Comments on the Carpenters and “The State of Today’s Trade Union Movement”
wanted to address the comments Roland Sheppard makes about the United
Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC), an organization I’ve been a member of for
almost 20 years. The recent disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO has caused a lot of
confusion and dissatisfaction in the ranks of the Carpenters union. I’m
currently the steward on a fairly large job (in excess of 30 carpenters). I’ve
used my position to try to explain the situation and the dangers it presents to
the union, and to the building trades as a whole, to my coworkers.
is using his supposed differences with Sweeney and the Building Trades
bureaucracy to bolster his image as a “reformer.” Some so-called leftists
have seen the disaffiliation of the Carpenters as a “progressive” act,
because of McCarron’s rhetoric against the bureaucracy that has been built up
by the Sweeney team and because he’s criticized the lack of emphasis on
organizing by the Building Trades. Cuts in staff in the UBC by McCarron at the
International Union level often just reflect changes in job title. Where a
person was a functionary one day, they became an “organizer” the next. It’s
all smoke and mirrors.
Sheppard is completely correct in identifying McCarron as an agent of the
contractors. Speaking before the National Erectors Association, McCarron told
contractors, “You need the freedom to assign the work based on what makes
sense, what makes us all competitive on the job. Surely we’ve learned that
much. While industry was demanding more for its construction dollar, our answer
was to shut down your job while we argued over whether an ironworker or a
millwright did your rigging. We not only refused to help solve the problem, but
we refused to admit there was a problem.”
biggest immediate danger is jurisdictional warfare in the trades. McCarron has
apparently signed up the drywall finishers local in Baltimore, though this work
is under the Painters Union jurisdiction. In Philly, the Ironworkers are trying
to claim scaffolding work, which is usually Carpenters work. Millwright
(machinery installation) work is under the Carpenters union. Since the
disaffiliation, the Boilermakers are claiming this work in total and have gone
as far as sending letters to millwright locals asking them to leave the UBC and
join the Boilermakers. I’ve yet to hear of large-scale raiding by the UBC, and
I think that the majority of our members won’t support such action.
will be more dangerous as a result of McCarron’s actions. Construction workers
take threats to their work seriously and I expect the worst. I haven’t heard
of fights on jobs yet, but wait until work slows down considerably. Open
physical conflict between trades is possible if the Carpenters engage in raiding
other unions’ jurisdictions.
set the stage for this disaffiliation in his first term as General President.
During that time he “reorganized” the union to make it “more efficient”
and “more in tune with the current construction economy.” In other words,
more contractor-friendly. What this means is that locals were robbed of their
autonomy and consolidated into Regional Councils that are ruled over by powerful
Executive Secretary-Treasurers who serve at the pleasure of McCarron. We can no
longer vote for our Business Agents, and all substantive business is conducted
by council delegates, most of whom are yes men. Locals are reduced to shells
with little power beyond dues collection and organizing picnics. Many of the
reported gains made through organizing are due to the current construction boom
and will dissipate as jobs become more scarce.
carpenters have formed Carpenters for a Democratic Union International, but the
CDUI has had a hard time getting off the ground due to lack of resources,
infighting, and fear of rocking the boat during a construction boom, among some
members. One of our central demands is one member, one vote for every position
from Business Agent to General President. We favor direct membership votes on
all contracts and direct election of convention delegates. We’ve also publicly
opposed leaving the AFL-CIO. One of our greatest fears is that Mac will turn us
into a version of Manpower, Inc.
Sheppard correctly identifies the nature of the trade union bureaucracy in his
document, and it is one main task of opposition groups in unions to explain how
and why our leaders sell us out to the boss. Too often, caucus formations take
economist positions, choosing to concentrate purely on contract struggles.
believe that opposition caucuses are essential tools in making the unions more
democratic and more of an instrument of class struggle. Socialists also need to
pursue political action outside of the unions in community struggles and in
cross-union formations like the Labor Party. It is extremely important for
socialists to be up front with their politics in order to win radicalizing
workers to socialist ideas. Too often socialist activists in the unions hide
their politics because they feel that the workers aren’t ready.
want to thank Roland for his contribution to this important discussion.
in struggle, John Kirkland, Local 1462 Carpenter and CDUI steering committee