EMPIRE IN WOOD
A History of the Carpenters' Union
By ROBERT A. CHRISTIE
Copyright 1956 by Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 56-62501
Published by The New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations
also see Chapter VII: P.J. McGuire The Last Radical
The Union, the Industry, and the Carpenter: Present Day
IN THE year 1947 the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America boasted a membership of 722,000 and a treasury of $9,000,000 in cash and bonds. Few industrial and no craft unions outranked it in size, wealth, influence, or power. That its leaders stood foursquare behind the conservative policies of the American Federation of labor is understandable. Their predecessors had invented them.
The Apparent Structure of the Union
The 1947 constitution (The 1947 Constitution has been chosen because past-President William Hutcheson gave his only extensive recorded public interview in 1946 to Fortune magazine. When the constitution in effect at the time of the interview --the 1947 constitution, passed at the 1946 convention and published in 1947-- is read in conjunction with the interview, the two are more revealing than a reading of the constitution alone would be.) makes provision for a president, a secretary, a treasurer, two vice-presidents and seven executive board members. The powers of the general president are as extensive as the minds of carpenters assembled in convention could make them. After listing each of his specific powers, the constitution states that "he shall supervise the entire interests of the entire Brotherhood." Then, as an afterthought, it provided that "whenever in the judgment of the General President subordinate bodies ...are working against the best interests of the United Brotherhood ...(he) shall have the power to order said body to disband under penalty of suspension."
The first vice-president has charge of the label and of the woodworking mills which do or do not use it. He also approves the laws of all bodies subordinate to the national office. The second vice-president is given no specific duties but is essentially a troubleshooter for the general president. Directly under and appointed by the general president are the organizers or general representatives who, in spite of their importance, enjoy neither clearly defined constitutional status nor specific job tenure. The general secretary and general treasurer are clerks rather removed from the main flow of power.
The executive board is composed of seven district members who are elected by both the convention at large and four out of five of the general officers. (The second vice-president is not on the executive board.) The general president is chairman of the board and the general secretary, secretary. The executive board has charge of all trade movements and hears appeals on grievances and points of law decided by the general president. ("Trade movement" is the name given by the United Brotherhood to any demand for changed wages or working conditions.) Although inferior in power only to the convention, executive board members are subject to the beck and call of the general president who uses them to guide the activities of the various organizers, to direct organizing drives, and to assist the local organizations in the important strikes.
The most important local unit of the United Brotherhood is the district council, which is formed by all of the local unions in a clearly defined economic area, such as a small river valley or city. When ever two or more local unions exist, a district council must be formed. The district councils are given jurisdiction over collective bargaining, the framing of work rules, and the administration of national discipline. The local unions are simply dues collecting agencies.
The whole organization meets quadrennially in a convention. Representation at the convention is based on units of five hundred members, two delegates are permitted, for the second, three. Locals with more than one thousand members are limited to four delegates, and those with less that one hundred members are given one. The district councils are permitted no voting representation at the convention.
The rest of the constitution regulates strikes, benefits, finances, clearance cards, the use of the label, and disciplinary procedure. While it gives extensive powers to the national office, the constitution provides for democratic control in the event that the members should feel democratically inclined. Constitutions, however, do not create democracy; they reflect it. It is necessary to view the United Brotherhood in relation to the building industry to obtain a true picture of the union.
The Building Industry
The building industry is the prototype of those industries considered easiest for trade unions to organize. Competitive, sprawling, sporadic, and, above all, speculative, it is an industry in which the centripetal forces are few and the centrifugal forces many.
The sprawling form of the industry is due to the fact that the finished structure cannot be transported, and materials and labor are also difficult and costly to transport. Table I shows how the intercity and interstate work is done by all building contractors, and how much less by carpentry contractors alone.
