Carpenters in New York City are facing a danger and an opportunity.
During a nation-wide building boom, the New York Carpenters District Council is proposing a contract with some huge give-aways. Most important, it includes establishing a new classification – “certified journeyperson”. A journeyperson would need 10,000 work hours to become “certified” – something that could take close to ten years. Meanwhile, she or he would be making $11.31 per hour less on wages and over $8.00 per hour less contributed to their pension. For apprentices, it’s even worse. The apprentice program would, in effect, be increased for a year (to five years). Meanwhile, they earn almost nothing towards their pension.
The council is trying to soften the blow by adding in that this new massive cut in pay and benefits only applies to jobs started after July 1, 2019 and that all those carpenters presently working as journeyperson will be grandfathered into the “certified journeyperson” classification. But you don’t have to be P.J. McGuire (founder of the Carpenters Union and a militant, fighting union leader and a socialist) to see where this is headed. What they are doing is establishing a two-tier wage scale, one for the older members and one for the newer ones. And what will happen when the present boom ends (as all building booms do)? Then, with high unemployment, members who qualify for the “certified” classification will feel compelled to accept the regular journeyperson classification.
This is part and parcel of the overall strategy of the Doug McCarron-controlled Carpenters Union. McCarron
introduced the term “market share” into the union vocabulary. That is a business term that refers to competing for sales with other companies. They compete by cutting prices, among other things. That is McCarron’s view of the union – that the union is a business, marketing a product. (Carpenters here in California used to call the McCarron-controlled union “Carpenters, Inc.”) That product is us, the union members. That is actually what McCarron said – that the union is marketing “a strong product”. According to McCarron, the way to “market” us is to cut our price – that is, our wages.
In 2016, for example, the Western Washington state carpenters union dropped contractor payment into the traditional pension plan in order to keep the contractors happy. This will inevitably mean that that plan will go under at some point. (Of course, the International pension, for full time union employees continues!)
What McCarron is doing and saying has a long history behind it:
The building trades used to dominate the construction industry. According to an article in Fortune Magazine (July, 1979), in 1968 nearly 80% of the construction dollar was spent on union construction. By 1979 that figure was down to 40%. So, when we talk about union busting in the United States in the post WW II period, it really started in the construction industry!
At that time, the union contractors went crying to the building trades leaders. “You have to help us compete!” they said. The building trades leadership, who never really thought for themselves and always had a chummy relationship with the contractors, simply accepted their argument. All that meant, though, was that the union building trades workers had to compete with the non-union building trades workers for who could make the most profits for their contractors. First and foremost, it means who would work cheapest. But that destroys the very purpose of having a union, which is to end that competition between workers.
Logic dictates that this strategy cannot work. After all, the non-union contractors more or less peg what they pay to a percentage of the union scale. That’s especially true in areas like New York City, where the union still is fairly strong. So, if the union workers take a cut, then so will the non-union. It’s called the “race to the bottom”, and it’s what’s been practiced in manufacturing and elsewhere also.
If logic isn’t enough, the facts prove it. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1998, 18.4% of construction workers were represented by a union. Twenty years later, in 2018, that figure had declined to 13.8%. From Seattle to Oakland to New York, building trades workers can see it in the number of large commercial jobs that are going up non-union.
1999 Carpenters wildcat strike – tradition and lessons
In 1999, some 2,000 San Francisco Bay Area carpenters went on a wildcat strike. (See this article for a history of that wildcat strike.) They were facing a situation almost identical to what New York City carpenters are facing today – a contractor-friendly contract in a time of full employment. That strike did not succeed in stopping the contract from going through, but like all worker struggles, it set a tradition of rank and file struggle, and it left some lessons, one of which is that we need to completely transform our union, from the bottom up. (In fact, it’s the same with all the unions!) The carpenters’ fight for better contracts is connected with the struggle to help the non-union carpenters get the same thing – to bring them into the union under the full union contract by forcing their contractors to sign the contract.
“Arrest 10,000 and start a riot?”
This retired carpenter remembers reading about a struggle in Pittsburgh PA in the early 1970s. There, some non-union contractor had started a major job downtown. The building trades called out all their 10s of 1000s of members and totally shut down the city. The chief of police was quoted as saying something like, “what they did was totally illegal, but what are you going to do – arrest 10,000 people and start a riot?” Within a week, that contractor had signed a union contract.
That was then. This is now. Major, commercial non-union construction is a lot more than just one or two jobs here and there. What’s needed is a union leadership that is committed to fighting for top dollar. In order to win it, the membership has to be mobilized to shut down the industry. In the process, we have to go to the non-union sisters and brothers, explain what we’re fighting for and urge them to join us, with the commitment that we will help them keep their jobs shut down tight until their contractors sign the full union contract also. If it takes doing what they did in Pittsburgh, then so be it. And if there is any threat of fines or law suits, then the struggle should be spread even further.
Working class unity needed
There’s one other thing that we have to think about: A lot of non-union construction workers are immigrants. Some may be working without legal papers. How can we possibly win them over if we don’t also fight against Trump’s attacks on immigrants? That is part of the struggle also.
Note: If you’re interested in reading a little more in-depth of this history, see our pamphlet “What Happened to our Unions?“