"WE ARE THE UNION, THE ORGANIZE UNION!" ...can the Carpenters and Laborers unions reorganize the American construction industry?
These days, it's not at all unusual to go to the websites of small town newspapers all over the country, and hear some overwrought story about how horrible it is that the "local carpentry union" is picketing some scab jobsite.
The articles will go on to complain about how other, "responsible" construction unions don't picket those jobs, so why do the Carpenters have to?
No mention will be made of the low wages or abysmal working conditions at the site, or the fact that the workers (many of whom are undocumented immigrants) are in many cases being paid in cash off the books, with no benefits whatsoever, not even basic statutory coverage like unemployment, disability or workers comp.
There will quite often - either in the article or the reader comments section - be references to the "right" of clients to use the lowest paying contractors they can find, and how it's wrong for unions to object to that.
On quite a few occasions, you'll see similar articles about how a "local labors union" (by which they mean a local union of the Laborers International Union of North America - many journalists are not all that clear on the fact that "laborer" is a specific construction job title, NOT a generic term for "construction worker") is engaged in similar "unreasonable" and "irresponsible" picketing.
This is happening all over the country - from red states like Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Georgia, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona - to blue states like Oregon, California, Iowa, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, New York...pretty much anywhere they do construction (which is to say everywhere).
And, with the exception of New York City, where Painters and Ironworkers also have active organizing programs, pretty much if you see a big inflatable grey rat (who in some parts answers to the name "Scabby") and a group of union pickets in the vicinity of a construction site, it's either the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Change To Win [CTW]/Canadian Labour Congress [CLC], or the Laborers International Union of North America, CTW/CLC.
It's very fortunate that these two unions are actually organizing - considering the fact that less than 10% of the nation's 10 million construction workers work union - and close to a third of the non union workers aren't even paid on the books!
The rest of the building trades - from the larger unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the International Union of Bricklayers to smaller crafts like the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, the Untied Union of Roofers and the International Union of Elevator Constructors, could learn a lot from the UBCJA and LIUNA.
There are serious problems here - like the fact that much of the organizing done by the Carpenters and Laborers unions involves stranger picketing (labor relations-speak for using pickets who do not work for the employer in the dispute).
And some of these stranger pickets are very strange indeed.
In the Southwest, many Carpenter pickets are minimum wage immigrant day laborers.
In much of the rest of the country - and up in Canada - they hire homeless people for the job.
Of course, in heavily organized areas like New York, New Jersey, New England, Chicago and the Pacific Northwest states, the union uses actual union carpenter volunteers to staff the lines.
In this writer's section of the Carpenters Union, the New York City District Council every union carpenter working in the city - even foremen and supers, and members from out of town locals who work on New York jobsites - must spend one day every year on the picket line, or pay a $ 500 fine.
Once organized, many of these workers, in particular Latino immigrants working in residential construction, are often put to work for less than full union scale.
These "residential pay" scales - which are, in some cases, based on a piecerate (pay per board of sheetrock or lumber installed) rather than an hourly wage, and in all cases are lower than the wage paid to predominantly White carpenters on regular union jobs, are sometimes quietly referred to as "Mexican scale".
This brings up a broader racial issue.
In New York City, the trades were desegregated by a fierce armed civil rights struggle that went on for over 20 years.
This battle, led by Maoist communist-founded Black, Latino and Chinese American workers groups collectively known as "The Coalition", is chronicled in my book "DISUNITED BROTHERHOODS ...race, racketeering and the fall of the New York construction unions" [iUniverse, Lincoln, NE, 2006 available at amazon.com]
Outside of a few places - New York City; Hawaii, where the business was always almost entirely Asian; South Florida, where the trades became mostly Cuban and Mexican in the 1970's; Chicago, where Blacks and Mexicans had a small foothold; and the Deep South, where there had long been small islands of segregated all Black locals in otherwise almost all White unions - the trades stayed segregated until the unions began to collapse in the 1970's.
In much of the country, the union side is still mostly White and the non union side is almost all Latino.
So, as a practical matter, all new organizing is going to be Latino organizing now and for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps that's why only the Carpenters and Laborers, who've always had members of color, are willing to sign these brothers and sisters up?
But even then, there is a sort of schizophrenia about the whole immigration issue - a life or death matter for these workers, many of whom are undocumented.
It's also an issue these workers will risk their jobs and fight for - look at the two big national general strikes of April and May 2006, were over 4 million workers - all immigrant, mostly Latino and many from the trades - were willing to put their jobs on the line, and risk arrest and deportation, to demand amnesty.
Since those were the first serious national general strikes in this country by workers of any race SINCE 1894, perhaps the rest of us in labor should pay close attention!
Officially, LIUNA and the UBCJA support an amorphous "path to citizenship" - with lots of hoops to jump through, lots of red tape, lots of fines and lots of ways for well meaning workers to end up being flown home in chains by Homeland Security.
But, neither one of those unions has even bothered to try and win their majority White memberships to support those views on immigration.
Carpenters General President Douglas J. "Cash" McCarron and Laborers General President Terrance O'Sullivan basically imposed those positions by executive fiat, without any attempt to politically win the current White membership to support the human rights of immigrants.
"Path to citizenship" stops far short of what Latino immigrant construction workers want - but is way more than most White native born construction workers would be willing to support - in other words, it's neither fish nor fowl.
And in some parts of the UBCJA - in particular New England, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, were the union still has some strength, Carpenters Union organizers will sometimes use the threat of a call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to try and get a contractor to sign up.
In at least one recent case, in Binghamton, New York, person or persons unknown actually DID call ICE - getting a dozen Latino carpenters arrested and detained on a housing construction site.
In another case, an on post military housing job at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Nampa, Idaho, when the framing contractors' rafter shop got raided and several non union Latino carpenters were held for deportation, the UBCJA did not in any way try to come to those men's aid, even though the raid did stir up major protests among that city's immigrant workers and their families.
