What Are the Carpenters Up To?

by Charles Walker

[This article was posted on the web site Labor Tuesday for April 2, 2002. It has been edited for Labor Standard.]

Recently, veteran labor analyst Harry Kelber concluded that it wasn’t at all clear whether the Carpenters union’s leaving the AFL-CIO a year ago and the controversial changes the union now is proposing “will help or harm construction workers.” The harm that Brother Kelber has in mind is the possible outbreak of a nasty war for jobs and members waged by some construction unions against other construction unions. Kelber writes that there are persistent rumors that the union’s president, Douglas McCarron, “is planning to create his own federation of construction unions in alliance with some of the 14 other crafts. If that happens, jurisdictional warfare is sure to break out, creating chaos in the construction industry.”

There is no principle that unions must stay affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Indeed, one of the best things ever to happen to the U.S. labor movement was the break from the old AFL by the emerging CIO forces, led by the Mine Workers leader, John L. Lewis. Many of the old-line craft unionists of the AFL viewed the laboring industrial workers as “rubbish,” as Teamsters President Dan Tobin put it. If craft unionism had not been successfully challenged by industrial unionism in the 1930s, it seems more likely than not that World War II might have finished off industrial union organizing, until who knows when and with what detrimental consequences for U.S. workers.

But there is a principle that should be treated like an iron law, if labor is to be able to confront capital and stand a chance of surviving, not to speak of prevailing. That principle is workers’ solidarity, the fundamental source of workers power on the job, and in society at large.

The break from the old AFL was fully in conformity with the principle of workers’ solidarity, because to raise up the most exploited of workers tends to elevate all workers. The rise of the CIO powerfully confirms that conclusion, as partly evidenced by industrial unionism’s long-term beneficial impact on minority and female workers, laboring at the lowest rungs.

One thing is certain, the chief leaders of the Carpenters union are not on the path taken by John L. Lewis in 1935, the year the CIO began. But what are the Carpenters’ chieftains up to? And is it good, not just for working carpenters, but the wider labor movement? If the answers are to be found in the union career of the Carpenters’ president, Douglas McCarron, then Kelber and the rest of us cannot fail to conclude that McCarron is up to no good.

McCarron has established a pattern of concentrating organizational power in his own hands. In doing so he has not empowered the working carpenters who were often subjected to strongman regimes in their local unions, resting on job dispatching and patronage. Rather, as he moved up in the Carpenters union’s hierarchy, he has eliminated lower level strongmen, accumulating their power for himself. There’s no doubt that McCarron is using that power to build the Carpenters union, but a Carpenters union that may epitomize a more developed, virulent form of business unionism — the selling of workers’ labor in order to secure bureaucratic privileges and elevated rank, at the union members’ expense. The business unionist bureaucrats operate in open and in hidden collaboration with the buyers of labor, the bosses and the bosses’ political accomplices.

In the spring of 1987, McCarron broke out of the ranks of low-level Carpenters union officials, when he was elected principal officer of the Los Angeles regional council, an umbrella organization of dozens of local Carpenters unions. Less than a year later McCarron merged 18 locals into four and, what’s more, he appointed their officers, who previously would have been elected. Some carpenters objected, saying they resented being deprived of their democratic rights. They sued, but got nowhere.

 “Through the early 1990’s, McCarron kept on consolidating and expanding territory. Where he expected resistance, his agents arrived without notice, backed by uniformed police officers or sheriff’s deputies. According to old news reports and the recollection of ousted leaders, the agents grabbed books and money and changed the locks behind them.” (Los Angeles Times, March 10, 2002.)

In 1995, McCarron was elected president of the national union, after two higher officials entangled in federal legal difficulties left the union under a cloud. Since then, McCarron has eliminated 650 local unions and consolidated the treasuries and decision-making powers of the remaining 1,050 local unions into 50 councils, much as he did earlier in the Los Angeles area, which is now under the control of his brother, who heads the Southwest Region, including Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California.

