Inside the Carpenters’ Fight for Control of Their Union
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.
Additionally, the contract includes changes to job site ratios that workers fear may lead certified journeypersons to be asked to either work at the lesser rate or stay home. These concessions spurred the opposition, which emerged most dramatically at the mid-July rally.
Internal opposition to these new terms represents is just the latest dispute within the 20,000-member union, and another sign of growing discontent within an industry under immense pressure from nonunion competition. Last year, the union was criticized for striking a deal with Related Companies, the developer behind Hudson Yards, the biggest private real estate development in US history. Construction workers regularly picketed Related under the slogan “Count me in”—as Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said at the first #CountMeIn rally, “The first thing I want to say is that New York City is a union town, and you can count me in.” The goal was to make the development 100 percent union labor, and the carpenters’ decision to break with the rest of the New York trades created acrimony that has yet to be fully resolved.
Union leadership claims that these decisions—the acceptance of the two-tier contract and the Related deal—were necessary to win market share in a cutthroat New York real estate environment with increasing numbers of nonunion workers. But construction jobs in New York City reached record levels last year, and with major renovations planned for the Port Authority and Penn Station, there are no lack of hours to be made. And with looming cuts to the pension fund and the introduction of tiered workers, workers have reason to question the leadership’s strategy.
As delegates voted on the contract inside the Hudson Street NYC District Council of Carpenters union hall, hundreds of carpenters rallied outside to demonstrate their opposition. “The delegates were looking at us from the second-floor window and laughing at us as we were protesting out there saying, we didn’t want this contract,” says Jeffrey Nunes, an apprentice. Levi Messinetti, president of Local 157, the largest of the city’s nine carpenters’ locals, the new tier “a death blow.”
Shortly after the rally, a warning appeared on the top of the union’s website. Under the heading “Important message to all members,” the notice began: “Some malcontents among the membership have been advocating on social media and elsewhere that membership should begin a walkout from jobs on Monday, July 15.” It was a response to a motion, introduced by Nunes and passed overwhelmingly at the rally, for a wildcat strike.
The message wasn’t the only warning against the “malcontents” in the union. “I was contacted by the leadership through a robocall, through a text message, and through our website we were contacted saying that if we participated in a strike, we’d be thrown out of the union,” says Sherry (not her real name), a journeyperson who requested anonymity given the ongoing turmoil. She noted that despite all this communication, “there was never a robocall or text giving a link to our contract or to the new rates.”
Nunes notes that his employment was terminated the day following the Wednesday rally, and says he “was threatened with physical violence by the foreman” at a job site. “They’re claiming we’re spreading misinformation,” says Nunes, “but they’re deliberately withholding information from us because they know we’d want to act on it and do something about our livelihoods.” He now faces internal union charges that carry the threat of expulsion from the union, according to a letter sent to his home in the aftermath of the flareup.
Whatever the possible consequences for those who have been the most vocally opposed to the contract, union leadership’s fear-mongering was apparently effective. By 6am, there were only around 50 carpenters present—nowhere near the number needed to pull of a strike. After some deliberation, the group voted not to strike, choosing instead to channel their efforts toward building a reform caucus within the union, in hopes of taking on the leadership over the long term.
The ongoing conflict—reminiscent of a recent rebellion at UPS against a two-tier contract that was ultimately pushed through despite a majority of the membership voting it down—is a reminder that union members are not always in agreement with their leaders. This is particularly true in a union lacking in democratic mechanisms and transparency, as rank-and-filers say is the case within the carpenters.
Asked what it would take to change the union’s direction, some carpenters spoke of the need for organizing, both internally—to democratize the union—and externally, organizing nonunion workers so as to raise standards across the city. “We’re a demobilized union right now, but I don’t think it has to stay that way,” says Gabby, who pointed to efforts to democratize West Coast carpenters’ unions and the painters’ union’s mobilization in defense of undocumented members as examples to which the New York carpenters might look. “This contract doesn’t affect the people that voted for it, they’re largely not on their tools,” says Sherry, suggesting the need for an end to the practice of allowing those on the District Council’s salary to become union delegates.
While the building trades continue to be characterized as “all old white guys,” says Gabby, in part because such a demographic continues to hold leadership, “that’s very far from the case now” when it comes to the membership. Indeed, the Economic Policy Institute reports that 62 percent of New York City building trades apprentices were nonwhite in 2014, up from 36 percent in 1994. Although all workers will be affected by reductions in pension contributions, it’s these younger, more diverse members who will be hit hardest by the new contract’s shortcomings.
The trades may be seen as a bastion of conservatism (and there’s certainly some merit to that view), but that need not be the case either. After all, as one carpenter noted, the union’s co-founder, Peter J. McGuire, was a socialist. Key reforms, such as the Green New Deal—which has elicited hesitation, if not outright opposition, from some construction union leaders—“would obviously benefit us, we’d be the ones helping build the infrastructure” says Nunes. “But people have to be making those arguments within the union. So long as people are being taken advantage of by this economic system, there will always be an opportunity to organize—but members have to understand what they’re fighting for, and the leadership prevented us from doing that here by withholding the contract from the members.” Efforts to push unions on key questions such as environmental reforms are in the works, and the leaders of some unions that will be critical for such campaigns are already on board, but the process of convincing the building trades leadership to throw their considerable weight behind such programs remains.
Despite the arduous work ahead for those who want to democratize the carpenters’ union, and push back on concessions like those found in this latest contract, Sherry feels it’s more than worth the effort. “It’s hard work: a lot of sweat and a lot of blood go into building this city,” she says. “But knowing I can walk by a building and tell my friends ‘You see that? I built that.’ No one else can say that…I just want to be able to come home safe, and be paid properly for my efforts.”