This is despite the UBCJA's official position that, while it only collects dues from about 500,000 North American carpenters, it is the voice, spokesman and protector of all 2.5 million carpenters in this country.
The Carpenters Union does passionately campaign against the "Coyotes" - the human traffickers who serve as low wage off the books labor subcontractors for many scab general contractors and home builders and their concrete, drywall, framing, finish carpentry and specialty subcontractors.
And the union does fight against misclassification, demanding that contractors pay all of their carpenters (and other tradespeople and laborers) on the books.
It would be logical for the union to demand full citizenship rights for the 700,000 or so Latino immigrant carpenters - and the approximately 2.3 million immigrants in the rest of the business (many of whom are undocumented)
Also, that might be the sparkplug that might trigger the kind of neighborhood, city and county wide strikes that we need to force all of the scab contractors to sign with the union at the same time.
That's how our unions were built in the 19th century, and it's the only way they will be rebuilt in the 21st!!!
But neither McCarron nor O'Sullivan are comfortable with the idea of mass movements of construction workers - in particular mass strikes, and ESPECIALLY mass strikes of Latino workers, no matter how effective they might be as organizing tactics.
McCarron actually made his career when, in 1992, the now defunct Southern California Council of Carpenters and it's constituent District Councils in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernadino, San Diego and Ventura joined an independent Mexican immigrant drywall carpenters strike and took it over.
It took Doug McCarron and his brother and fellow union leader Mike an enormous effort to take over the leadership of the strike, oust the Mexican carpenters who had built the organizing campaign from scratch on their own, and sign a low wage piece rate contract with the contractors.
Breaking that independent Mexican carpenters organizing campaign basically killed the indigenous effort to rebuild the union in residential construction - and led to the death of the SCCC and the District Councils in LA, Orange, Riverside, San Bernadino, Ventura and San Diego counties (they were all absorbed into a regional council that also includes Arizona, Nevada and Utah).
This proved that any serious organizing campaign based on a mass movement of workers was far too dangerous politically - because of it's potential to bring a big mass of activist workers into the unions, which would threaten the power of the current leadership - who aren't too comfortable with the political power, limited as it is, of their current membership!
Both of those unions - ESPECIALLY the Carpenters - have spent the last decade making their unions less democratic and accountable to the members.
In the Carpenters Union case, locals, district councils and state councils in many areas of the country have been merged into vast regional councils.
There are legitimate reasons for this - not the bogus official story that speaks of "bigger regional bodies building union power" but the ugly fact that the union's membership has been shrinking since the 1960's, despite the fact that our craft and the industry as a whole were experiencing rapid growth.
The Carpenters Union's membership fell from 800,000 in the beginning of the 1960's to less than 330,000 when McCarron took office in 1995.
Many of the locals and district councils disbanded in the mergers had become mere shells of themselves, with not enough members to sustain their existence.
But the regional mergers, while dissolving hollowed out locals and councils, also gave McCarron the opportunity to make the union less democratic - the loss of the right to elect Business Agents being one of the biggest defeats.
There are also other problems with McCarron's conception of unionism - like the idea that our primary job as a union is to make the contractors more profitable, rather than to represent and fight for the rights of carpenters.
This concept bleeds into the organizing work - in a lot of cases, including here in the New York District Council, organizing campaigns began with the recruitment of a large pool of unemployed workers to join the union as individuals, so the bosses would always have a large pool of jobless tradespeople to hire from, even in the busy part of the year.
The Laborers took the same approach when they began the organizing program in the Mason Tenders District Council here in NYC.
This rotten idea of having a pool of permanently underemployed members is actually presented as a good thing by the unions!
Along with programs like "the request system" or "portability" which let the contractors pick and choose who they hire and effectively evade recruiting workers from union hiring halls, these are some of the worst and most destructive aspects of McCarron/O'Sullivan style construction unionism!
All of that has left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of members (both the current ones and those who joined in hope of a steady job and ended up spending most of their time "on the bench").
Now, on top of all those problems, the economic meltdown adds another layer of complexity to the problem of reunionizing the building trades.
It was hard enough to try and sign up workers a year or two ago, when the business was still booming - but now, with many construction workers (union and non union alike) unemployed, and with some immigrant workers actually going home because they can no longer get a job here, organizing will be an even more difficult task.
There's another question we have to look at - how did the building trades get so deunionized in the first place?
How did an industry who's labor organizations literally date back to the 1790's, that was virtually 80% union after World War II and, in major cities like New York had virtually the entire industry working union get to a point where the majority of the business is a low wage scab industry today?
I've explored that at length in my book "DISUNITED BROTHERHOODS" and in a GANGBOX article "CONSTRUCTION, DEUNIONIZED ...the decline and fall of the building trades unions" http://www.clnews.org/forums/showthread.php?t=12279
But I will summarize the story of the rise, and fall, of the construction unions - and then get into the recent attempts to revive construction labor organizing - and I will make some recommendations of my own as to what we need to do.
The earliest local construction unions emerged in the big northeastern cities shortly after the victory of the American Revolution and the end of indentured servitude for White American workers (one of the biggest victories of 1776 for the working class of this country).
The unions weren't able to go national - in large part because slavery still existed in most of the United States, and a large portion of the urban construction workforce in places like Washington DC, Baltimore, Richmond, VA and even New York City were in fact slaves (including the carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons and laborers who built the US Capitol and the White House!)
It took the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and African Americans being granted US citizenship to make national trade unions possible (like Karl Marx said, "Labor in the White skin cannot be free while in the Black skin it is branded").
The local carpenters unions that sprang up after the Civil War were, generally, led by socialists, communists, anarchists or other radicals, some of whom were exiles from left wing movements in Germany, others of whom were home grown militants some with roots in the anti slavery movement.
They were united by their commitment to a very different America - one ruled by those who worked, rather than by bankers and investors.
Depending on their political beliefs, some of these radical worker activists viewed the contractors as allies of workers in their struggles against the dictatorship of high finance - while others saw contractors as part of the problem too.
