A Brief History
The history of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (BCJA) dates back to the 1880s. Its founding father, Peter J. McGuire, was just 29 years old when he and carpenters from 11 other cities met in Chicago to lay the foundation of today’s union.
The BCJA, later known as the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, attracted craftsmen from Europe who brought with them their skills and tradition of craft guilds. They came to the United States because the young country’s rapid growth offered, what seemed like, unlimited opportunities for those who could shape commercial buildings, houses, ships, wharves and warehouses. Craftsmen hoped that union membership would improve working conditions and wages and by 1885 more than 5,700 carpenters had joined McGuire’s brotherhood.
In the mid-1880s, new technology was dramatically changing many jobs and the Industrial Revolution transformed the way people did, and viewed, business. The image of the fair and considerate employer was replaced with cartoons of railroad barons and speculators. The fledging labour movement turned militant and in 1886 the federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions (the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor) called for a general strike in support of the eight hour workday. McGuire put UBC business on hold to rally support across the country for the shorter workday movement. On May 1, 1886, carpenters led marches in many major cities when more than 300,000 workers walked off their jobs. The labour action demonstrated the UBC’s power and carpenters won increased wages and shorter workdays in 53 cities. The success of the effort brought craftsmen flocking to the UBC and by September 1886, membership had grown to more than 21,000. The AFL asked the carpenters to lead a second wave of marches in 1890 and soon more key markets set workday length at eight or nine hours; UBC membership reached 55,000. The UBC began to address issues such as work site standards, death and disability benefits, and upgrading skills. Many in the construction industry fought to curb the UBC’s influence; between 1900 and 1910, employers in major cities launched an open-shop counterattack. However, the benefits of UBC apprenticeship training and the convenience of tapping into a ready labour pool through the union hiring hall reduced the effectiveness of the open-shop movement. By 1910, UBC membership had reached 200,000.
When Peter McGuire died in 1902, his successor, Frank Duffy, shifted to a more conservative approach. McGuire had been deeply interested in far-reaching social change but Duffy and his successor, William Hutcheson, focused on the rights of union carpenters and the smooth administration of the UBC.
During World War I, the UBC fought to preserve established union shops on federal construction sites. After the war, anti-union associations launched an assault labeled The American Plan. This forced the trade unions into arbitration hearings that slashed wages and weakened work rules. UBC membership dropped from 400,000 to 345,000 between 1920 and 1928. Then, just as the as anti-union sentiment was waning and trade unions were beginning to recover, the economy staggered and plummeted into the Great Depression.
By 1932, national spending on construction slumped to less than 30 percent of the 1928 spending levels. Out-of-work carpenters dropped out of the union and UBC membership slipped to 242,000. While the governments New Deal programs helped put some people back to work it was the United States entry into World War II that marked the true end of the Depression.
The demands of the wartime economy and the postwar prosperity in the United States fuelled the growth of labour organizations in general and the UBC in particular. In the 25 years after World War II, organized labour made up nearly one third of the work force but the UBC still reached the limits of its ability to meet labour demands. It was at this time that non-union contractors established a presence in the trade, especially in residential housing.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, inflation, politics, and dramatic economic shifts combined to once again create a climate that encouraged an open-shop philosophy. Unions were caught off-guard and most, including the UBC, tried to counter the non-union sector’s growing clout with outdated tactics. Although unions moved successfully to organize workers in new areas like government, union membership and influence slipped.
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the UBC “suffered a hemorrhage of members, signatories and market share. We had lost wages and benefits and political clout. We had to restructure our union. The old structure simply could not do the job. We had to replace it with a structure that could organize.” (UBC General President, Douglas J. McCarron.)
The restructuring began in 1995 with Douglas McCarron’s election to the UBC general presidency. McCarron started at the top, eliminating unnecessary officer and staff positions and in some cases, entire departments, at the UBC General Office. An inefficient district council structure was reorganized into 65 regional councils that were created to reflect construction markets. Union politics was replaced with accountability in the selection of business agents and organizers.
The structure reorganization freed up funds and staff for the UBC’s top priorities: training and organizing. The UBC commits $100 million annually to training nationwide; a national centre dedicated to training UBC instructors opened in 2001 in Las Vegas. Nearly 50,000 apprentices receive top-quality training in UBC programs. Training also supports organizing efforts as non-union contractors are beginning to recognize the cost/ value benefit of hiring skilled, professional craftsmen and non-union workers are beginning to see how UBC training puts them on a career track with potential; potential to earn fair wages with benefits.
In August 2000, McCarron was elected to a second term as general president of the UBC at the 38th General Convention. At the convention, McCarron reported that the UBC’s new direction was working and more than 60,000 new members had joined the UBC. Finally, after decades of decline, the union’s market share had begun to grow.
“The challenge it to take an active role in protecting our standards and our families in the down times, instead of being victims of the boom-and-bust cycle,” McCarron wrote in the January 2001 issue of Carpenter. “The long-term forecast depends on each of us individually- on what we do now.”