A Brief History
The history of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (BCJA) dates back to the 1880s. It’s 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 who brought from Europe their skills and their 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 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 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 hours workday in 1886. McGuire put UBC business on hold and crisscrossed the country to rally support for the shorter workday movement. On May 1, 1886, carpenters led arches in 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 in 1890, and more key markets set workday length at eight or nine hours- and 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. But the benefits of UBC apprenticeship training and the convenience of tapping a ready labour pool through the union hiring hall reduced the effectiveness of open-shop movements. By 1910, UBC membership has reached 200,000.
Peter McGuire died in 1902, and 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 labelled The American Plan, forcing trade unions into arbitration hearing that slashed wages and weakened work rules. UBC membership dropped from 400,000 in 1920 to 345,000 in 1928. But as anti-union sentiment waned and trade unions began to recover, the economy staggered, then 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. And while New Deal programs helped put some people back to work, the U.S. entry into World War II 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 particular. In the 25 years after World War II, organized labour gathered in nearly a third of the work force, and UBC membership reached its peak of ability to meet labour demands- and non-union contractors established a presence especially in residential housing.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, inflation, politics, and dramatic economic shifts combined to create a climate that encouraged an open-shop philosophy. Unions were caught off-guard, most, including the UBC, tired 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 haemorrhage of members, signatories and market share, “ wrote General President Douglas J. McCarron. “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.”
The restructuring began in 1995 with McCarron’s election to the UBC general presidency. McCarron started at the top, eliminating unnecessary officer and staff positions- 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. And union politics were removed from the selection of business agents and organizers and replaced with accountability.
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 nation wide; a national centre dedicated to training UBC instructors opened in 2001 in Las Vegas, and nearly 50,000 apprentices were receiving top-quality training in UBC programs. Training also supports organizing efforts. 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 and potential- the 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- more than 60,000 new members had joined the UBC, and, 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.”