And all of these labor activists had a vision of a "cooperative commonwealth" - basically, of a socialistic or communistic society ruled by the working class.
The best of these working class radicals were actually expansive enough to include Americans of all colors (Blacks, Latinos, White immigrants, Asians, American Indians) in their vision of a socialist future.
In any case, the typical construction union of the era was run by a "tramping committee" of worker activists who would, as the name implied, walk around their area, unionizing jobsites, signing up workers and calling impromptu strikes to make the contractors honor union rules.
The biggest of these strikes - known as 'trade movements' - were essentially city or county wide nonviolent revolts against scab contractors. Mass marches and rallies were held - often with brass marching bands (with only union musicians, of course!) with labor speeches (often translated into German, Italian, Czech, French, Yiddish, Finnish, Norwegian or whatever was the main language of immigrant tradesmen in the area) given by worker activists and a general call put out for all good tradesmen to honor the call and come to the aid of the union.
Starting in the 1860's, these local craft unions began to band together into national organizations - starting with the Bricklayers and Plasterers, who formed national unions right after the Civil War, followed by the Carpenters in the 1880's, Painters, Electricians, Ironworkers, Plumbers and Boilermakers in the 1890's and with the Laborers and Teamsters the last to form national unions in the 1900's
The "Great Upheaval" - a nationwide railroad strike in 1877 that expanded out into a sort of general rebellion of the whole labor movement - accelerated this process and the national strike for the 8 hour day on May Day 1886 made the move towards national unions really pick up the pace.
The May Day strikes not only gave the world labor movement it's official holiday, but also made the American Federation of Labor the dominant national labor body in the country - and won the 8 hour day for most big city construction workers and metal tradesmen as well!!!
But those victories - and the stable permanent trade unions they gave birth to - had a political price.
Many unions were tiring of having to economically support the many tramping committee activists who were constantly getting fired by contractors, and in many cases barred from working from any companies thanks to a new contractor tactic called "The Blacklist" (actual lists of union activists circulated by trade associations - groups of bosses who banded together to fight the unions)
So, these unions began to hire full time union officials. They were originally known as "walking delegates" and they were the direct ancestors of the Business Agents and other full time union officers of modern unions.
The walking delegates were immune from blacklisting by contractors - but, due to their responsibilities to preserve the unions as institutions, they were a conservative force in the labor movement.
The unions began to shift away from looking out for every worker and fighting for a better, socialist, worker-run world and towards compromise with the contractors - in many cases, compromises that only benefited a small, relatively privileged, part of the workforce.
This was seen most dramatically in terms of race - most construction unions began to practice blatant racism.
Black workers were, at best, put in segregated jim crow unions (particularly in the South, where it was impossible to organize the trades without signing up African American tradesmen) and at worst barred from the trades entirely.
In the West, Mexican construction workers were treated almost as shabbily as Blacks by the unions - and the many Japanese and Chinese tradesmen were subject to extreme hostility, in some cases outright lynch mob terror, condoned by and often outright led by unionists, with the intent of driving them out of the trades, and the country.
This was only the most extreme form of union acceptance of capitalist inequality - but it fit in with a broader view of the world. Unions moved away from "an injury to one is the concern of all" as the dominant ideology and towards the bosses view of the world "every man for himself - and the devil take the hindmost!"
This pro corporate, anti socialist, anti solidarity labor philosophy infected the whole labor movement as they moved towards accommodating with Corporate America.
This is why the same labor movement that had successfully led three national general strikes in less than 13 years' time - the 1877 Great Upheaval, the 1886 May Day strike for the 8 hour day and the 1890 national carpenters strike for the 8 hour day - was only able to lead one more national general strike, the Pullman Strike, in 1894.
And that strike was hobbled by, and ultimately defeated because of, the blatant in-your-face racism of the lead union, the openly socialist led American Railway Union, which barred Blacks from membership.
Since the target company, Pullman Palace Car Co. had a 90% African American workforce, and those workers had absolutely no reason in the world to support a strike by a racist anti-Black union, the strike was doomed to failure.
It would be another 112 years before American workers led another general strike - and in that case, it was an all Latino immigrant walkout, with virtually no White American (or African American) workers involved with the strike.
In any case, the construction unions, now wedded to the ideology that came to be known as "Business Unionism" had come to be, more or less, accepted by many contractors by the turn of the century.
In many communities, the bosses began to look to the unions as a stabilizing force in the industry. The unions were the only ones who did apprentice training, so having a building trades union card was basically a guarantee that a worker actually was a skilled tradesman (a very important thing for a boss to know, in an industry where casual labor was the norm and jobs were manned by hiring random workmen off the street). And, increasingly, the unions worked as a force against labor struggle, preventing strikes and walkouts and keeping the jobs up and running, in a way that the employers associations simply could not match.
In a number of large cities (Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cleveland, Providence, the big cities and major towns of New Jersey and, above all, New York City) there was a whole other side to this contractor-labor union relationship.
A criminal side.
Major contractors in those cities, faced with rampant competition from their many small and marginal competitors, had teamed up with gangsters to organize what amounted to local building cartels, to keep the small fry from undercutting the big boy's bids.
The unions ended up entering into these criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade as very junior partners who's main role was to use their union rules to block small contractors from competing with the major outfits.
In New York City, the building trades in general, and the Carpenters and Building Materials Teamsters in particular, were at the center of the local building cartel, with the head of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, Robert Brindell, at the center of the construction rackets.
Brindell later went to jail - the first labor racketeer in American history to get locked up (but by no means the last) - but the cartel survived his incarceration.
By the 1920's, contractors in most of the country had accepted the unions as vital junior partners in the industry.
The only exceptions were in California and Chicago, where real estate developer-driven anti union attacks seriously crippled the building trades unions.
The clients didn't like how the unions had helped big contractors monopolize the work - preventing the competition between contractors that kept construction costs low and developer profits high.
