Holding the Union Together When the Economy is Coming Apart

Holding the Union Together When the Economy is Coming Apart

I joined the Carpenters Union in Portland, Oregon, in the spring of 1975. At the time, I was one of twenty-two million union members, representing nearly 29 percent of the nation’s work force. Today, despite substantial growth in the size of the working population, seven million fewer workers belong to unions. We now represent just over 12 percent of the work force.

My thirty-five year tenure has coincided with one of the most dramatic transformations of America’s economic and social structure. For the vast majority of workers, incomes have either stagnated or declined, and the only reason family income has risen slightly is that there are so many more dual-income-earning households. Economic inequality is now as high as it was before the Great Depression.

Of course, I didn’t know this would happen when I started serving my apprenticeship. Not long after I joined, I moved to Boston where entry into the Carpenters locals was more difficult. The union was, to large degree, a father-son affair, with membership guarded as tightly as access to rent-controlled apartments in New York City. I benefited from a provision in the union constitution that required every local union to accept any existing member who wished to transfer locals and picked Carpenters Local 40 only because a friend of a friend was already a member.

The Boston locals were then almost completely white and male. Ethnicity reflected the area’s white working-class population. There was an Irish local in Dorchester; mine was made up of descendants of immigrants from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as well as Ireland and Italy. Monthly union meetings were short on information and long on alcohol and opportunities to catch up with old friends.

Although I was an outsider, I loved being a union carpenter. Classroom apprenticeship training was mediocre, but the on-the-job opportunity to learn a craft from gifted carpenters was endless. Every apprentice learned to incorporate approaches, styles, and tricks of the trade from the older men in the crew. Some of the veterans were more skilled at rough carpentry, some at finish work. Newcomers were advised to “look, listen, and learn.” Since our job inevitably involved taking and filling the coffee orders, we all got the chance to watch and talk to every carpenter on every project to see how he approached the particular task at hand. I learned how to be a trade unionist from these men, how to value skill among peers, how to distinguish between good and bad foremen, and how to appreciate the integrity of a dangerous but rewarding occupation that provided a powerful sense of self-esteem in a culture that routinely devalued blue-collar workers.

After a few years in the trade, I had met enough of the local’s members to enjoy the social aspect of union meetings but was increasingly frustrated with the limited perspective provided from the podium. Building trades unions were facing mounting challenges from...