Railroad Workers and the Carpenters Wildcat Strike of 1973-4: Action is Power

The rail yard at the Port of Los Angeles. Railroad workers have tremendous potential power.

Biden is pushing for the government to prohibit a railroad strike. The excuse is that such a strike would hurt the economy. This whole situation brings to mind the great SF Bay Area carpenters semi-wildcat strike of 1973-4. In those years, Americans were experiencing increasing inflation. “High wages” were blamed, first and foremost those of building trades workers. So in 1971,

John Dunlop. This corporate ideologue headed up the CISC, which decided on the wages of building trades workers.

President Nixon set up the Construction Industry Stabilization Committee (CISC) headed up by John Dunlop. That committee looked at the wage increase called for in every building trades contract and decided whether the wage increase was “inflationary” or not. They went through the country over the next two years, overruling one wage increase after another. Keep in mind, of course, that the contractors make the highest bid they can get away with, no matter what wages they have to pay. But still, in every case, the CISC in effect raped the building trades contracts, cutting scheduled wage increases in half or less. And in every case, the union leadership meekly accepted the CISC ruling.

SF Bay Area Carpenters Wildcat!
Then they got to the SF Bay Area carpenters. In June of 1973 we were due to receive a .75 increase. That was pretty good money back then. Members let it be known that they were not going to tolerate a reduced increase and there was a split in the union leadership, with one section of the leadership playing to the crowd and opposing accepting any reduction of the 75 cent pay raise.

As a result, the CISC dithered and didn’t rule on any increase at all. June came and went. So did July, August… into the fall and winter. We didn’t get any raise at all. Sometime in November (I believe it was), the Carpenters Bay Area District Council called a mass meeting. Thousands of carpenters turned up and demanded that the council act now. We called for a strike. The whole meeting ended in chaos. That was on a Friday.

A typical construction project in the 1970s. The building trades had a lot of power back then.

The next Monday, a job steward on a large job in San Francisco picked up a block of wood and used it to keep score as he went around asking how many carpenters were willing to walk off for our increase. When all but one or two of the 50 odd carpenters said “yes”, he called them off the job and they walked together to the next job, invaded the job, and convinced the carpenters on that job to walk too.

That was the beginning of a “flying squad” that went from job to job, convincing the carpenters to walk. In almost every case, we were successful.

One Experience
I remember one instance especially clearly: A carpenter was in his car, getting ready to drive to another part of the job. I approached the drivers window to try to talk to him. After a minute, he jumped out of his car and got ready to swing at me. “Hold it a second, brother,” I said. “Are you getting the 75 cents you’re supposed to be getting?” “No,” he said. “So, in other words, every hour you’re working, you’re getting screwed out of 75 cents,” I said. This guy puased for a second. “You know what?” he said. “You’re right. Get in the car.” Then he drove around to the other side of the job and he got the rest of the crew to walk off!

For this then-27 year old carpenter, that whole wildcat strike was one of the greatest experiences of my life up until that time. It showed me what unionism is really all about.

As for the ultimate result of the strike: It was undermined by the wing of the leadership that verbally opposed the CISC demands. But one thing we did win: within a few months of the end of the strike (which lasted about six weeks), Nixon dissolved the CISC. Action is power.

Different Situations
Every situation is different. Carpenters are in a unique situation since most of us aren’t tied to one individual contractor. We go from job to job, often working for three or four contractors in a single year. So if you lose your job, it’s not that big of a deal, as long as the industry isn’t in depression. Go and find the next job. That’s one thing that makes wildcatting easier among carpenters. (We had a second big wildcat strike in 1999.)

Last year, we saw a whole series of contract proposals voted down by the members. This included the John Deere UAW strike  and the Western Washington carpenters among others. In the case of the carpenters, there was the beginnings of a move to simply wildcat against the collaboration between the contractors and the union leadership. (Watch this video of the carpenters strike. )

Railroad Workers
Now we come to the railroad workers. It seems that congress will pass legislation prohibiting a strike. Some of the “progressive” Democrats are calling for that legislation to include additional paid sick leave. For one thing, it’s questionable whether that will stop the railroads from penalizing workers to take sick leave whether paid or not. But completely aside from that, it is doubtful whether that part will pass anyway. It is also highly doubtful that the union leadership will defy Biden and the federal government. So the question is: What will the railroad workers themselves do? As I said, carpenters are in a unique situation. Is there sufficient mood among them to risk it all? That is something that only they can decide. But keep in mind: There is a logjam in US society. Workers are being held back by our own union leadership. One powerful blow could break up this log jam, unite millions of union and class conscious workers, and start to transform America.

Action is power.

A lot more is riding on the railroads than simply the freight.

The rail yard at the Port of Los Angeles. Railroad workers have tremendous potential power.

Categories: History, labor

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