It was quite difficult for the unions to resist these attacks by prominent members of the capitalist class - their decades of subordination to the contractors (and, in the Chicago case, to organized crime) made mobilizing the workers to fight back a very difficult task.
This was especially true in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, where a purge was being waged against pro communist union members and local officers (attacks that were, unfortunately, largely focused on locals in California and Illinois which were at the center of resistance to the developers union busting attacks!)
As we will see later in this article, excessive union subordination to the contractors would come back again and again as a leading factor in making it hard for unions in the building trades to fight anti labor attacks.
However, outside of those two areas, the building trades actually entered the Great Depression as the strongest unions in the American Federation of Labor.
During that era of extreme labor radicalism, with widespread Communist, Socialist and Trotskyist influence among American workers, and with bosses in fear of union militants in the Congress of Industrial Organizations, many employers saw AFofL unions as by far the lesser of two evils.
New Deal-era legalization of unions also helped the building trades unions, who already had years of respectability and ties to politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties - connections that had already gotten the Davis Bacon Act passed, mandating a minimum wage scale (often close or identical to union scale, depending on the area) for all publicly funded construction.
Initially, the government had tried to run it's public construction programs non union, but having a large pool of former AFofL building trades members on those jobs - and with a large and aggressive Communist-led organization (the National Unemployed Council) leading those workers in jobsite direct actions, the feds had little choice but to deal with the building trades.
World War II, with it's huge cost-plus military construction projects (where nobody cared how much it cost because no matter what the contractors charged, the feds would pay) put the construction unions in an even more stable position.
The 1950's, with it's massive government subsidized programs to build interstate highways to link America's cities and suburban homes for the working class (or at least the White segment of that class - Blacks and Asians were barred by federally mandated racist "restrictive covenants" from purchasing those homes) - and all the associated locally funded school building and privately financed shopping mall building projects associated with the big suburban building boom - should have been the glory years for the construction trade unions.
Instead, it was the beginning of the end for them.
Thanks to Davis Bacon Act prevailing wages, and years of construction union officers cultivating very close working relationships with federal, state and local politicians, almost all of the Interstate Defense Highway System was built union - and with a few exceptions, mainly rural areas where the United Mine Workers of America had a strong presence and it's members did the work, the unions on those highway jobs were the Building Trades.
Schools, city halls, precincts, firehouses, hospitals, water treatment plants - all of that work went union too, again thanks to Davis Bacon and years of systematically supplying campaign contributions and volunteers to "pro labor" politicians.
But all the "political action" didn't help a bit with the private work - especially all the tract houses that were being rapidly thrown up in the new suburban towns.
That was a horrible miscalculation.
Vast new market areas opened up - and with the unions refusing to organize those sectors, builders became accustomed to hiring non union GC's who in turn hired scab subcontractors to do all of the specialized work of building the tract houses.
A whole new way of building houses was being developed.
In the past, builders used their own in house carpenters, bricklayers, plasterers, lathers and laborers to do the bulk of the work and only subbed out the painting, plumbing and electrical.
Now all of work was done by specialty subcontractors, supervised by a General Contractor working on behalf of the builder.
This included concrete foundation work, framing, exterior brick and stucco work, roofing, wood/aluminum siding, driveway and sidewalk building and the installation of a new interior wall covering product that only came into widespread use during WW II - drywall (often known by the trade name sheetrock).
The unions let all this work slip away from them.
As the largest trade in the residential sector, this caused the greatest damage to the Carpenters Union - especially it's failure to unionize all those new drywall outfits.
This failure was especially tragic coming at a time when the UBCJA had just absolutely triumphed in a hard fought jurisdictional battle with the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Union and the Wood, Wire and Metallic Lathers International Union over who'd have jurisdiction over the installation of the versatile new building product.
The Carpenters had defeated the Plasterers and the Lathers, and now had total control over drywall installation (except for drywall taping - plastering over the nail holes and seams left by the carpenters - the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades got that work) - but they let all this new drywall work go scab.
Which became a real problem when all the new shopping malls, retail stores, bars and restaurants began to spring up alongside the new suburban tract houses - and the same scab GC's and subs who built the suburban homes took over all that work as well - again, with no real resistance from the unions.
That became an even bigger problem in the 1960's when the larger scab outfits began to compete for the Davis Bacon public sector work that the unions had managed to hang onto.
The building trades still had their ties with the politicians - but, the banks who issued the bonds that financed those jobs saw the profit potential in having lower paid workers doing government construction work.
In more and more areas - especially in the "Right To Work" states of the South and West, where unions were very weak in general - state legislatures, under political pressure from bankers and real estate developers, began to repeal local "little Davis Bacon" laws, and to start letting scab contractors do public works jobs.
The construction unions, weakened from years of class collaboration, were incapable of organizing any kind of mass resistance to these attacks.
The crisis got even deeper in the 1970's.
First of all, the great post war economic boom that had come from America's World War II victory (and Wall Street's consequent plundering of 3/4ths of the world) was in the process of ending.
Among other things, this meant that American bosses were no longer in a position to buy labor peace from the more privileged sections of the working class, as they had been able to do since the early 1940's.
This came as quite a shock to much of the American labor leadership, who had become quite accustomed to effortlessly getting every improving economic gains for their membership (or at least the privileged layers of it) every 3 years.
Now they actually had to struggle - something union leaders were neither willing nor able to do.
This was especially true of the building trades - where generations of class partnership, racism and corruption had made them totally incapable of leading resistance to attacks by "our good union contractors".
Of course, the contractors - who still found the unions to be very useful, and who in any case passed all of the labor costs on to the clients - had problems of their own.
They were under pressure from further up the capitalist food chain - the banks, and the clients (especially big corporations and major real estate developers, the richest and most powerful of their customers).
This pressure took an organized form in 1969, when US Steel Chairman Roger Blough convened a closed door meeting of 200 of the nation's leading CEO's.
