One of the great labor leaders of the 19th century, Peter J. McGuire, was one of the founding fathers of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners and served as general secretary for the first 21 years.
In 1881, he organized a Chicago convention to form a union. Representatives from 11 cities joined him, and over four spirited days, they produced a constitution and structure. The UBC was born with P.J. McGuire as its first general secretary. He worked tirelessly to keep the union alive in the early years, and his efforts led to the eight-hour workday, the founding of the American Federation of Labor, and wages that more than doubled. He built union membership to more than 167,000 members by 1903. He also crafted a lasting and historical memorial to all workers—the Labor Day holiday.
In the first decade of the 20th century, an aggressive, nationwide open-shop attack was mounted against the Carpenters union. Despite the intensive efforts of open-shop employers, membership in the Carpenters union reached 200,000 by 1910. With the onset of World War I, the union faced a new challenge. Wartime needs for temporary military housing, ship building and ammunition factories pushed the federal government into a massive construction-spending program. In April 1918, the federal government approved a new system that guaranteed union shops in those areas that had them before the war. Hutcheson’s firmness preserved union standards for carpenters.
Peace brought a new and different kind of battle. Employer associations of all kinds initiated a furious assault on union labor under the label of the “American Plan.”
Contractors in Chicago insisted on a wage cut in January1921 and locked out workers after the unions rejected their demand. In June, all the crafts except the Carpenters and Painters agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration by federal judge Kennesaw Landis. The judge’s drastic decision slashed wages beyond the initial contractor proposals and weakened long-standing union work rules. The UBC refused to recognize the judgment and led the fight against the “Citizens Committee to Enforce the Landis Award” for five years until union shop conditions finally returned to Chicago. The Brotherhood survived the 1920s with 345,000 Members in 1928. The American Plan of the 1920s challenged the status of unions in the United States, but the Great Depression of the 1930s threatened the very existence of working people. After the stock market crash in 1929, unemployment rose at the astonishing rate of 4,000 workers a week. In 1932, the Chicago Carpenters District Council urged the UBC national leadership to lead the fight for an unemployment insurance system, at the same time that New Deal programs began. Rank-and-file carpenters and locals welcomed the New Deal. Unemployed carpenters were not advocating welfare or relief. They wanted jobs. They eagerly greeted President Franklin Roosevelt’s public works agencies instituted to help revive the ailing economy.
Only the monumental task of preparing for entry into World War II was finally able to generate enough work to eliminate the suffering of the jobless. The war-driven building demand and the general post-war prosperity finally provided American carpenters with reasonable opportunities and greater financial security. The post-war construction boom, however, outpaced the unions’ abilities to satisfy all of the labor requirements. As a result, a significant number of nonunion contractors began to appear on the fringes of the industry, particularly in suburban and rural homebuilding. Many unionists remained unconcerned about the potential threat of these newcomers since work was plentiful in the growing commercial and industrial construction sectors.
While union workers continued to build 80 percent of all construction in the United States as late as 1969, the reliance on bigger projects and a limited membership allowed the nonunion employers to win a foothold in the industry. In the late 1960s, escalating material costs and labor prices set off alarms in the ranks of building owners, management consultants, corporate journalists and public policy makers. In 1969, 200 of the nation’s top executives formed the Business Roundtable to put a lid on construction bills. The Roundtable built political support to weaken legislation, such as the Davis-Bacon Act that protects construction workers’ wages. It laid out a collective-bargaining agenda to eliminate union gains.
Nonunion builders, gathered under the umbrella of the Associated Builders and Contractors, took advantage of these opportunities. They sought to replace the traditional egalitarian apprentice/journeyman system with the co-called “merit shop” philosophy, in which workers are pitted against one another and have no real shot at quality training or a decent lifelong career in the trades.
“Our organization was set up to deal with the industry as it was in post-World War II North America,” said UBC General President Doug McCarron when he was elected in 1995. “But the industry has changed drastically since then, and we must change with it.” Union apprenticeship and journeyman-enhancement programs have addressed these new developments, while at the same time maintained a high level of all-around craft competence that union journeymen will always need.
The American workforce may look different today but the underlying principle of organizing all the men and women who make their living at the carpentry trade is exactly the same as it was in 1881, when 36 carpenters met in Chicago to improve their lives, their futures and their trade.