Dying to be a Carpenter

Las Vegas has always been a dangerous place to be a carpenter. By the summer of 2008, workplace accidents at the $10 billion CityCenter project cost six carpenters their lives. As if the constant threat of injury on the job wasn’t enough, it turns out unemployment is even more dangerous for carpenters. According to Local 1977, eight members of the carpenters union—desperately unemployed and underwater in the mortgages— committed suicide between November 2009 and February 2010.

Las Vegas, you see, is the suicide capital of the United States and the carpenter suicides have revealed another dark side of the spreading economic panic. Over the past 12 years, according to the local coroner, an average of more than one visitor a month comes to Las Vegas to end their life. But this sad surprise of sin city tourism has taken a local turn since 2008 as economic misery settled in for a menacing Las Vegas holiday. Ten violent deaths, nearly all linked to economic anxieties, followed the carpenter suicides and marked August of 2010 as the crash of the colossal crest of “a wave of murder-suicides in the Las Vegas Valley.” One homicide detective told a local paper of the deaths, “It appears that maybe the economy is starting to take effect.”

The storm started in 2007 when Las Vegas became home to the hardest-hit zip codes in the country when it comes to home foreclosures. At the close of 2007, 741 default notices and bank repossessions made North Las Vegas (89031) the worst in the Country. An adjacent zip code, 89131, was a close second with 665 foreclosure-related filings. While the mammoth CityCenter project kept the economic wolves at bay, at least for carpenters, the bottom finally fell out in 2009. By the summer of 2010, the unemployment rate in Las Vegas hit 14.5%.

This is Las Vegas, the home of Douglas McCarron’s United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Surely there’s help for desperate carpenters in the city that drives the union. How has McCarron’s carpenters union reacted to these dire circumstances? What has the union done to deal with this growing anxiety? What could, or should, they do? After all, according to Mark Furman, the president of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, this is all just the cost of doing business. “It’s the business we’re in,” Furman told a local newspaper discussing the high levels of unemployment and stress among carpenters. “If you want to work all the time, become a public employee.” (Anywhere but Las Vegas of course, where cuts in the public sector cost 3,000 jobs in August 2010 alone.)

If this is their position—it’s just business—it seems useful to consider exactly what business Furman and McCarron think they’re in. Is it the business of defending and protecting the interests of workers? No, not for McCarron. His business is the business of Wall Street.

Furman’s comment is less a function of the cluelessness of the carpenters union leadership regarding local economic conditions than an illustration of the extent to which McCarron has turned the UBCJ into his own personal vehicle for Wall Street speculation. Much has been written about how his authoritarian leadership has undermined union democracy, but the real legacy of McCarron may well be the way in which he has contributed to the economic anxiety of rank and file carpenters. Throughout his reign at the helm of the UBCJ, he has squandered millions of pension dollars paying Wall Street advisors, invested millions more in dubious financial instruments and all the while lined the pockets of his Wall Street friends.

His most notorious schemes are the stuff of legend now. He joined the board of directors of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company (Ullico) after becoming President of the carpenters in the 1990s. There he played a central role in a massive financial scandal when Ullico officers and directors purchased shares in the telecommunications company Global Crossing based on insider information. Ullico board members gobbled up 33 million preferentially priced shares and enjoyed a $1 billion windfall when Global Crossing went public.

Global Crossing of course eventually tanked, but the Ullico board members got out. The union pension fund was left to pay the price. One thousand union members of the Communication Workers of America lost much of the value of their 401(k) savings when Global Crossing went bankrupt. “They lost everything they worked thirty, thirty-five years for, they’re devastated,” said one local member.

So, what exactly is McCarron? Is he an union leader or is he a corporate CEO? According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, he is the President of the Inland Empire Hotel Corporation, President of the RPS Resort Corporation, President and Chairman of the Santa Nella Hotel Corporation and President of the THMI Motel Corporation.

He also has been on the board of directors of the Tutor-Perini Corp., one of the largest general contractors in the United States with nearly $6 billion in annual revenue, and the board of PB Capital Partners, a derivative-trading firm owned by Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband Richard Blum.

In 2000, three retired carpenters sued Blum, claiming that he, Tutor and McCarron conspired to invest $2 billion in union pension funds. The suit claimed that Tutor and McCarron, both trustees of the Carpenters Pension Trust for Southern California, invested $27 million with Blum, who in turn used the money to invest in Perini. Blum, who was paid $54 million in consulting fees from the carpenters union pension fund, then appointed Tutor and McCarron to the board of the Perini Corporation, which eventually changed its name to Tutor-Perini.

In retaliation Blum countersued one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Horacio Grana, for libel. The lawsuit ended, however, with Grana’s death.

In the years since McCarron has consolidated his control of the union while he and his corporate crowd have grown richer and richer. Meanwhile unemployed carpenters in Las Vegas are shooting themselves in the head. “Every time I turned around,” said the local union secretary “somebody was coming into my office to say that someone just popped themselves in the head with a 9 mm or some other thing,”

Such is life and death in Douglas McCarron’s carpenters union.

DAVID CORREIA is a Visiting Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He can be reached at dcorreia(at)unm(dot)edu.



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