By ROLAND SHEPPARD
SAN FRANCISCO-On Thursday, May 20, hundreds of carpenters shut down construction at San Francisco International Airport and other sites throughout the Bay Area.
This two-day “wildcat strike” was in protest of a new working agreement negotiated on May 15 by the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council.
For the past 15 years, carpenters in the San Francisco Bay Area have endured one concessionary contract after another.
They have gone from having every other Friday off to a return to the 40-hour week. The new contract includes provisions that give up overtime pay for work done on Saturdays to make up for weekdays missed because of bad weather or equipment failure.
Due to the recent construction boom in Northern California, rank-and-file carpenters had expected to recoup some of these concessions and to secure a reasonable wage increase to begin to catch up with the high inflation rate in this area. And they wanted rest breaks beyond merely a half hour for lunch in one 10 to 12-hour day.
The contract did include a $5 increase over four years, but $1 went into an annuity plan and just 25 cents per hour on the check. There were no improvements in working conditions.
The greatest cause for the “wildcat strike” was the fact that the membership of the Carpenters Union no longer have the right to vote on their contract or how the wage packet will be allocated.
Over the past few years these rights have been delegated to the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council of the Carpenters International Union.
The delegates, over one-third of whom are appointed by the secretary-treasurer of the council, originally voted against the contract. But after a standing roll call vote, the contract was ratified.
Every aspect of this “vote” represented the degeneration of the Carpenters Union. The council has complete control over the wages and working conditions of the working carpenters. They have used this power to develop a “partnership” with the employers against the interests of the membership.
Whenever the union pension plan becomes “fully funded,” instead of increasing benefits, the council allows the employers to stop paying benefits for a period of time until the plan becomes “underfunded.” When this happens, the non-union contractors actually pay higher wages than the union contractors on public works jobs.
The council has dictatorial control over the day-to-day policies of the union and the membership. The council, on the other hand, is under the dictatorial control of the president of the Carpenters International Union.
The only rights that the membership have is the right to pay dues and to occasionally vote for the secretary treasurer of the council who appoints all of the business agents and controls the hiring halls.
In the recent period, these union officials have had a consistent policy of refusing to respect pick lines and to raid other Building Trades Union’s (BTU) jurisdictions by underbidding on the wage package.
They recently “organized” non-union contractors who have been doing the earthquake retrofit work in San Francisco. In this case, the newly organized workers are paid one-third to one-half the average (BTU) union wage ($8-$12 per hour). Thus, they are undermining the wages of all construction workers.
In reality, this union is more like an employers’ employment agency than an organization that defends workers’ rights. Workers do not need unions that cut wages and advocate piecework-workers can do that without a union.
The rank-and-file opposition to the decline of this once militant union is the force behind the May 20 “wildcat strike” and the solidarity that was demonstrated by the union carpenters and the rest of the union construction workers.
It is just the beginning of the struggle among workers in opposition to the straitjacket that they have been put in by their union officials acting in partnership with the employers.
Roland Sheppard is a recently retired business representative of Painters District Council #8 in San Francisco.