interesting one. An agenda was agreed to. No sooner was it agreed to, then it was broken. Just as one person would stand up to give a report from some job or another, then another brother would get up and give a long impassioned speech about how important this strike was and how we had to keep it going. This would then lead to a long discussion about how rotten the contract was, what a particular business agent did at a particular time, whatever…
It was a symptom of the fact that the great majority of these carpenters had little or no experience in union meetings. Given the extreme suspicion of anything that even sounded or looked like suppression of free speech, it was impossible to really try to force people to speak to the subject at hand. The amazing thing was to see how quickly things changed – almost entirely on their own. In a pressure cooker situation like that, every day seems like weeks, so the change didn’t feel like it came quickly. But in fact, within just a few days, people were starting to observe the agenda that had been agreed to.
Another issue was electing an official leadership of this strike movement, including the chair of the meetings. Some very learned lefts approached this writer, who was chairing the meetings just by virtue of the situation, and suggested that he should hold an election for chair immediately. The problem was this: It was difficult if not impossible to finish all the business that really had to be finished at those open-air meetings. If the meeting lasted more than an hour and a half, most of the strikers would start drifting away. But these daily strike meetings were essential for making plans for the next day and keeping the strike going from day to day. So we could have spent half (or more) of a meeting electing a chair and other officers, but officers of what? It was not ruled out that the strike could simply peter out if we had not accomplished what had to be accomplished at each meeting. This shows how “democracy” is not an absolute thing.
Every day the picketing continued. The heart of the strike was the SF airport and masses of pickets would gather there daily. We fanned out from there to other sites, shutting down major sites throughout the SF Bay Area. This included the Pac Bell (SF Giants) ball park, then under construction, as well as construction for hospitals and other large jobs.
A major step forward was the building of a flying squad of pickets. Historically, this has always been used in major strikes that have been spread out, such as the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike. Even the 1973 carpenters wildcat against Nixon’s wage controls was based on such a flying squad. The 1999 carpenters wildcat followed in these footsteps. Every day the flying squad would invade new jobs. On entering the job, a general discussion would break out amongst the carpenters on the job and the strikers. Often times the flying squad members would convince the carpenters to drag up.
A Weakness of the Wildcat
The wildcat strike started on a Thursday. It continued through Saturday (most major jobs were working Saturdays at that time), but there was a major problem: We were usually successful in shutting jobs down, but the problem was keeping them down. When the carpenters walked off the job, they just went home. It was a major effort to get enough people to come out and join the picket lines. The main reason for this was the decades of inactivity in the union. Especially younger carpenters were just not used to taking action on their own. Every evening, after the picketing and after the open air meeting, a small group of the real hard core would get together to figure out where to picket the next day and to organize to make phone calls to get more people to come out. By Saturday night, we were close to a breaking point. We simply weren’t getting enough people out. We discussed it and agreed that on Sunday we’d make one last major push to call people and get them to come out to picket. We agreed that if on Monday we didn’t get enough people out, then we would recommend that we go back to work. Better to go back as one organized whole then straggling in bit by bit, we figured.
Monday came, and the turnout for the picketing was no greater than on Saturday. Maybe even less. That afternoon, we held the meeting in the parking lot of Local 713. We put the issues before the meeting. A general discussion developed, with some favoring staying out and some favoring going back. In general it was a very friendly and open discussion. (One heated point came when a business agent showed up who’d played a very ugly role. Several carpenters said that he’d called their homes and threatened their wives and daughters that their children would not have any future, would not be able to go to college, if their husband/father didn’t go back to work. It was clear that this b.a. was on the verge of getting beaten up so he quickly made his exit.)
Vote to Return to Work
In the end we voted about 2-1 to return to work the next day, but the whole campaign was not yet over. Local 22 (San Francisco) had voted to hire a lawyer and challenge the NCCRC vote in court, due to some irregularities in the voting procedure. Before that could happen, Carpenters General President McCarron ruled in our favor and ordered a new vote be taken. He required that three months notice be given to the delegates before the vote, so this gave a new lease on life to the wildcat movement. This movement continued, but mainly through the union meetings, until the Regional Council vote.
However, it was pretty clear that our power lay out in the streets. Having to go back to work did not mean that all was lost, but it did mean that this particular contract was going through.
After we went back to work, the main action shifted to the union meetings. Meetings at Local 713 went from an average attendance of some 25-35 prior to the strike to about 250 in one instance. These meetings were heated and long. A real telling point came at one meeting when a motion was passed overwhelmingly to instruct the delegates to the council to vote against the contract. Then the question was put to the delegates: “How are you going to vote?” The senior business agent replied by saying, “I’m going to vote ‘yes’ and if you don’t like it, you know what you can do about it.” Naturally, this nearly brought the house down, but what could the members do?
