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Inside the Carpenters’ Fight for Control of Their Union

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At 5:30 am on a Monday in July, union carpenters began gathering outside Grand Central Station. A passing Teamster stopped to express solidarity and drop off some energy drinks. A middle-aged man stood a few feet away, observing the scene. A few of the workers wondered aloud if he was there to surveil them, perhaps on behalf of the contractors, or the union leadership. The atmosphere was tense and expectant—if enough carpenters showed up, the gathering could turn into a wildcat strike.

The impetus for the early-morning assembly was dissent over the New York City District Council of Carpenters’ collective bargaining agreement with the Association of the Wall-Ceiling and Carpentry Industries. The CBA had been accepted unanimously by the newly-elected 100-person District Council delegate assembly days earlier.

Before the new District Council was elected, the carpenters had been without a contract for two years. A slate of new leaders—which included more business managers, supers, and foremen than rank-and-file carpenters—swept the recent delegate elections, but the contract they accepted left some members unhappy enough to consider an unauthorized work stoppage.

The terms of the agreement were leaked to carpenters just a few days before the contract was formally agreed upon—the new union leaders did not formally disseminate the information to its members, and the union does not allow its members to directly vote on contracts. The contract included significant reductions in pension contributions, along with a so-called two-tier provision. “Two-tier,” describes a situation where workers are compensated differently for identical work, usually based on seniority. It is a long-standing scourge of unions for its effect in dividing membership and eroding wages and benefit standards. 

The controversial collective bargaining agreement also formalized a new category of worker. Previously, there were two categories: apprentices and journeypersons. The new contract included apprentices, journeypersons, and “certified journeypersons.” Under the old standard, once a worker accumulated 5,200 hours on the job, she would graduate to journeyperson status, receiving the full, higher rate. Now, a “journeyperson” will receive a B-rate. “It’s more than a $33 decrease from the certified [journeyperson] rate, around $10 less out of the wage and $23 out of the benefits, which is just insane,” says Laura Gabby, a journeyperson who has been in the union since 2012. Only upon working 10,000 hours, a number that will take a worker several years to reach, will a journeyperson graduate to certified journeyperson under the terms of the agreement.

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