In reorganizing the Carpenters union around the country, International President Douglas McCarron has created a council structure so monarchical and so autocratic that rank-and-file members and some local leaders find it impossible to break. Discontent has been festering throughout the Carpenters union, but member who would resist see no way out and nowhere to turn. Now perhaps dizzy with success, McCarron has gone to extremes in abolishing locals and combing councils in upstate New York and New Jersey. In sheer frustration, one group on New Jersey and another in New York have seceded from the Carpenters to set up their own independent unions – a difficult and perilous road.
Meanwhile, having succeeded in subduing his own membership, McCarron is at war with the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department. The Carpenters union left the AFL-CIO more than ten years ago to go its own way in construction. The AFL-CIO BTD and it’s affiliated unions denounce McCarron, charging him with raiding other trades and disrupting their efforts to reach project labor agreements with contractors intended to assure a union presence in major construction projects. An AFL-CIO BTD website specially devoted to criticizing McCarron -- Preserve Our Craft – reproduces anti-McCarron speeches by the presidents of major construction unions. Carpenters who left McCarron’s union can count on a measure of support from the AFL-CIO. Whether that support will be enough to transform their action from a protest gesture to a formidable challenge remains to be seen.
New York City remains a special case. For twenty years, the New York City District Council of Carpenters has been under Federal court monitorship intended to eradicate corruption, to that the union in New York City is the only area where McCarron has failed to establish total control. But shoe were twenty years of ineffectual Federal intervention: mostly ineffective monitory; and an irresolute judge. At last, under a new presiding judge, a new Federal monitor, Dennis Walsh, was armed with extensive new powers to get rid of crooks and reform the union. He has indeed ousted some corrupt officials; he has encouraged members to come forward; he has arranged meetings where they can speak their mind and has listened patiently to their suggestions – something new in the union. Members have responded, revealing the seething discontent that pervades the city’s carpenter unions as it does everywhere in the nation.
But at this point, what seemed at first to offer hope for a successful surge of decency and democracy is in danger of fizzling out in failure. Protesting rank and filers cry out, but individually on their own, without coordination. One articulate member, Michael Bilello presents a long discursive statement to Walsh and the judge, expressing his discontent with life in district council. William Lebo, offers his own version of protest against arbitrary rule. John Musumeci runs his own w3ebsite which keeps information about the union flowing, provides a platform for dozens of member to sound off against the leadership and offers news and comments on the state of the labor movement and society. Nevertheless, the crucial lack in New York City is that no group has coalesced to give form to the discontent, to formulate a comprehensive reform program, and offer an alternative leadership.
Rank and file discontent was on full display at extensive hearings before the judge on June 8. Members were allowed, even encouraged, to comment on reports of Review Officer Walsh, his appointees, and on proposals from the international union officials. And comment they did, venting dissatisfaction on pension plans, on their loss of rights, on the reorganization of locals, on job referrals, on arbitrary rule. But it came off as frustration without focus.
The mood of the day was nicely expressed in two little incidents: *Patrick Nee, an insurgent who had recently been elected president of the 10,4000-member Local 157, told the judge that he had to take time off from work to testify because the union did not permit him to receive a union salary.* When Dan Franco criticized the autocratic structure of the carpenters union the judge was puzzled. “I don’t understand your point,” he interjected.
In a mixed atmosphere of complexity, confusion, and frustration, Douglas McCarron, international president, knows exactly what he wants. He obviously wants to end the Federal monitorship and put New York in lockstep with the rest of the country. Toward that end, he has submitted to the judge a set of proposed council bylaws that would make it the same kind of autocratic fiefdom that is standard in the Carpenters union.
In effect through the lawyers, he tells the judge: give me the same sweeping, unchecked power I possess everywhere else, and I will keep the union corruption-free. In the hearings before Judge Berman, Walsh says he will negotiate with the union for amendments to the bylaws. It would be like proposing to resolve dictatorship in North Africa by agreeing upon a few constitutional modifications.
At the June 8 hearing, none of the participants called forthrightly and explicitly for the rejection of McCarron’s bylaws and the formulation of an alternative that would restore some of the functions and rights of locals and local officers and would assure members of some control over business reps and stewards and rights over the negotiation and ratification of contracts. We can understand how unsophisticated rank and filers might fall short. But lawyers who represented some of them did no better.
Meanwhile, the calendar seems to set for elections. Local council delegates will be elected in October. The execute secretary/treasurer will be elected by direct membership mail ballot, supervised by the American Arbitration Association. What conditions must aspiring candidates fulfill to be nominated? Not yet specified.
It would be ironic if McCarron, by victory in New York City, could offset the new challenges from those insurgents who are now encouraged by the AFL-CIO.