Table I.-Location of Work Done by Building and Carpentry Contractors in 1938
This table demonstrates the single most important fact about the building industry; its markets are almost completely local. this fact is as basic and important for the building trades unions as it is for their industry, for both the unions and management have a localized range of interest; and different traditions, usages, and rules obtain in collective bargaining in each of the various building centers. The effect of this localized market is felt in every realm of trade union activity. Thus, while the cities shown in Table II are within easy commuting distance of each other, the sharp wage differential is obvious.
Table II.-1940 Union Wage Rates for Carpenters in New York City and Boston and Cities Within 50 Miles of Each
Source: "Local Wage Rates," The Carpenter, Vol. 60, No. 10, October 1940, pp. 35-53
Lawrence is but ten miles from Lowell. Yet Lowell carpenters received twenty-five cents an hour less in 1940 than did their fellow union members in Lawrence. This state of affairs reflects the absence of over-all, national control of wage rates. The carpenters accept these differentials as a matter of course and neither desire nor expect any such national control.
Nor does the national union exercise any more control over the other aspects of collective bargaining. In 1914 the executive board of the United Brotherhood asked the convention delegates for power to strike a given intercity employer in cities where he was unionized to force him to recognize the union elsewhere. They also asked for the corollary power to make intercity agreements with these contractors. They promised, however, that such agreements would leave "to (the union in) each locality the power of home rule as to wages hours and working conditions. This request was granted and the present-day constitution gives the board power to "make agreements with employers covering our (the United Brotherhood's) jurisdiction; provided such agreements require employers to conform with the trade rules of the district where the work is located". (italics by author)
Beyond this one provision, the constitution says nothing of national control over working conditions. It neither stipulates minimum work standards nor provides rules to guide the locals. Rather, the local unions are given complete power to "make ...trade rules for ...the members ...working in their jurisdiction."
Local autonomy is equally strong in the realm of apprenticeship. For twenty years United Brotherhood conventions toyed with the idea of a national apprenticeship system. Finally, in 1914, a special apprenticeship committee was created. The committee members found that a general apprenticeship plan "cannot apply throughout the (jurisdiction of the ) United Brotherhood ...owing to ever-varying conditions in the many localities (which) make ...one general plan ...impossible." Until 1940 every convention dealing with this problem produced some negative results. In that year a model apprentice plan was finally created. It was, however, only a guide plan providing for local option. It was admitted at the 1946 convention that few locals had picked up the option.
The label, another trade-regulating device, was created by the national union, and the rules regarding its use are detailed in the constitution. But these rules fail to force the various locals and district councils to accept only labeled material. The Pennsylvania State Carpenters' Council asked the 1924 convention delegates to make the lax label laws mandatory. The committee considering the proposal rejected it, holding that it "is impracticable and impossible to legislate local agreements by this (national) convention." In 1936, when the same dispute again arose, William Hutcheson himself stated that he could not and would not force local organizations to accept only labeled wood. The local option on label use stands at this writing.
Although the national office has long been opposed to "grading" carpenters' wages for different types of work, by 1949 at least seven different district councils had established a lower rate of wages for carpenters working on housing than those working on other types of building.
Again, the national office has traditionally favored written agreements. Yet in 1951 so large a district as that in St. Louis announced its first such agreement in thirty years. It reduced its agreement to writing at this juncture not because the national demanded it, but because local leaders felt the Taft-Hartley Act did.
Perhaps the best measure of local autonomy over economic affairs is the position of the business agent. This office, the most important in the union, is the one upon which its whole structure of trade regulation is based. Yet the present national constitution does not regulate this office in any way. In fact the constitution is completely silent on the subject of the business agent.
There will be noted throughout the history of this national union a strange absence of detail about wages, hours, and working conditions. This harks back to the localized market. The national union does not concern itself with these matters. They are not part of its history. If each of its various locals were to cut ties with the national office, local collective bargaining would proceed much as it has in the past.
There are two general types of owners: the speculative, or temporary owner, who finances construction in order to sell the building at a profit, and the permanent owner. The latter has a long-term interest in the building and will give the contractor relatively more time, since his basic investment is made for purposes to which the building itself is incidental. While delays cost him money, basic capital is not slipping away.