Blough and his buddies founded a corporate junta called the Construction Users Anti Inflation Roundtable (later known by the much catchier name "Business Roundtable") whos stated goal was to weaken and destroy the building trades.
First and foremost, they wanted to stop construction worker wage and benefit increases and to reduce the economic gains the tradespeople had already won.
Building trades wages had a pull effect on the compensation of unionized factory workers (especially in heavy industry) and breaking the living standards of the construction workers was intended as a dress rehearsal for the war against the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and International Association of Machinists that was to come later in the decade.
Blough and his corporate comrades also wanted to end jurisdictional disputes - the constant open ended battles between the millwright locals of the UBCJA and the Boilermakers, Pipefitters, Sheet Metal Workers, Ironworkers, Electricians and Asbestos Workers unions over who's members installed which machine - that were really expensive and time consuming.
These disputes had been going on since the 1920's - and the unions had assumed that they could keep bickering among themselves over who's people did what kind of work because the industrial maintenance sector would always stay union.
Oh how wrong they were!
The major corporations (outfits like GM, Ford, Chrysler, US Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Dow Chemicals, Du Pont ect) leaned on their industrial maintenance contractors to demand deep givebacks with the unions.
And the construction unions were not in a position to fight back.
The years of constant battles with each other and with the factory workers unions (in particular the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which had once represented machinery installers and had been driven out of the building trades by the UBCJA) prevented a unified fightback.
The scab sector made it's biggest inroad in the oil industry.
For years, both the building trades unions and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union had refused to organize "roughnecks" - oil field workers - who were viewed by the unions as a bunch of dumb cowboys and Mexicans who didn't deserve to be unionized.
OCAW was content to organize the refinery workers, and the building trades only organized refinery maintenance contractors
All the oil companies had to do was to start using non union oil field services contractors to do refinery maintenance to get deep concessions from both OCAW and the building trades unions.
The unions hung on to some of their industrial maintenance work - mainly in plants with unionized production workers - but it was by the skin of their teeth.
Meanwhile, the construction unions totally collapsed in most of rural and suburban America - the consequence of all those years of allowing the residential and retail construction sectors be entirely scab and refusing to organize.
In the South and the Intermountain West, even the big cities went non union.
Contractors in places like Atlanta, Phoenix, Miami, Dallas/Ft Worth, Houston, New Orleans, Denver, Salt Lake City, Omaha and even Washington DC would demand deep concessions - get whatever they asked for (with the Carpenters Union usually being the first to give in) and then they'd go scab anyway.
Even in California, the most heavily unionized sunbelt state, the construction unions were in full retreat - with the exception of the Bay Area and Sacramento.
A lot of those bosses would have probably preferred to stay union (a stable labor source, having a wage floor that nobody was allowed to undercut, being able to pass the high labor costs on to the client and a sense of loyalty that many bosses felt since they'd come up as union tradespeople) - but the clients were demanding reduced labor costs, and the abolition of union jurisdictional and work rules so more work could be extracted from less workers in a longer straight time workday.
The Business Roundtable - which had masterminded the attack in industrial maintenance - was also behind the scenes here, along with the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) a scab contractors association.
Some contractors tried to play both sides of the fence, by becoming "double breasted" - union on some jobs, scab on others.
Two major employers associations - the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and the International Masonry Institute (IMI) went down the same road.
This was an idea they copied from the trucking industry, where back in April 1973 the freight carriers had forced the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to let them have union and non union drivers working for different divisions of the same company, hauling the same freight - but for far less pay for the unorganized folks.
Double breasting hurt construction workers as badly as it did truck drivers, and it was as big a disaster for the building trades as it was for the Teamsters.
Those attacks reached a peak in 1978 - by that year, the majority of American construction workers had been deunionized, largely without a fight.
Outside of a few big cities in the Northeast, Midwest and the Far West, the building trades had all but collapsed.
In some of those cities (Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Minneapolis/St Paul, San Francisco, Seattle ect) the construction unions survived because of the strength of the Teamsters and the factory workers unions in those towns.
But in many of those areas (Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, the State of New Jersey, Chicago, Cleveland, Las Vegas and especially New York City) the main reason the building trades unions survived was because of their ties to the criminal syndicates known as Cosa Nostra.
The gangsters and their allies among the major contractors in those cities had long ran local cartels, that greatly limited competition and kept construction prices high in those communities - and the unions had been junior partners in those cartels.
The real estate developers and the banks who financed their jobs (and, in the case of office building construction, were often the tenants in the buildings as well) had long wanted to tame and/or break the unions as their counterparts had done elsewhere, but they were not strong enough to take on cosa nostra by themselves.
So they brought in the government to do it for them.
Within the next two decades, a wave of racketeering investigations would sweep the building trades (and the Teamsters Union - including Teamsters construction driver locals) and the government would take many locals, district councils and even one whole international union (the Laborers) under monitorship.
But even before the feds came along, the New York City construction unions had already been critically weakened by the three headed monster of union racism, gangster domination and collaboration with the contractors.
These three evils undermined the very foundations of the strongest and oldest building trades unions in North America - there had been construction unions in some form or another in the city since the 1790's, and most of the city's building trades unions had been continuously operating since the 1870's.
They had virtually 100% of the construction market unionized.
But, they either outright excluded Blacks and Latinos or they segregated them, and the unions had been part of cartels run by the major contractors and Cosa Nostra to suppress competition, keep new contractors from entering the market and keep the price of construction as high as possible through bid rigging fraud.
In the 1960's, the racial discrimination thing began to fall apart.
Starting with civil rights protests in the early 1960's, which led to lawsuits in the late 1960's, Black, Latino and Asian New Yorkers had made it clear that they would no longer allow the city's biggest blue collar industry to keep out workers of color.
Plumbers Local 1 answered by calling it's biggest strike ever - and the local's only strike during the 20th century - with the explicit intention of preserving jim crow segregation in the mechanical trades.