For the first time Douglas McCarron, international president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, faces rank-and-file resistance to his authoritarian reorganization of the union that he cannot simply dismiss with a contemptuous shrug of the bureaucratic shoulder. In June, a group of carpenters in New Jersey announced on their website that they were leaving UBC to for their own independent union, New Jersey Carpenters United, and would seek to displace the UBC as the recognized collective bargaining agent in New Jersey. A few days later, in July, carpenters in upstate New York – around Albany area – broke away to take the same road. Richard Dorrough, who had been a member of the UBC local 370 (just dissolved), formally resigned from the UBC to help lead the new independent carpenters union.
The breakaway was provoked by an abruptly announced UBC decision, this spring, to establish a new Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters. It is a monster of a creation, that apparently exceeds in bureaucratic complexity, anything invented earlier by the UBC top leadership. Two regional councils, one in New Jersey the other in upstate New York, were dissolved and merged into one, representing 30,000 carpenters. Members of the thirty-five locals were notified that their locals had been dissolved and replaced by eight geographically defined locals and five specialty-skills locals. Members were directed to make bewildering choices: In which 78 NJ/NY counties are you willing to work? In which of 39 skills are you qualified? They were advised to sign an extraordinary sweeping checkoff authorization, one that would mandate payroll deductions to the union even after a worker had ceased to work in the industry.
Resentment reached a level of outrage so intense that the disaffected carpenters saw no avenue of recourse within their union. Leaving their established international can be risky because in ‘normal’ times it is discouragingly difficult – virtual impossible – for any new independent union to supplant an established building trades union.
However, these are not ‘normal’ times in construction. For one thing, The Carpenters union has gone to extremes in authoritarian concentration. Its leadership has wielded power, unchecked and confident, even though resentment in the ranks has been simmering throughout the country. But events in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere reveal that there is a new element that alters the power balance. The Carpenters union seceded from the AFL-CIO years ago, to be totally unrestrained in its operations. It joined Andy Stern’s Change to Win coalition, apparently to strengthen itself against the AFL-CIO, but it pulled out when C-t-W went nowhere. At this point the AFL-CIO Building Trades unions look upon the Carpenters as a dangerous rival, fearing that it harbors imperialist ambitions against the other trades; a special BTD website, “Respect our Crafts,” announces its objective bluntly: “To prevent the spread of an insidious and poisonous plague of ‘raiding’ the work of other crafts… by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters under the leadership of it’s General President Doug McCarron.” And so, the dissidents breaking away from the Carpenters union, at least for now, can count on a measure of support from the AFL-CIO.
In St. Louis, the Carpenters union has charted an electricians local that offers friendly terms to electrical contractors. When Andrew Price, a member of the Carpenters Local 638 and a St. Louis council delegate campaigned publicly against the establishment of an electrician’s local, he was charged with “dual unionism.” But Price beat off the charges; an experienced law firm represents AFL-CIO construction unions sued on his behalf in Federal court; the judge voided the charges.
When 68 carpenters met on July 11 in Albany and voted to establish a new local union independent of the UBC, Richard Furlong, of the firm Lipsitz, Green, Scime, and Cambria was there to provide legal advice. The Lipsitz firm has represented the AFL-CIO Painters union in Buffalo for over 40 years. Jimmy Williams, Painters international president, is especially vigorous in his public denunciation of Douglas McCarron, Carpenters president.
The new unions will be canvassing for recruits. They have a tough job ahead; because, even with AFL-CIO endorsement, carpenters will think carefully before taking the risk of signing authorization cards. But this is one challenge that McCarron cannot simply ignore. However it may finally turn out, he is in for a fight.
The process of homogenizing and domesticating the Carpenters Union hit a snag in Minnesota in June when an opposition rank-and-file in Local 322 carried every position, including president and all 13 delegates to the district council. The defeated incumbent slate had been supported by the appointed business agents.
In preparation for the election by local delegates, scheduled for August, of the district council executive secretary treasurer, three separate locals in the Twin Cities area had been merged into one: the new Local 322. Before the merger, each local had been entitled to 13 council delegates, a total of 39. By merging them into a single local, the international reduces the representation of the 5,000 members from 39 to 13. As a new local, its officers were appointed. Apparently to make sure the new local got the proper kind of oversight, the council appointed its clerical secretary, put the position on the council payroll, and moved the local office to the district council headquarters. (We remind readers that the Carpenter locals are not permitted to pay salaries to any of their officers. The Local 322 appointed secretary would be the only full time local staff member.)
But any effort to assure that the new local would be compliant failed. Given a chance to vote, Local 322 members went from the opposition by margin of over a hundred against the business agents.