The History of Carpenters Local #308

 United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America


Before the mid-nineteenth century in America, most carpenters worked under the artisan system. After a four-to seven-year stint as an apprentice the carpenter became a journeyman. The Journeyman carpenter during this time worked indoors and outdoors. The carpenter spent many hours indoors turning out by hand "window cases, door cases, baseboard, moldings, stairs, nailing, newel posts, doors and every kind of wooden finishing." He also worked outdoors, framing buildings with his saw, chisel, plane, and molding tools. Employers did not "boss" or rush him because "a good carpenter took such pride in the quality of his work that rather than work beyond what he knew to be the proper limit of his speed, he would pack up his tools and quit."

During the 1840s, 18505, and 18605, planning mills and door, sash, and blind factories took over the indoor work once done by journeymen. Semi-skilled workers operated machines that mass-produced the doors, moldings, and window frames that journeymen carpenters once crafted by hand. The conditions for carpenters on outside work also began to worsen. The growing use of factory-made wood allowed contractors to teach inexperienced pieceworkers simple installation tasks in several weeks and pay them less wages. The competition from inexperienced pieceworkers left many carpenters with a living standard not much higher than a laborer. In Washington, D.C. the average wage for all workers was $2 a day but journeymen carpenters earned $1.50 for a day work and piecework could net a carpenter less than $1 each day. In Chicago carpenters earned the lowest wages among all the building trades and were only able to work an average of thirty weeks in 1886.

The early challenges to these conditions came from mostly skilled carpenters who formed protective unions. Protective unions had no paid leaders, and had a high turnover among union officials. To enforce demands protective associations would call strikes. A strike usually started after a small group of the union carpenters organized a strike committee. Striking carpenters, accompanied by a brass band and carrying a union banner would march to building sites around the city to display to non-union workers the strength of the union. Once they gave the strike notice the union drew up a "rat list" of contractors who refused to agree to union demands. The strike would probably fail if it lasted longer than a few weeks, especially with the absence of strike benefits. These protective unions did not resolve the problem of piecework, oversupply of workers, declining wages, longer hours, and degradation of the trade.

In 1881, alter a series of attempts to form a national organization of carpenters' protective organizations, Peter McGuire organized a provisional committee that issued a call for an organizing convention. Thirty-six delegates from eleven cities attended the first convention on August 8, 1881, at the Trades Assembly Hall in Chicago. The carpenters at the convention passed resolutions demanding shorter hours of work, increased compensation to skilled labor, and sought to "stamp out subcontract and piecework." Unlike the protective unions, the newly formed United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBCJ) had a formal organization.

After 1886 the Brotherhood experienced a large increase in membership. By 1890 the UBCJ represented more than 53,769 members. But alter an economic depression set in during 1893, membership declined for the next five years. By 1896 at the ninth general convention the Brotherhood lost 121 chartered locals. Two years later the economy slowly improved and the brotherhood started to grow again. The average hourly wages in construction rose 15% between 1897-1903 and unemployment hovered at 2.6%. The Brotherhood soon experienced a spectacular growth in membership. Between 1897-1903, 139,000 new members joined Journeymen carpenters in Cedar Rapids took advantage of this union upsurge. In 1899 more than 40 journeymen signed a petition calling for a meeting on May 9th at the plasterers' union hall for "organizing a carpenters union." -BACK-NEXT-

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