Carpenter takeover in Philadelphia raises questions about democracy and accountability
a working carpenter
On February 3, long-time Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters (MRC), Ed Coryell, Sr., was booted by the Carpenters’ International from his $385,000/year post. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) stepped in early in the morning, firing business agents and organizers, who have to now reapply for their jobs, and dissolving existing locals.
The MRC, which had formerly included Southeastern PA, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia, was broken up with most of the region merged with the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters (NRCC) and other locals put in the Pittsburgh-based Council. Philadelphia-area locals were consolidated into new, larger, local unions. For example, Local 8, founded in 1881, was folded into the new Local 158 along with Locals 37, 1050, 1856, and 1073.
John Ballantyne, EST of the NRCC released a statement, “Our commitment to our members remains the same: to ensure openness, transparency and accountability in Council operations while representing the best interests of our membership.”
Rank and file carpenters are left wondering why this happened. Without a clear explanation from either the International or the NRCC, the motivation remains unclear. Some cite previous problems at the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the Carpenters were locked out after failing to meet a deadline for an agreement. Ed Coryell, Jr., his father’s heir apparent at the MRC, was blamed for this snafu.
.Where do the members fit in?
Questions remain regarding the coup on Spring Garden Street. Why was the Metropolitan Council disbanded by the UBC and why were the members not consulted about this merger? What happened to the millions of dollars in MRC and local union funds when the locals and MRC were disbanded? Why is there no direct election of officers from BA’s up to the office of General President? Why has Doug McCarron never faced a real election?
Douglas J. McCarron’s restructuring of the union, since he rose to the office of General President in 1995, has been carried out in a top-down fashion. Rank and file carpenters lost their right to vote for Business Agents and on contracts. McCarron has formed larger regional councils and consolidated locals all over the country. McCarron also withdrew the UBC from the AFL-CIO, joining the ill-fated Change to Win for a short time, and promised to build the UBC as a “wall-to-wall” union, indicating his willingness to raid the jurisdictions of other construction unions. McCarron’s rise to the top followed years of corruption at the top of the union and the ousting of a succession of General Presidents under a cloud of suspicion.
Race and the building trades
The Building Trades have traditionally been identified with racial exclusion and discrimination, acting in effect as white labor trusts. Black and Latino/a and women construction workers have faced systematic discrimination, not only in attaining union membership but also in the hiring hall after gaining union status. In Philadelphia, during the “Great Recession,” construction workers of color, and women tradespeople, have fought for fair hiring at Temple University, where large projects have been populated by mostly white and suburban workers.
In the early 1960s, the NAACP led demonstrations against Jim Crow practices in the building trades and the exclusion of Black tradesmen from jobs in the city. This struggle reached its height in a fight to integrate the site of a new junior high school in North Philadelphia. NAACP pickets, which included many Black tradespeople, blocked the work-site gates demanding the hiring of minority workers. Pickets were met with violence from white union workers and cops. After two weeks of picketing, building trades unions and contractors met with the NAACP and the AFL-CIO Human Rights Committee to iron out an agreement.
“By the time the meeting came to an end, Moore (NAACP head Cecil B. Moore) believed that the contractors had agreed to hire a Black plumber, a steamfitter and two electricians onto the Strawberry mansion site. On Tuesday morning, however, Moore and NAACP pickets found not a desegregated workforce, but rather a significantly larger police presence with orders . . . to insure that workers were able to enter the site.” (Up South, Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, by Matthew J. Countryman)
Despite promises from the unions, the overwhelmingly white male composition of building site crews persists to this day.
This long-term history of racial discrimination is reflected in the stance some in the trades have taken in relation to the movement for Black Lives. While the San Francisco Labor Council has taken a stand in solidarity with the movement to stop police violence, the trades have blocked with the reactionary cop union in opposing the SF Labor Council resolution.
What kind of trade unionism?
McCarron runs Carpenters, Inc. as a business union. The members have no say in the day-to-day life of the union and often feel disconnected from the UBC. Employers, large and small, are referred to as our “partners,” but quite often our “partners” do everything they can to screw us over in terms of jobsite working conditions, work hours, and wages. Instead of fighting for social justice, building solidarity and fighting for our class, the UBC is isolated and organized in terms of the narrow self-interest of a few members. This narrow business-unionist outlook hurts the UBC ranks in the long term as employers seize every opportunity to undermine pensions, wages and working conditions.
A fighting UBC would be struggling for a $15 hourly minimum wage and working to stop the attacks on public employees and other labor unionists. A fighting union would be working for the reconstruction of our cities on a sustainable basis instead of linking our fates to the richest developers. Instead of endorsing corporate shill Hillary Clinton, the union could be leading the charge for working class political independence. Of course, remaking the UBC requires democratic involvement of the members and accountability of the leaders from top to the bottom. This means fighting for the return of our right to vote on contracts and for all leadership positions from BAs to the General President.