Welcome to the Business-Friendly Carpenter’s Union

It’s a good time to be a carpenter in New Mexico. As the rest of the United States struggles from the 2008 collapse in construction starts, New Mexico continues to attract new businesses and the construction contracts that follow. These trends have not escaped the attention of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBCJ). Over the last 18 months they have unleashed an aggressive protest campaign against non-union contractors and sub-contractors. The UBCJ has mobbed dozens of non-union job sites with signs, pickets and broadsides. At some locations the picketing has lasted more than six months. The targets have included the grocery stores, high schools, casinos and hotels that have hired non-union operators. They have even picketed the golf courses frequented by the bosses of the non-union contractors and developers.

The campaign has alarmed contractors and developers in New Mexico who have become accustomed to, and enriched by, the lower costs of the construction industry’s largely non-union workforce. But it wasn’t always this way. New Mexico locals once controlled the building trades and have a long history of innovative and progressive unionism.

In 1948 3,000 New Mexico carpenters walked off a Brown & Root (B&R) job site on the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Despite pressure from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Albuquerque and Santa Fe locals opposed the union-busting tactics of Houston-based B&R, then and now the Pentagon’s top military contractor. Lyndon Johnson himself forced B&R (today one of the world’s largest construction companies and the pentagon’s largest contractor for work in Iraq and Afghanistan) to adhere to New Mexico union contracts or risk losing valuable construction work in Vietnam.

In 1963 New Mexico’s locals, against the wishes of national union leaders, created more than a dozen non-profit construction corporations. Before the decade was out, these union-owned non-profits became the largest builder and provider of affordable housing in New Mexico. Thousands of union carpenters found work with good pay and benefits and more than 7,000 New Mexicans found reasonable rents and quality housing.

The current UBCJ campaign, however, heralds a new reactionary era of cutthroat, corporate unionism. Since at least April of 2009, Albuquerque local 1319 of the UBCJ has been protesting the use of non-union labor by construction contractors in northern New Mexico by hiring non-union laborers to stand in front of various job sites holding signs announcing the union’s complaints against non-union labor. According to some accounts, the union has contracted with day-labor companies to recruit and hire protestors-for-hire.

The carpenter’s broadsides complain about “substandard wage employers”, yet they pay their surrogate strikers $10/hour to protest the $18-$22 wages of non-union workers. The flyers direct anyone interested to contact the Albuquerque local. But the Albuquerque local refuses to talk. “They won’t let us answer any questions”, said one local officer. The Santa Fe local refused to even acknowledge the existence of a campaign at all. When pressed the Albuquerque office directed inquiries to Union Vice President Hal Jensen in the Los Angeles office. Jensen hasn’t returned a phone inquiry regarding the New Mexico campaign in over a year.

Given the tactics, the silence is understandable. A 2004 study by the New Mexico-based Southwest Center for Economic Integrity found that 86% of day laborers in New Mexico are homeless. Little good can come from trying to explain why the UBCJ preys on non-union, largely homeless, day laborers. To the President of the Española, New Mexico’s Laborer’s union, the campaign is inexplicable. For a few dollars more, he said, the carpenters could have hired union laborers. They could have supported the laborer union’s organizing efforts, undermined the predatory day-labor companies and demonstrated labor solidarity.

So what explains the predatory tactics and secrecy of the New Mexico campaign? The answer may be found in the authoritarian leadership of the 550,000-member UBCJ’s General President Douglas McCarron. Over the last ten years McCarron has remade the union into a conservative, anti-democratic, increasingly corporatized, willing and repressive tool of capital.

Today the UBCJ reflects the values of corporate America. In a Business Week article from the late 1990s, McCarron referred to carpenter’s union members as his “strong product.” “We have a product to deliver,” he said “and we have to do it more efficiently.” He has sought to position his “product” in the labor market by pitting worker against worker, pursuing growth at all costs, and replacing rank and file unionism with an authoritarian administrative structure.

McCarron has purged the union of dissidents, expelled political opponents and placed disloyal unions in trusteeship. He has removed rank and file carpenters from leadership positions within the union and replaced them with business agents who have never worked as carpenters. He has learned his corporate lessons well.

The changes under McCarron’s watch began almost immediately following his election to General President. In 1996 McCarron purged the entire leadership of the New York District Council. He shut down locals and merged District Councils in Michigan, California, Nevada, New England, Pennsylvania and New Jersey into new administrative arrangements under his direct control.