The local called out 15,000 plumbers in Manhattan and the Bronx to block 4 Puerto Ricans and an African American man from getting jobs as plumbers on the Hunts Point Terminal Market job (all 5 were licensed master plumbers and were actually overqualified for the journeymen plumber jobs they were trying to get).
That strike failed.
And, the building trades found themselves facing off against "the Coalition".
That was the generic name for groups of Black, Latino and Chinese workers who would march onto jobsites and stop all production until the site was integrated.
The first Coalition - Harlem Fightback - was founded by African American Maoist Communists from Harlem, but within a few years there were a number of spinoff groups inspired by Fightback - eventually there would be over 60 groups - some all Black, some mixed African American and Latino, some all Latino and one that was all Chinese.
Since the Carpenters and Laborers were, at least on paper, "open trades" - that is, if you could get a job with a union contractor, they had to let you join the union, no questions asked - this rapidly integrated the trades.
Also, their very militant tactic of entering the jobsites in large groups was actually perfectly legal under the agreements of those two unions with their contractors - "shaping up" was a customary way of looking for work, and it was still common at that time for large groups of men to go onto a site seeking employment.
The fact that coalition members typically brought along lead pipes and heavy chains (to protect themselves from some of the more intolerant White tradesmen) did not make their tactic any less union contract sanctioned.
Meanwhile, while the Coalitions were shaking things up on the racial front, on the management side the city was having an enormous building boom - much of which was taxpayer subsidized.
The City of New York took out $ 784 million in short term high interest loans, and gave that money to developers in the form of long term low interest loans, to pay for the building of luxury housing in Manhattan.
The problem was, when the loans came due in 1975, the city didn't have the money to pay, since the developers loans hadn't matured yet.
So, the City of New York went bankrupt over those loans, and it's finances were taken into receivership by the banks who held most of the city's debt.
At the same time, the repeal of the city's rent control laws in 1971 had led to an epidemic of landlords forcibly evicting tenants so they could either abandon low rent buildings totally or replace the existing tenants with folks who could pay more.
In many parts of the city (in particular areas that were largely Black or Latino) landlords simply burned down their low rent properties for the insurance.
This wave of landlord arson and terrorism also crested in 1975.
The main effect the city's bankruptcy had on construction workers was the immediate stopping of many construction jobs across the city.
Tens of thousands of New York construction workers were thrown out of work, with no prospects of another job any time soon.
20% of the industry (50,000 of the business' quarter million workers) left the trades forever as a result.
The New York construction industry recovered in that pivotal year 1978.
The City of New York again was paying for much of the work - both the restarted public works jobs and the effort to rebuild the burnt out tenements (as housing for more affluent New Yorkers, a process that came to be known as "gentrification")
But there was a big difference from earlier days.
Before, every city-funded job was built 100% union.
Now, on the housing renovation jobs, the city laundered the public funds through not for profit community organizations, who would hire low paying scab contractors to do the work.
Since, on paper, it became private money as soon as the funds changed hands, this violation of federal, state and city Davis Bacon regulations was perfectly legal.
The unions offered no organized resistance to this.
The largest trade in residential construction - the Carpenters - led the way in inaction.
This was in large part because many unionized drywall contractors were bidding on these jobs - using union carpenters, known as "lumpers", who were secretly and illegally paid less than union scale.
While this direct attack was happening, the NYC Building and Construction Trades Council was busy mobilizing it's affiliates to offer pay and benefit cuts on so called "renovation" jobs (a term which was soon distorted to include most of the jobs in the city).
Only one small construction union stood up, Drywall Tapers local 1974 of District Council # 9, International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades.
The drywall contractors - and Cosa Nostra's Genovese Family, the main mafia group in the New York building trades - came down on local 1974 like a ton of bricks. And the other construction unions stood by and let it happen.
The contractors and the wiseguys even set up a rival drywall tapers company union, Drywall Tapers & Plasterers local 530, affiliated with the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Union, to supply scabs to break the strike.
The strike was broken by the mobsters and their puppet union.
This great success by the wiseguys and the contractors actually triggered the feds to probe the drywall industry - contractors were billing clients as if they paid union, but were actually paying scab wages, and this seriously upset the developers.
Not because they gave a damn about the workers - but because they felt they were being ripped off, and that all the labor cost savings of reduced carpenter and taper pay should go to the developers, instead of being pocketed by the contractors and the gangsters.
The government agreed with the developers, and leaned on the contractors, the gangsters and ESPECIALLY on the unions.
Meanwhile, openly non union contractors began to displace the dirty union outfits from the residential sector. Those scab outfits found a ready made source of labor in the Coalitions - who, after all, were based in the inner city neighborhoods where the jobs were, and who had lots of hungry members who had spent most of the mid 70's out of work and were desperate for a job, even if it was for far less than union scale.
This led to many of the coalitions becoming as corrupted as the unions - with some of the groups actually serving as enforcers for contractors to keep other coalitions from shaping up at their jobsites.
The coalitions ended up being targeted by the feds too - not so much for the corruption but because they fought for jobs for their members.
In the other big cities where the unions had survived, the process of union decay wasn't as dramatic as in New York City, or the kind of total union oblivion that swept the South, the Intermountain West and Southern California.
In any case, the building trades unions - which still controlled 80% of the trades as late as the 1960's - entered the 1990's with less than 20% of the business unionized.
Some of the construction unions were surprisingly complacent about this.
Unions who's crafts required extensive formal training - Electricians, Elevator Constructors, Plumbers, Boilermakers, Sheet Metal Workers, Operating Engineers - basically tried to coast on their union's elaborate vocational school infrastructure.
Astonishingly, some of these unions have retained that same attitude even as the ABC began setting up scab training programs in many areas.
Even in New York City - where state law requires electricians be licensed - a low wage sweetheart contract union, local 363 (a rogue Teamsters local now affiliated to the corrupt "United Service Workers of America"), set up an electrical trade school.
It's nowhere as good as Electricians local 3's school - but it's just adequate enough to be certified by the New York State Department of Labor, and to get it's graduates licensed as electricians.