Again, McCarron’s “restructuring” of the union has met some opposition. But except for British Columbia, where the carpenters have voted to break away, his opponents have failed to stop him and his accumulation of power. “At the last international carpenters’ convention, held in Chicago in August 2000, protesters,” reported the Los Angeles Times, ”were lonely voices outside the hall on a day when 91% of the delegates voted in favor of McCarron for a second term.”

This explanation for McCarron’s dominance at the convention is offered by John Kirkland, a working carpenter for nearly 20 years: “[L]ocals 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.”

The executive secretary-treasurers (EST’s) do indeed have enormous power, as evidenced by the union’s constitution. “The executive secretary-treasurer shall have the authority to appoint, hire, suspend, promote, or terminate Council representatives and organizers, subject to the approval of the executive committee of the Council.” Although the executive committee seems to be a check on the EST, the Union Democracy Review of July 1999 points out that the executive committee members can get on the union’s payroll only by appointment by the EST. The EST holds the “whip hand” because “no member of the executive committee, or anyone else, can hold any paid position in the local and none in the Council without the approval of the EST.”

In other words, the EST, in effect, controls the union’s purse strings and the paid union posts. “[O]nly a brave soul”, writes the Review, “will risk offending an EST with such awesome powers to reward friends and punish enemies.” With the regional EST’s holding the “whip hand” over the locals and the councils and the regional EST’s “serving at the pleasure” of the union’s president, Douglas McCarron, one wonders why McCarron still failed to be elected unanimously by the union’s delegates.

McCarron has tried to acquire still more power, most recently in a battle with the heads of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department. On Feb. 21, McCarron hand-delivered a letter to the department offering to rejoin the body, if certain conditions were met. His conditions included the resignation of the department’s two top officials, a complete restructuring of the department and, according to the labor newsletter, Bureau of National Affairs, of Feb. 27, “changes in the construction industry’s jurisdictional structure and weighted voting for the [department’s] affiliates.”

Given McCarron’s “restructuring” of the Carpenters union, which has increased the power of the top of the union at the expense of the local unions without protecting, let alone enlarging, the decision-making power of the ranks, working carpenters should not be disappointed that McCarron so far has not prevailed over the bureaucrats who oversee the building trades department, since it’s hard to see how a McCarron victory could serve their interests and the interests of all building trades workers.

McCarron gave an Engineering News-Record reporter (March 18), Sherie Winston, the impression that “he believed that unions had to be run like a business in order to survive.” Indeed, his rise to power began by reorganizing the union to meet demands by contractors who felt reined in by the multiplicity of local unions. “Regional contractors hated the structure and wanted it streamlined. They wanted to deal with just one jurisdiction, one set of rules, one pool of workers. ‘It was ludicrous,’ recalls [businessman Ron] Tutor, now one of the largest public works contractors in California. ‘All general contractors complained about that for years,’” Tutor told the LA Times.

McCarron has “streamlined” the union nationally, much as he did in Los Angeles. Now, he claims, the union can match the power of regional contractors. Perhaps so, but in whose interest is McCarron “streamlining” the union? McCarron often refers to carpenters as the “product.” He talks about “increasing market share.” He told Winston, “A worker’s success comes down to productivity, not just wages and benefits.” Some of McCarron’s critics are alarmed by his business terminology, fearing that his words signify that he views the Carpenters union as just another business, with one very special difference — it happens to be his business.

If anyone in the building trades seems both motivated and well equipped to start a war to the knife over jobs and workers, McCarron fills the bill. He’s got a “product” sure to interest the construction bosses, wall-to-wall contracts that simplify their life and reduce costs. Wall-to-wall contracts that freeze out workers and unions that fail to throw their lot in with his. But knives can cut both ways, and many unions are sure to fight back, perhaps offering the building bosses a better deal. Jurisdictional wars, like trade wars, can be brutal and can have unintended results. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor studies professor at Cornell University, predicts, “There will be a race to the bottom in wages and conditions.”