The June 1996 purge of democratically elected New York District Council leaders heralded an astonishing new era in conservative unionism. The tactics, described by rank and file carpenters in a 1998 House Sub-Committee investigation of anti-democratic practices in the UBCJ, were ripped straight from a Pinkerton’s playbook. McCarron seized the New York District office in a midnight raid complete with armed loyalists. McCarron’s union willingly did the union-busting dirty work long reserved for hired thugs and bought-off politicians. McCarron, lauded by the business press, survived the purges and federal investigations. By displacing the administrative authority of locals and District Councils into regional bodies under his own authority, McCarron has effectively centralized control and undermined rank and file democratic unionism.

Once his authority was established he cozied up to corporate leaders and Republican politicians. He became a frequent companion of former President George W. Bush on Air Force One flights, invited Bush to his Labor Day Picnic and accepted an invitation to speak at Bush’s anti-labor 2002 Economic Summit.

McCarron regularly stifles local control and dictates the terms of employment to local unions, using his business (school) agents as enforcers. Locals throughout the US and Canada have complained that McCarron routinely manipulates democratic procedures to deprive union members from voting on union contracts.

McCarron crushed a 1999 wildcat strike in Atlanta after union carpenters refused to work under a McCarron-negotiated contract with a local contractor. McCarron sided with the contractor against his own union carpenters and complained that the strikers had caused the business owner to “lose money for four days… you just don’t do that.”

When British Columbia carpenters revolted against the corporatization of the carpenters union, McCarron redbaited his rank and file carpenters in the press. “There is a high influence of the communist party” in the BC local McCarron deadpanned.

Apparently the campaign in New Mexico is standard operating procedure for McCarron’s UBCJ. According to dissident union carpenters in Chicago, it has become routine practice for the union to prey on homeless men as cheap labor to walk fake picket lines.

Union insurgents have recast McCarron’s “Organize or Die” slogan as “Organize or Lie”.

But McCarron and his flunkies are careful not to lie, of course, or better yet say anything at all, as the autocrats who designed the regressive New Mexico campaign have demonstrated. Meanwhile, the UBCJ panders to hack politicians and non-union contractors.

The corporate friendly leadership of Douglas McCarron places today’s labor movement in stark contrast with the radical leadership of people like Eugene V. Debs and Big Bill Haywood. Haywood for example refused to impose labor agreements on rank and file members. “Agreements with capitalists” he once famously said “are the death warrants of labor.”

Almost one hundred years later, McCarron has become labor’s willing executioner. The union frequently signs concessionary contracts with non-union employers (known derisively by rank and file carpenters as the Rat Brigade) that giveaway overtime pay, construct multiple wage scales, exclude women and minorities and provide for non-union hiring quotas. And he gets these contractors by preying on non-union workers to man his fake picket lines.

One of the most troubling facts in the UBCJs recent decent into corporate unions is that, in many ways, McCarron’s tactics are a logical extension of long-held conservative UBCJ values. The UBCJ invented business unionism. McCarron perfected it. Long known as the “Big Bully” of American labor, the Carpenter’s used the political clout that came from long being the largest trade union in the United States to force union contracts on contractors. Once union contracts were established the Carpenter’s business agents policed contractors and carpenters alike to enforce the union dictates that governed work on a union job site. The UBCJ has always been pro-business. McCarron’s innovation is that he has made the UBCJ not only pro-business but also anti-worker.

There is a cost to doing business the McCarron way. Local labor unions in New Mexico are distancing themselves from the carpenters and their campaign. Nationally, the Change to Win coalition, itself no bastion of rank and file unionism has turned its back on the UBCJ and its self-serving President.

While the final cost to the UBCJ and the labor movement may be difficult to gauge, the cost to the working people caught in the cross fire of McCarron’s bizarre blitzkrieg is all too easy to measure. Dozens of day laborers man campaign stations throughout Santa Fe and Albuquerque. All the protestors interviewed for this article receive $10/hour to hold signs six hours per day, four days per week. Most of the protestors walked off the streets to find these jobs. At its protest against the use of non-union subcontractors on the remodel of a new Sunflower Market store in Santa Fe, New Mexico non-union workers hold signs that decry the labor practices of non-union employers while the protestors who hold those signs receive no health insurance, accrue no sick or vacation days and have no access to union benefits. For their effort they are refused union membership or union jobs. For four days a week these men and women do the duplicitous work of the Carpenter’s Union—protecting the interests of a union that refuses to have them as members.

DAVID CORREIA is a Research Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. His is the author of many articles on environmental politics, radical New Mexico history labor history and state violence. He is currently working on a book for the University of Georgia Press on social movements and state violence. He can be reached as dcorreia@unm.edu




David Correia is the author of Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico and a co-editor of La Jicarita: An Online Magazine of Environmental Politics in New Mexico