In some parts of the country, some of these unions - in particular the Electricians and the Operating Engineers - tried to stem the non union tide by ill conceived "market retention" schemes, including using deductions from members wages to directly subsidize real estate developers that used union labor.
By and large, they didn't do any actual organizing of non union tradespeople.
Other unions who weren't protected by training or licensing requirements were remarkably complacent too. The collapse of the union sector did not motivate the leaders of the Plasterers & Cement Masons, Bricklayers, Ironworkers, Roofers or Painters to do any serious organizing.
It did motivate the leadership of the Lathers Union to disband their organization - New York Lathers local 46, by far the largest affiliate of that union, became a local of the Ironworkers Union, the rest of the union was absorbed by the Carpenters.
As for the Teamsters, that union had a lot more problems to worry about - the federal racketeering monitorship, the collapse of their membership in the freight sector (from 450,000 to 180,000 - at a time when the industry was growing) the implosion in sea freight hauling (from 50,000 to less than a thousand members) ...the building materials driver segment of that union was one of the few areas where the Teamsters leadership did NOT have a wholesale crisis on their hands.
This left the Carpenters and the Laborers.
The Laborers International Union had a huge non construction membership - mail handlers at the United States Postal Service, civil service workers in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, the Navajo Indian Reservation and the Indian Health Service - who made up a majority of the union's membership.
But, the core of the union always had been the construction side, so they couldn't let that slip away.
And, since laborer work, by definition, is unskilled work, there was no question of using training or licensing as a barrier to limit market penetration by scab outfits.
Plus, the Laborers - always the construction union with the closest ties to Cosa Nostra - faced a Teamsters-style federal monitorship of their entire international union.
Since in many areas gangsters had let companies go non union (or be nominally union but pay scab wages, while billing union labor prices) as the unions collapsed, the feds put the Laborers under a lot of pressure to clean up the scabified conditions the wiseguys had created in many areas (New York City, New Jersey ect).
This was NOT because the government cared about the superexploitation of laborers - but because those contractors were unfair competitors to outfits that actually paid union scale, and they were defrauding their clients by billing union scale prices while paying scab wages.
The Carpenters Union had even more serious problems.
Its membership was almost entirely composed of construction workers (and the non building trades members were sawmill workers - jobs that were very closely tied to the construction industry).
This meant that a decline in the UBCJA's construction membership would put the union at risk of collapse.
The Carpenters had suffered colossal membership loss - from almost 800,000 members in the 1960's down to only 330,000 in the 1990's. Locals and District Councils had actually folded due to this membership freefall.
Their racketeering issues weren't as bad as the Laborers - but one of the biggest district councils - New York - ended up being taken under federal monitorship, where it remains to this day.
Even then, the real push to organize the deunionized came from the jobsites of Southern California's "Inland Empire" region - specifically from Mexican immigrant carpenters - and their Mexican American ex union member "jefes" [literally "chiefs" - leadmen on non union jobsites].
The homebuilding sector in Southern California had been unionized from the 1930's right up until the 1970's, when the unions collapsed in that sector, for essentially the same reasons that the unions disintegrated in other areas of the country.
The Carpenters Union, by far the largest union in homebuilding, got hit the hardest.
Of course, to a large degree this was a crisis of the UBCJA's own making.
Just like everywhere else in the country, they had let builders get away with using scab subcontractors - and as those subcontractors grew, they took more and more work away from the union outfits, and some even branched out into other sectors like retail construction and Davis Bacon work.
The Southern California Council of Carpenters responded with pay cuts - and even went so far as to let union contractors pay by the piece, like the scabs did.
Of course, the Carpenters Union had originally been founded in part for the specific reason of ABOLISHING PIECEWORK and the practice was banned by the union in 1881.
All that retreat did was embolden the scab outfits, and the union fell apart in the Southland of California. From a high of 40,000 members in the 1960's, the UBCJA fell to only 10,000 members in the 1990's.
Many ex union carpenters stayed on in the now scabified industry - but at much lower pay and no benefits.
But, in it's lowest paying sector, the piecerate world of residential construction, White and Japanese carpenters fled that market segment in droves, leaving only a few Mexican American carpenters - and the Mexican immigrants who had been hired to replace the Anglo and Asian American tradespeople.
The union-trained Chicano carpenters became "jefes" for the scab drywall contractors - labor subcontractors, their task was to hire crews of Mexican immigrant carpenters who would be paid by the square foot to sheetrock the interiors of the houses.
The jefes would be paid a lump sum by the contractors - they could pay their crews as they saw fit, and pocket whatever was left over.
This was intended as a sweatshop-type system, where the builders and their subs would be shielded from responsibility for low wages - the low piecerates would also drive their carpenters to push themselves to work at the outer limits of human endurance, so they could actually earn a living wage.
The only thing that screwed up that plan was the ingrained pro labor mentality of the jefes, who had spent most of their careers as union carpenters and who still thought like union men, even though they now had to work scab to survive.
So, by the late 1980's a situation evolved where, at the beginning of every building season, the jefes in the Southern California residential drywall industry would organize work stoppages to compel the Pacific Drywall Association (an employers association who's main function in the union era had been negotiating with the Carpenters Union) to make it's affiliated contractors raise the lump sum fees they paid the jefes, so they could raise the piecerates they paid their carpenters.
And every season, the PDA and the contractors would raise the lump sum fees they paid in April - but cut the pay as the season went on.
So, in 1991, the jefes got together, and decided to organize an areawide strike.
They were able to put together the largest carpenters strike in the United States in modern times - involving 4,000 carpenters on over 200 jobsites scattered across San Diego, Orange, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Bernadino and Ventura counties and lasting over 6 months (over 500,000 man-days!)
The contractors recruited scabs...most of whom, ironically, were White - the very race that had fled the industry when the union was pushed out and the pay scale collapsed in the 1970's.
The strikers responded by sending pickup truck caravans of armed strikers, at times as many as 100 trucks in a convoy, to chase the scabs off the sites.