The main activists of the wildcat also attended local meetings throughout Northern California. Many of these meetings were far more sparsely attended, and quite a few times we got a generally hostile response. But even then, there were inevitably a few members who were very happy that we’d come.
The 1999 carpenters wildcat strike came just months before the “Battle of Seattle” where a crowd of young people and some union workers basically closed down the meeting of the WTO. Although the WTO protests were much more widely covered, both these events signaled a new day. No longer would the movement be confined to mere safe, legalistic protests. Workers and young people were starting to recognize that in order to win, they were going to have to go outside the limits set by the official establishment. The tip-off to this, as far as the wildcat strike, was the invasion of the NCCRC meeting in May.
As pointed out, this writer was caught by surprise by this invasion. It was not as if I was obsessed with going through official channels. In fact, I was involved in two other wildcat strikes as well as numerous other pickets of the union hall, etc. But union activity, in the main has a certain rhythm. In the main, this centers around going to meetings, having debates on the floor of the meetings, etc. This also involves observing the rules of order and the like. There are positive aspects to this, as the lack of order and self-discipline of the first meetings of the strikers showed. But it is also all to easy to get into a certain groove. It is also too easy to fail to see it when a new mood has developed. This was what the invasion of the Council represented.
The carpenters wildcat strike also helped clarify how the unions is likely to be changed in the future and how the workers movement is likely to develop. The union officialdom has gotten such a strong grip on the official channels that it is impossible for a real workers’ movement to change the unions strictly through them. When a movement of workers develops, they are not going to want to wait for the years and years (literally) it takes to hold official elections to change the leadership.
In some cases, workers are likely to simply physically force the existing leadership out. In others, new bodies – rank and file committees and the like – will be formed which will in some way or another start to take on the role of a union. Maybe in some cases this will be combined with working through the official channels, but the main thing is this: The unions will not be changed without a huge uprising of the rank and file. Whenever this uprising occurs, it will not simply wait for union elections. It will move to start to make the changes right away, or not at all. An important part of this movement will be new and even bigger wildcat strikes.
This is not to deny the importance of working through the official channels. Even during the height of the wildcat strike, when the strikers defied every single union official in Northern California to keep the strike going – even then they were going in the hundreds to their union meetings. It was vitally important that there be even a small group of union activists who knew how to work in the meetings.
This is also not to deny the importance of working through the official channels before any such uprising. In the first place, the experience gained in debating the ideas of the leadership is invaluable. Also, having even just one or two people in officially elected positions can be an enormous help to a movement. (Just an organizational detail – but one that was vital: It was the presence of one such officially elected official in the strike made possible the photocopying of literally tens of thousands of different leaflets that were distributed.)
Another issue that surfaced during the strike and that was developed after the strike was the role of the appointed, full-time officials. Carpenters instinctively distinguished themselves from these full timers by insisting that the name of the group had to be “Working Carpenters for a Stronger Union.” In other words, a division from these appointees was clearly felt. In further discussions, it was clarified that if the officials are appointed, then they have to do the bidding of the person who appoints them. In Local 713, which in many ways was the center of the strike, a caucus developed after the wildcat movement was over. A basic point of principle was that the caucus would not allow any to represent it who did not agree that they would not accept such an appointed position.
Finally, there is the issue of program and political clarity. In the main, the main driving force of the strike was anger and adrenalin. This was able to accomplish a huge amount. But there were certain key times when mere emotion was not enough. This was because in their heart of hearts, almost every striker knew that they were going to have to deal with wider issues, such as how to stop the non-union construction. The emotions were needed to spur the strike forwards, but in the end the strikers had to consciously understand and believe in what they were doing, they had to have an answer to the arguments of the union officials.
After the contract was finally settled, the “Working Carpenters for a Stronger Union” held a half-day meeting to hammer out a program. About 30 or so carpenters came and a very interesting discussion developed. Some points were raised like a return to the days when we had every other Friday off from work. Some carpenters objected on the grounds that the contractors could not afford this if they were to compete with the non-union contractors. This was exactly the whole starting point of the union officials – the same officials who had brought us the rotten contract. And these were the very same carpenters (or some of them) who had rebelled with everything they had against the consequences of this thinking. In the longer run, it was necessary to really clarify what this thinking meant. (In this particular case, in the end the great majority voted for the shorter work week.)
For an in-depth history of how the Carpenters Union, and the labor movement as a whole, got to where it’s at today, see What Happened to Our Unions?