The speculative builder, however, has not a moment to lose. Whether he operates through a contractor or builds himself, his basic goal is to erect the structure in the least possible time. Quality of construction and skill of workmanship are secondary considerations. He operates on a cost-plus basis by adding all that the traffic will bear to construction cost. The less he pays, the greater his profit. He will not deal with a union unless forced to do so. It is this owner who, more than any individual, exaggerates the speculative element in the building industry.
Since this speculator is usually building on the basis of short-term, high-interest loans, he will turn to contractors who are also operating beyond their capital assets in order to avoid the higher prices of the firmly established contractors. Often possessing little general knowledge of the industry, these contractors perform only the organizational function of the contractor by subcontracting until the services of all of the crafts necessary to complete the job are obtained. In their turn, the subcontractors may do the same thing.
It is in degree and not in kind that the pure speculator differs from the regular contractor. While a few large contractors and intercity construction companies possess the vast capital outlay which a foundation-to-roof construction company necessitates, the majority of entrepreneurs subcontract the work in their field. A minimum of capital is thus risked in this highly speculative industry. In his testimony before the Temporary National Economic Committee, Dr. Willard Thorp presented a list of over sixteen subcontractors engaged to construct one small-scale urban home. This aggregate of subcontractors renders the building industry one of small firms and intense competition. The Temporary National Economic Committee found in 1939 that slightly over half of the firms in the industry employed only three or four workers.
The smallest firms are not regularly capitalized business ventures. They are usually no more than rogue carpenters with pretentious company names, lofty ambitions, strong backs and little capital, trying to worm their way into the contractor class. These jerry-builders threaten the standards of both the union and the established contractor. Since their small jobs take only a few days at most, the union can limit their activities only by the use of full-time, paid representatives familiar with local building activities and empowered unilaterally to strike a job. The all-powerful business agent is thus a natural outgrowth of the competitive organization of the industry as well as of its decentralization.
Because he curtails excessive and cutthroat competition, the business agent is one of the stabilizing influences in the industry. In fact the sum of his activities creates minimum wage, hour, and work quality standards which a recognized contractor or owner rarely disregards and which make for a feeling of kinship between union and management. This feeling is further enhanced by easy access to the entrepreneurial phase of the industry. It is not unusual for two United Brotherhood card holders to sit at opposite sides of the negotiating table. They bargain against a background of well over a half a century of trade unionism.
The bidding system gives this chaotic industry such financial pattern as it possesses. But it is an erratic pattern. Because a job is given to the lowest bidder, a firm's executives do not know in advance which bid will be accepted. Like other costs, the expense of estimating and bidding is pyramided as it moves through the hands of a series of contractors to the customer.
The existence of the bidding system makes the collective bargaining contract an important factor in the industry. If the contractor's bid is to estimate total costs accurately, his labor costs must be relatively stabilized. Once under a contract, the contractor cannot pass wage raises on to the owner, and a contract often runs for two or three years. An unexpected pay raise can wipe out a margin of profit based on anticipated labor costs. The bidding system thus increases the effectiveness of strikes and of the business agents empowered to call them and makes the employer vulnerable to union pressure on still another count.
Temporary Building Site
The builder is also vulnerable to unionization because he creates a highly diversified product on a series of different and temporary sites. Since he rarely knows a year in advance the location, type, or style of structures he will be called upon to erect, he is unable to maintain either an extensive inventory of materials or a permanent force of craftsmen. On one project he may need neither. Under these conditions, the erection of a large structure is a tour de force of organization. Clockwork-like delivery and installation of materials, ranging from huge steel girders to mixed concrete ready for immediate pouring, are demanded in spite of obstacles such as traffic congestion in a large city. The materials and the craftsmen who install them must be carefully marshalled and, like actors in a play, ushered to stage on cue. After the first six weeks of a job, two hundred carpenters may be replaced by hundreds of bricklayers, iron workers, and concrete men. While the builder coordinates these activities, he immobilizes interest-bearing capital, land upon which heavy taxes are paid, and, in the edifice itself, a potential source of revenue. He is penalized for each day's delay in the promised delivery date, thus giving the business agent still further power.
