Some Comments on the Carpenters and “The State of Today’s Trade Union Movement”

by John Kirkland

I 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.

McCarron 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.

Brother 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.”

The 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.

Jobs 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.

McCarron 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.

Dissident 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.

Brother 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.

I 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.

I want to thank Roland for his contribution to this important discussion.

Yours in struggle, John Kirkland, Local 1462 Carpenter and CDUI steering committee member.