Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #3 April 3, 2001

Construction Unions Face Dilemma
As Carpenters Bolt from AFL-CIO

By Harry Kelber

The news that the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners is leaving the AFL-CIO was both a bombshell and a wake-up call for 2,000 construction union delegates representing 15 international unions at the federation’s Building and Construction Trades Dept. conference in Washington this week.

While delegates speculated about the effect of the Carpenters’ disaffiliation, BCTD President Edward C. Sullivan criticized the Carpenters’ action as “unwise and unwarranted.” He said he would discuss the matter with the construction unions” presidents to “formulate a response in the best interests of our members and our industry.”

The nation’s 320 building trades councils are in a quandary about how to deal with the Carpenters’ “go-it-alone” stance. In off-the-record conversations, several high-ranking construction union leaders said they’re reluctant to obey AFL-.CIO President John Sweeney’s order to oust the Carpenters from council membership and remove their leaders from key positions. They fear it would set off a devastating jurisdictional war and create chaos in the industry.

But if Douglas McCarron, general president of the Carpenters, goes ahead with his plan to provide contractors with a “wall-to-wall” work force, the other construction crafts will have no choice but to fight back.

In his letter of withdrawal from the AFL-CIO, McCarron told Sweeney: “Despite the strong words and good intentions, the more fundamental changes have not been addressed. The AFL-CIO continues to operate under the rules and procedures of an era that passed years ago, while the industries that employ our members change from day to day.”

McCarron added: “After five years, I have seen nothing to indicate the AFL-CIO is seriously considering changes that would cure these problems, nor do I see any realistic chance that an investment of more time or resources by the UBC will alter those facts.”

The Carpenters are now devoting more than 50% of their financial resources to organizing and have hired more than 600 organizers, McCarron said. In a few weeks, the union will open a $22 million training center in Las Vegas to upgrade the skills of its members.

McCarron’s move to abandon the AFL-CIO has little, if any, support from rank-and-file carpenters, many of whom are already upset by his restructuring of the 350,000-member union into 55 regional councils, a move that stripped local unions of their former authority.

While McCarron said very little to Sweeney about his organizing plans, he was more forthcoming in a March 23 address to the National Erectors Assn. convention in Hawaii. He told the contractors: “You need the freedom to assign the work based on what makes sense, what makes all of us competitive on the job. If there’s a dispute, let the owner settle it. It’s his money and his job. Surely, we’ve learned that much.”

“While industry was demanding more for its construction dollar,” McCarron said, “our answer was to shut down your job while we argued over whether an iron worker or a millwright did your rigging. We not only refused to help solve the problem, but we refused to admit there was a problem.” He concluded: “We’re serious about reorganizing the industry. We’re serious about customer service.”

At its quarterly executive council meeting in Boston on April 30-May 1, the AFL-CIO is expected to consider further steps to isolate the Carpenters from the rest of the labor movement.

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