His constantly changing scene of production provides the building trades employer with a difficult problem of personnel recruitment. It is solved for him by the trade unions which recruit and train (by the apprenticeship program) the wide variety of skilled craftsmen needed by the industry; which maintain employment offices (the local union hall) and recruiting agents (the business agents); and which service workers by providing jobs and employers by guaranteeing delivery under any conditions of the desired number of the necessary skills upon call. In return they ask only that employers maintain certain wages, hours, and working rules, without which the unions could not recruit the labor force.
Weather affects the building industry more than most other industries. Unpredictable weather conditions make it difficult for the contractor to plan completion dates with certainty. A contractor with a building in its early stages has most of his employees working out-of-doors. A stormy week will force him to lay off most of his working force. those laid off may seek work elsewhere, on buildings where the walls and roofs are up and where all work is done indoors, safe from inclement weather. When the skies clear, the contractor may have lost a high percentage of his working force. Again the union comes into play to deliver the necessary craftsmen on few hours' notice.
Seasonality also affects the carpenter by depriving him of a large percentage of his normal working time. This factor accounts for his higher-than-average hourly wage as well as for his historical sympathy for the eight-hour day and such spread-the-work rules as may be established.
These five factors do more to lend the building industry its distinctive flavor than do a host of others which might be cited in a study of the industry itself. Nevertheless, they account only for the existence of strong district councils oriented about the activities of powerful business agents. none accounts for the existence of a national office with extensive, almost absolute, power over a working carpenter. Why have carpenters, working in a strictly localized market, placed so much power in the hands of their national officers?
The Real Structure of the Union
Part of the answer is that the local leaders have not surrendered all of their power. The Hutchesons, father William and son Maurice, have dominated the union on the national level since 1915. In national-local relations, however, there has been much rendering unto the Hutchesons the things which are the Hutchesons' and to local leaders the things which are the local leader's. The Hutchesons' power has been broadly based on the services which they have rendered to their followers. The Hutchesons are the national agents of the local business agents. The powers possessed by the Hutchesons have been obtained only under economic duress created by jurisdictional encroachments of other crafts. Since jurisdictional threats originate and can be settled only on a national scale, national power is necessary to cope with them.
The Hutchesons have been able to maintain their dominance primarily because of their skill in preserving the carpenters' jurisdiction.
When asked how to end jurisdictional strikes, Hutcheson once replied, "There's one way to settle them and only one -- give up work that carpenters have always done and are entitled to. Is that what carpenters want?" he asked rhetorically. If William Hutcheson had relaxed his jurisdictional vigilance, it is difficult to say which would have disappeared first, Hutcheson or the carpenters' craft.
Power within the union flows in a circle which can best be stepped into during a convention. The general president appoints all members of the convention committees. If rebels should manage to push an antiadministration measure around one of these committees and onto the floor, the general president has the right to silence them with a rap of his gavel. When the convention is over, he appoints the general representatives through whom he influences all district councils. District councils are ruled by a junta of officers whose election is engineered by the business agents, the basis of whose power has already been discussed. The business agents, although elected by local union members, rarely fall from grace. Power to dole out jobs and to call strikes all but guarantee tenure. The business agents, the officers of the district council, and the international representatives pick the convention delegates on the basis of their general tractability. And, in his turn, the general president has all of his powers quadrennially refreshed.
Many a delegate who has acted properly while a convention delegate has later been chosen business agent, if he was not one already. From there he moved up to a district council office; then to an appointment as a general representative; and, finally, into the general offices in Indianapolis as an executive board member or vice-president. On each level fewer persons share more power. Finally, at the top, the general president is encountered, alone.
