Carpenters Launch International Organization for Democratic Reform

On March 4 in Boston, 100 rank and file carpenters from across the country formed the Carpenters for a Democratic Union International. It is the first national rank and file reform organization in the history of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

The group's founding conference was sponsored by the Boston carpenters' reform group, Carpenters for a Democratic Union, and the Association for Union Democracy. The conference included carpenters from reform groups in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Tacoma, New York, and other cities.

In recent years, rank and file carpenters have been pushed into action--including a wildcat strike in the San Francisco Bay Area--by the International's restructuring plan. The restructuring moved power from locals and city-based district councils to larger regional councils. The process has meant the loss of members' right to elect business agents and to vote on contracts. The new structure concentrates power in the hands of one person, the regional council's executive secretary treasurer, and reduces locals to little more than powerless administrative units that are not even permitted to hire staff or pay salaries. This process of consolidation has provoked rank and file movements all over North America.

The conference was designed to build on the discussions that have been underway among carpenters for some time (see and for links and information). Boston CDU activists like Susan and Mike Cranmer, who played a major role in organizing the conference, hoped that it would help carpenters take a step in the direction of organization on a national level.

The conference formed a 13-member temporary steering committee which includes a member from each of the regions represented; more will be added as other regions join in.

Timing was the key to the success of the conference. With delegate elections already underway for the international's August convention, it was high time to pull a national effort together.


Labor historian Sidney Lens once observed that the endurance and strength of a movement is determined by the source of indignation from which it arises. The source for these carpenters is the loss of rights that accompanied their union's restructuring.

Consolidation does have its advocates, like the executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council, Mark Erlich. Erlich argues that the restructuring has shaken up a system of local "fiefdoms." The old local-based structure, he says, "cannot survive in the face of sophisticated regional contractors." Now the councils' new leaders can overcome local resistance to new organizing and enact new policies like bringing in workers of color and immigrants.



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Consolidators also point to contracts that have brought in new, previously non-union, contractors and workers who have historically been excluded from the union.

That the concentration of power was accomplished not just by shaking up "fiefdoms"--something that many rank and file carpenters embrace--but by eliminating the right of members to vote on contracts and to directly elect the officers who represent them is what angers carpenters in CDUI.

On top of that, the new regional council chiefs have a lot of control over the councils that choose them. The executive secretary-treasurers have the sole power to hire and fire all employees of the councils, including business agents. Yet many of the business agents are also delegates to the regional councils. Thus much of the council delegation is indebted to the top officer for a job.

Rank and file carpenters also question some of the claims made for new organizing. They point out that some contracts involve trade-offs in which new employers are allowed to pay wages below union scale. This kind of concessionary organizing--in the midst of a building boom and high profit margins--boosts membership numbers in the short run, but tends to weaken the union over the long run, according to carpenters like CDUI member Paul Inferrera.


The rebellion provoked by the restructuring has had some success. Carpenters International President Doug McCarron has ruled that councils may--but are not required--to allow members to vote on contracts. The New England council says it will be taking votes.

CDUI faces many challenges: the short time frame of the delegate elections and convention, the difficulty of building a national organization with only working carpenters to do the work, differences in regional conditions, and the stick wielded by the newly powerful councils.

They must also find a way to keep the struggle for inclusion and equality at the center of their efforts. The presence of carpenters of color at the conference shows that this is by no means impossible. To the degree that the new council leadership can claim the high ground on issues like new organizing and immigrant workers, the task of reformers is harder.

McCarron, though, has handed the rank and file a powerful organizing tool by attacking members' basic democratic rights. These unifying principles--democracy and rank and file control--have brought carpenters together. CDUI emerges with many experienced activists. It has strong local bases in several regions. It has an active communications network. The international convention in Chicago has given CDUI its first organizing task with the delegate elections that are underway across the country.

Matt Noyes is education coordinator for the Association for Union Democracy.