Carpenters wildcat strike in NYC?

Thousands of building trades workers rally to protest the union busting at Hudson Yards. Wage cutting won’t stop the growth of non-union construction. Now, a new form of struggle is needed.

There is increasing talk on Facebook about a wildcat strike among New York City carpenters. The issue is the horrible contract that the union leadership has negotiated. The defining question is whether or not there is a mood for it, and only the sisters and brothers actually there, on the ground, can know the answer to that. But there are some things we learned from our wildcat strike in 1999 here in the San Francisco Bay area:

  • Those (including this carpenter) who helped organize things from the start were surprised that the strike even happened. Not that we were against it, but none of us thought there was a mood for it. We were wrong.
  • The majority of the wildcat strikers were pretty young. My guess is that 75% had never been to a union meeting before and had little or no experience in unionism. That was positive and negative, but basically we learn by doing. (For myself, personally, we’d had a 6 week semi-wildcat strike against Nixon’s wage controls back in 1973. I was in my 20s at that time, and it was that strike that showed me as a young carpenter what the union was really all about and what got me hooked on union activism.)
  • Like your situation, our strike was over a poor contract (although not nearly as horrible) during a time of full employment. What was proven was that the only way that contract could have been killed was if the carpenters had stayed out until it was officially dead.

(For a history of that wildcat strike, see this article.)

The situation was similar but also different. In our case, it started with and revolved around one particular job – the SF airport international arrivals terminal construction, which also included extending the rail system (BART) to the airport. The reason it revolved around that job was that it was by far the biggest job in the area, and possibly in the US, at that time. We had well over 100 members working there.

First Day of 1999 wildcat
So, the first day of the wildcat strike, we all met at that job and then spread out from there. It’s possible that there is no one job in New York that plays a similar role. If you do decide to go on a wildcat strike, then maybe your tactical approach would have to be different.

Strike meetings
Another thing that was important was that we held a strike meeting every afternoon after the picketing was over. Those meetings were a bit chaotic at first, to say the least. It was important to have a chair that saw what needed to be accomplished but also saw the need to “go with the flow” a little bit.

We also printed up leaflets almost daily – kind of one page strike bulletins. That was before the days of widespread use of the internet and of social media, but I still think a written leaflet is important. That’s because of the direct human interaction when a sister or brother gets the leaflet from you. It was also vital that we translated our leaflets into Spanish. That took a lot of work, but it was necessary.

Yes, there are risks in a wildcat strike. I, personally, was expelled from the union for life. According to the law, they can’t stop you from working, and working under the union contract, and in my own case, they had to follow the law. That was because we had a true hiring hall, where dozens, sometimes 100 or more, members gathered every morning. So while I couldn’t go to union meetings, I could meet and talk with my fellow carpenters. As our senior business agent told me one time: “John, we’d a lot rather have you out on the job than in the hall causing trouble.” Nowadays, the real-life hiring hall has gone the way of the pay phone booth. (Do teen agers even know what that is?) So, being expelled and/or blackballed is a threat, especially without a real in-person hiring hall. If you sisters and brothers decide to wildcat, then I think it’s important to also commit to defending any of you who is made an “example” of. That includes shutting down the jobs again to defend them.

Serious situation we face
A wildcat strike is a serious thing because you’re fighting a war on two fronts – against the employers and against your own union leadership. We can’t go into this lightly. But we also have to consider what’s at stake:

  • In Western Washington, the carpenters leadership pushed through a contract which kills off payments into the traditional pension (what’s called a “defined benefit” plan). All that’s left is something like an annuity. Annuities sound good when the stock market is booming, like now, but wait till the next downturn. The advantage of a “defined benefit” pension – a real pension, in other words – is that the worker doesn’t bear the risk; the employer does. That’s exactly why the leadership gave it away – to keep the contractors happy. If we allow it, this will certainly spread to other contracts. And one of the main things that binds the union carpenter to the union is the years she or he has invested in the pension. Once that’s gone, when carpenters can’t find union work, they’ll be leaving the union in droves.
  • The Carpenters Union leadership is leading the way in its collaboration with the employers, but the rest of the union leadership is not far behind. That’s why teachers in several different states (starting with West Virginia) struck against the will of their leaders. It’s why UPS workers voted to strike but the Teamster leadership refused to carry out the will of the members. It’s why 44% of teachers in Oakland, CA, voted against the settlement their leadership had agreed to. Sooner or later, somebody has to take a stand or we’ll all slowly drown.

In the end, though, remember this: No struggle goes to waste. Hopefully, the lessons and the traditions of our 1999 wildcat strike can help you sisters and brothers. There are no guarantees that you will win, but what is guaranteed is that you don’t fight, you won’t win.

John Reimann
former recording secretary and expelled member, Carpenters Local 713, Hayward CA

Leave a Reply