This whole organizational structure is based upon the mass of business agents who support everything above them: the district councils, the executive board, and the general officers. Every general officer is a graduate business agent. The position of business agent is a training school for the national officers of the union. The business agents get their power from two sources: from the contractors who are vulnerable to them on all the counts already listed, and from the carpenters whom they keep employed and whose working conditions they maintain and protect. This hierarchy represents the real structure of power in the Brotherhood because it, and not the constitution, is constructed on economically realistic lines.
If carpenters want to end this tight national control, they have only to vote all of the business agents -- who alone possess direct economic power -- out of office. The rest of the machine would then crumble for lack of economic footing. While most of the reasons why carpenters have not done this relate to the laws of administrative power and of human nature, the nature of the carpenter as a craftsman helps in some measure to explain his failure to alter the United Brotherhood.
At the 1924 convention of the United Brotherhood, both the committee on the constitution and the body of the convention flatly rejected a resolution requesting that the contractor supply tools for the carpenter. This was done because, in the words of the committee, "every carpenter loves his tools and understands them." This affection strikes closely to the core of the average carpenter's attitude about his calling. He is craft proud. And, as the refusal to accept tools from his employer indicates, he is extremely independent.
Although several factors account for the carpenter's related pride and independence, his strategic position in the construction scheme is the most important. The carpenter is the key craftsman on a construction job. Carpentry alone of the building crafts can require the breadth of knowledge possessed by the architect. The carpenter with complete mastery of his calling stands almost on the same plane as the job engineer.
Unstable conditions of work also account for the independence of the carpenter. Inclement weather, the collapse of a contract because of poor financing, or jurisdictional disputes may pull out from under him overnight what he thought an assured ten-week job. Even if the unforeseen does not occur, in the normal course of events he is dropped from a job with no notice when his part is completed. The carpenter thus hops from job to job and company to company a dozen and more times a year. The company bears no grudge if he quits, and he bears none if laid off. Neither party expects notice. Consequently, if the carpenter knows his employer at all it is because he is an old-timer who has previously worked for the same firm. Usually he does not know him and, in the course of the job, will not come to know him.
Another factor accounting for the carpenter's independence is the casual nature of his trade. There is a streak of the nomad in every carpenter, and itinerancy has, in some measure, characterized the trade since guild carpentry. To this day, many carpenters hobo it around the country from job to job. Subject to immediate dismissal because of material shortages and construction schedules, the carpenter must be a person who adjusts easily to such a day-to-day existence and who does not mind a day or two, or even a week, of inactivity during which to sharpen tools, play cards, or catch up on drinking. The person who accepts such a hand-to-mouth existence is obviously not one who will readily accept responsibility nor desire a fixed schedule, a fixed income, and an assured two-week vacation with pay at the same time each year. there are many carpenters who qualify as superintendents; few will accept the responsibility of being one. The only responsibility most carpenters accept is the craft responsibility that poor workmanship on good material is a sin. To the old-time carpenter this is a creed.
When out of work, the carpenter files his name with the business agent who is, in effect, employment agent for employers and employees alike. Ostensibly, his name is put last on a list of unemployed, and he waits his turn, playing poker or pinochle in the union hall, in the nearest bar, or, and this is unusual for older carpenters, at home by his telephone.
Actually, the business agent awards jobs in order to pay political debts or on the basis of the carpenter's union seniority rather than in terms of his position on the list. A highly skilled old-timer carries much prestige, and few younger members will complain when skipped in his favor. This is shrewd politics on the part of the business agent, for many an old-timer has a sizable following of younger men who will vote with him at election time. The average old-timer, in his day, has carried a score of younger men when they learned the trade.
When the carpenter is informed of a job opening by the business agent, he packs his tools and goes to the construction site. On every job at some time during each day, there is a small knot of carpenters - one familiar with the industry can spot them immediately - standing quietly appraising it's merits. "How much carpentry remains to be done?" they ask themselves. "Does the foreman know what he is doing? Does he have control of the men? How much of the valuable inside work is there to be done?" How many 'real mechanics' (who will be awarded inside work and will be the last laid off) are there among the carpenters?" When the carpenter has answered these questions to his satisfaction, he approaches the superintendent, who hires him on the spot or not at all. The superintendent cannot estimate even a day ahead whether or not he will need more carpenters. It depends upon too many variables, such as weather and the delivery of cement. Rarely does the carpenter return if refused. There are too many jobs to cover.
