Reform Groups Build Pressure on Carpenter Leadership

Concerns are mounting inside the Carpenters over International President Doug McCarron's controversial restructuring plan and other initiatives. Rank-and-file opposition has started to gel over moves by the International-moves, members say, have undermined democracy inside the union.

Since 1996, McCarron has merged numerous locals and consolidated them into regional and district councils headed by an Executive Secretary-Treasurer (EST) with the ability to hire and fire officers, negotiate contracts, and collect an hourly work-tax. Locals vote for District Council delegates, who then elect the highly powerful EST.

In some regions, members have waged highly effective campaigns, such as British Columbia, where last November members disaffiliated and literally turned out the lights and left (in a video widely circulated among reformers) when McCarron refused them the right vote on changes. When a rank-and-file slate won the executive board in Atlanta's Local 225, they were made to vote two more times, and then trusteed.

Other members simply leave because McCarron's emphasis on flexibility, job training, and restructuring parallel to contractors' regional structure hasn't benefited the membership. "They act as the union human resources department for construction contractors," said Cliff Willmeng of Chicago's Local 1.


Close to 130 rank-and-file carpenters rallied May 6 outside the Chicago District Council Delegate meeting. They presented petitions signed by 5,900 carpenters supporting their platform of retirement without penalty at 30 years or the age of 55. Other platform planks support: a fair out-of-work system; direct elections for the district council and contracts; elected membership participation in negotiations; and the reduction of executive pay.

A similar 2003 rally--the first in Chicago Carpenters history--was attended by nearly 200 carpenters, successfully pressuring the District Council administers to reduce the age of retirement without penalty from 62 to 61. At the end of the 2004 rally, the District Council announced that it lowered the retirement age to 60.

The rallies were the work of the growing Chicago Rank and File (CRF) caucus, which formed after McCarron announced in 2001 that the Carpenters were leaving the AFL-CIO.

"When they pulled us out of the AFL, most carpenters were told about it on job sites by ironworkers and laborers. All of our motions for web sites and newsletters get crushed, but there are few carpenters who haven't heard of our campaign," said Willmeng, a CRF co-founder.

Since starting in 2002 with a Local 1 reform slate that received 38 percent of the vote, typical CRF meetings have workers from a dozen Chicago Carpenters locals. Their grassroots petition drive canvassed Christmas parties, job sites, and local unions across Chicago, causing District Council officials to respond with multi-media presentations at every local, threats, intimidation, kickback offers, and physical attacks.



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CRF plans to escalate its organizing for 2005, when major contractors' contracts expire and Local 1 leadership faces a challenge at elections.


In New York, deep-seated mafia influence has prevented members' control of their union for decades. On April 27, Mike Forde, EST of the 25,000-member New York District Council, and Business Agent Martin Devereaux, were convicted on seven counts, including bribery. The charges stem from Spring 1998, when Forde and Devereaux accepted a $10,000 bribe from contractors in exchange for allowing non-union construction at the Park Central Hotel.

Mike Bilello, who works in Manhattan's Local 157, says McCarron knew Forde was corrupt when McCarron appointed him BA in 1998.

"McCarron was shopping around for a business agent, and he asked me what I thought of Mike Forde. I told him, Mike Forde is a problem, and I explained about various jobs that were dirty, including the convicted one. McCarron just dismissed it and said the stewards were pushing him around. Bottom line--McCarron needed New York to be re-elected, and it became a monster."

In 2000, Forde was elected Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the New York District Council, and McCarron was re-elected President by a 91 percent margin.

"We've tried to get the word out that these people are bad. We stand up at union meetings, we pass out fliers, we've run for office, but they just call us troublemakers," said Mike Livingston of Local 157.

Livingston, and Bilello are all members of Carpenters for a Democratic Union International (CDUI), which has campaigned around countering McCarron's restructuring by treating the regional councils as locals, with the same rights to vote on contracts and officers locals have.

With the help of the Association of Union Democracy, CDUI won the legal right for members to ratify contracts and elect BAs in the Harrington v. Chao case last October, but it has been tied up in appeals ever since (plaintiff Tom Harrington was elected New England district council EST in September after a campaign by the Boston-based CDU caucus).

"Honestly, a lot of us in CDUI became disillusioned with the American legal system," said CDUI member David Johnson. "The morale of the average carpenter is unbelievably bad. Union meeting attendance is low. They're dropping out of the union all over the place. They're just disgusted by the system."