This tactic worked very well.
So well that the contractors began calling the county sheriffs department, the California Highway Patrol, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (suddenly, they "discovered" the fact that most of the carpenters they employed were undocumented immigrants).
That didn't stop the strikers - they would often fight the cops - and they often won (one time, they even succeeded in freeing 3 arrested strikers from the back of a cop's squad car).
The strike got widespread public support in the Chicano and Mexican immigrant communities in Los Angeles.
Which was not surprising - it came in the wake of Service Employees International Union local 399's successful Justice For Janitors strike - which forced downtown LA building service contractors to re unionize (they'd broken the union in 1981) and to actually pay the minimum wage to their 3,000 Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrant janitors.
There was also considerable labor unrest among Latino immigrant convention center workers, port truckers, garment and auto parts workers throughout Los Angeles.
All of these labor disputes were widely supported by working class Latinos, both immigrant and American born - and much of the Latino middle class was also very supportive of this labor upsurge as well.
In the case of the drywall carpenters, this led to Catholic churches donating their parishes as meeting spaces, food donations by local merchants and lawyers and anti poverty agency social workers providing legal and public relations assistance for the striking carpenters.
It also attracted the attention of the Southern California Council of Carpenters and it's affiliated District Councils in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernadino, Riverside, Ventura and San Diego counties.
They had shrunk from 40,000 to only 10,000 members, and were on the verge of collapse (the District Councils WOULD collapse just a few years later - they all merged and, together with the Southern Nevada District Council of Carpenters, they became a Regional Council covering the whole area).
They saw this as an opportunity to get new members on the cheap.
There was just the problem of these radical Latino carpenters leading the strike - they had to be elbowed out of the way.
The SCCC came in, offered to "help" and basically took over the negotiations with the Pacific Drywall Association (which they had used to bargain with back in the day before the association went scab).
SCCC and PDA first agreed to NOT negotiate for the 1,500 residential drywall carpenters in San Diego County.
They were abandoned by the Carpenters Union, and ended up being picked up by District Council 36 of the Painters Union, who had to bargain a separate settlement for them with the PDA.
As for the 2,500 carpenters in LA, Ventura, Orange, San Bernadino and Riverside counties, the SCCC and PDA signed a piecerate contract for them - with a big raise from what they used to get (but, of course, they would NOT be paid by the hour like the White and Japanese-American commercial carpenters in the SCCC were).
But, there was no shop steward system to actually enforce that agreement, nor was their a union job referral system and mandatory hiring from the union, so anybody who actually got serious about demanding their rights and got fired would have no way to get another job through the union.
The lack of a hiring hall or shop steward system pretty much guaranteed that this agreement was a dead letter that, like the earlier agreements the jefes had made in the past, would be quickly disregarded in the field by the contractors.
As for the jefes?
They were elbowed out of any leadership positions and the drywall carpenters became part of White led residential carpenters locals - in particular Los Angeles Westside Residential Carpenters local 1506, which happened to be the home local of Douglas J. "Cash" McCarron and his brother Mike, the leaders of the Los Angeles District Council.
"Cash" McCarron used his cooptation of this strike as a stepping stone, and it led to him becoming the next General President of the UBCJA - a post he holds to this day
[He got the nickname back when he was a residential carpenter - allegedly he had a habit of working off the books - an allegation that has never been proven, but in any case the nickname stuck]
Meanwhile, the labor upsurge that the drywall carpenters strike had been part of fizzled.
Like Cash, the leaders of the other unions that had been part of the movement learned the hard way of the dangers of getting immigrant workers in motion, in particular immigrant workers, many of whom - the Salvadorans and Guatemalans in particular - had been heavily exposed to communist politics back home and who tended to think in very radical ways.
The SEIU had gotten very uncomfortable with the labor radicalism of the LA janitors - especially when some of them decided to run for office in coalition with some of the White, Black and Chicano hospital and civil service workers who they shared local 399 with.
So the SEIU international ousted the elected officers, and jim crowed the Latino immigrant janitors out of the multiracial local 399 and into local 1877, a right wing mostly Chicano local on the other end of the state.
The Communications Workers of America, which had been a big part of the labor upsurge among port truckers, LA Convention Center workers and auto parts plant workers, suddenly pulled out of labor organizing in Southern California.
The port truckers went back to the Teamsters (the union that had abandoned them in the 1970's) and are still awaiting re unionization by that union to this day.
As for the Convention Center, the CWA decided to back off from challenging the jurisdictions of the existing trade show unions, Decorators local 831 of the Painters Union, Electricians local 11 and Teamsters local 986 - all of whom had longstanding relationships with the decorating contractors, exhibit houses and trade show freight hauling companies, none of whom wanted to change unions (no matter what some of the workers may have wanted).
As for the auto parts workers?
That organizing campaign, part of a broader "Alameda Corridor" factory worker unionization drive that the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers of America and International Association of Machinsts also had a piece of, basically fizzled up and died on the vine (the CWA's pulling out was the final straw that killed it).
And the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, which were both rapidly decaying in the South and the Southwest and on the verge of disintegration in New York, also abandoned their organizing drives among garment workers in downtown LA.
The failure of these unionization drives, the abandonment of all those pro union immigrant workers (who risked not only firing but deportation to fight for their right to unionize) by the CWA, ILGWU, ACTWU, UAW, USWA and IAM and the SEIU's attacks on the workers who had led the janitors strike on the picket lines served to alienate a lot of the pro union Latino workers.
Some of the backwash from those betrayals - plus anger at how the UBCJA had elbowed out the first line leadership of the drywall strike - had a bad effect on the Carpenters Union's organizing campaigns.
The union's drive to organize the residential framers - which was as top down as the drywall strike was grassroots - fizzled and collapsed in large part because of those factors.
Plus the framers could see right in front of them exactly how the drywall contractors had restored scab pay and conditions for their carpenters and had basically made the union contract a dead let