Often when hired he passes the carpenter who was summarily fired. Yet there is little enmity. The other carpenter could not do the work. When the company is efficient, if you cannot deliver you get fired a few hours after starting on the job. Such summary hiring and firing make trained personnel men blanch. Yet these practices are a natural outgrowth of the impermanence and instability of the industry and the result of a half-century and more of custom and usage. In this fashion new carpenters learn the trade. The union never interferes in such summary firing practices; it asks only that union carpenters be hired.
Once hired, he changes into overalls in the carpenter's shack, shoulders his toolbox, and moves up to the building line, as carpenters have done for several centuries. He is given a 'buddy' with whom to work, and they work together quietly, rarely even asking each other's name for days after the job starts. He is expected immediately to appraise the nature of the work and to fall into the pace set by other carpenters. If he fails, in several hours, a day at the most, the foreman will tap him on the shoulder and tell him to "get your money."
Looking at the working carpenters, the older carpenters can immediately detect which men are highly skilled mechanics and which are not. The latter are "saw and hatchet men," "wood butchers," and "shoemakers." The skilled carpenter works quietly and with an almost grouchy deportment. He is expected to deliver, and if the contractor is efficient and the foreman alert, all concerned know how much he should deliver on a given kind of work. It takes days, even weeks, before an old-time carpenter will unbend sufficiently to talk with those who assist and work with him. It is "You," "Heavy," or "Slim," "get this or that." Those words which are spoken are short and to the point, and, like a well-coordinated athlete, his deftness and economy of motion belie the effort expended. Unless he is doing rough work, his work has to be true, or "plumb," to some figure under an inch.
Yet, because of their fixed ways and deep-rooted loyalties, the rank-and-file carpenters could never quite convince themselves that established leaders, proved on the practical union front, could misappropriate the union's funds, even when presented with overwhelming evidence. Fixed as they were in their ways, they are devoted to leadership which has been proved by their own un-complex standards: do they deliver? A leader either delivers or he does not. If he does not quit and is not fired, he is presumed to have delivered, and there is no need to "knock" him. The carpenter dislikes, next to the poor craftsman, the "quitter" and the "knocker." The loyal carpenter has difficulty distinguishing between sincere criticism and treachery. Consequently, in its first sixty years of existence, the United Brotherhood had but two general secretaries, one nationally elected treasurer, and three paid and full-time general presidents. These officers can be criticized for many things. They cannot be criticized for failing to reflect the spirit of the average carpenter.
There appeared in The Carpenter of July 1914 a picture of the carpenters who had erected the L. C. Smith Building. They stood on the roof of the completed building, a score or so of walrus-mustachioed old-time carpenters, glowering at the camera. Almost without exception, they had on under their overalls stiff collars, ties, and tie pins. They all wore white shirts, suit coats, and bowlers, derbies, or slouch felt hats. Those without overalls had gold watch chains and fobs stretched across their abundant middles. Their day, perhaps, has passed. The attire certainly has. But it goes a long way toward symbolizing the old-time carpenter's craft pride and character: he came to work attired like his boss. He took pride in neither wearing gloves nor getting his hands very dirty. He worked with his hat on. At the day's end he took off his overalls, folded them atop his tools in the tool shed, washed his scarcely dirty hands, straightened his tie, tipped his bowler a bit more jauntily, and sought out the nearest bar.
Although the carpenter's craft pride and independence have changed but little since the first carpenter sawed the first piece of wood in America, his industry and his union have changed greatly since then. In fact, at one time, because industrial conditions made them unnecessary, the carpenters had no unions. It is in this period that a history of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America properly begins.
also see Chapter VII: P.J. McGuire The Last Radical