Engineering News


Carpenters Take Center Stage

By Sherie Winston


One year after the carpenters' union sent a lightening bolt through organized labor by withdrawing from the AFL-CIO, the union and its president, Douglas J. McCarron, seem to be sitting on top of the world.

ON TOP Douglas J. McCarron has cut costs, streamlined operations and expanded membership since quitting AFL-CIO.

Membership in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America is on the rise, the union's state-of-the art training center opened its doors in Las Vegas in January 2001 and tenants have begun moving into the new trophy headquarters building that sits on prime Washington, D.C., real estate. And the union chief who once shunned Washington insiders now is a player himself, with the ear of President George W. Bush and key congressional leaders, including Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass).

McCarron was elected president of the union in 1995, promising to overhaul its antiquated day-to-day operations and restore the union's financial health. At 45, he was one of the younger, new breed of union leaders who vowed to shake up the status quo. He believed that unions had to be run like a business in order to survive. Early critics expected him to be a one-term wonder but McCarron surprised them by winning re-election in August 2000 with 91% of the vote and accomplishing most, if not all, of his goals in six years.

Under McCarron's leadership, the union has streamlined and restructured its regional councils and local operations. Instead of 1,700 affiliates, there now are 1,050 local unions and 55 councils. He also pared down the headquarters staff from 250 to 18, outsourcing many of those jobs. All of these organizational changes have added value to the craft and the union, he says.

McCarron also has put new life into organizing. When he took the helm, there were roughly 50 organizers on board. The union now counts more than 700. Change is "an ongoing process," McCarron says. For the carpenters to be strong, the emphasis has to be on expanding the market share, he insists.   

SHOWCASE Tenants will contribute $20 million annually to union coffers. (Photo courtesy of the UBC/Greg Pease)

McCarron refuses to rate his success, but he doesn't have to. Others inside the union and other building trade unions frequently speak about the impact the controversial president has made, both positive and negative. Under his watch, the union's ranks have swelled to 530,000 at a time when overall union membership is declining. But McCarron says that is not enough. "We have to control 70% of the marketplace," he asserts. The carpenters have a strong presence in traditional union cities like New York, Chicago and St. Louis, but membership remains weak in the South and in other pockets around the country. Overall, the union estimates it controls between 20 and 25% of the carpentry labor market.

The union also is paying closer attention to improving members' skills. It now boasts 150 training centers across the U.S., including the new $22-million, 180,000-sq-ft national training center in Las Vegas where trainers, organizers and council staff and leaders go for instruction. Better trained workers are more productive, claims McCarron. A worker's success in the trade "comes down to productivity, not just wages and benefits," says the union chief.

McCarron, who cuts an imposing figure at 6 ft, 5in., got his start in the trade in the late 1960s hanging drywall in tract houses in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles. He was the son of a union meat cutter, just out of high school and had no plans to attend college.

McCarron became involved in union politics in the mid-1980s when the union started losing market share, partially because of its own rules. On one residential job, he was assigned to another house across the street, which was the jurisdiction of another local. He says he had to sign out of his local and into the other, losing half a day's pay. "If I ever get a chance to do something about this, I'm going to fix it. This is wrong," he says he vowed. "And I did." In 1987, he was elected head of the Southern California Council of Carpenters. By 1988 had merged 18 of Los Angeles' 32 locals into four.

McCarron's lack of formal secondary education is surprising to many. "He is so smart and articulate that when you find out he's not educated, it's surprising," says one Washington wag. "He is one of the truly self-educated" who is bright, articulate and well read, he adds.

McCarron tends to take a hands-on methodical approach to things, whether it is organizing or straightening out the union's finances. He says he has made more than 40 "house calls" as general president to educate nonunion workers about union benefits. "The bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO has to be torn down. It is important to talk to workers in their living room," he says.

Finance. McCarron is credited with putting the union back on sound fiscal footing. When the union pulled out of the AFL-CIO, it put to work the $4 million it had been paying annually in per capita dues. McCarron also orchestrated a savvy real estate deal, tearing down the union's 1960s-era headquarters and building a commercial office complex on the coveted site just blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

CONNECTED Instead of isolated, carpenters are politically active. (Photo courtesy of the UBC/Rick Reinhard)

The budget for the building project was set at $136.5 million. American Realty Advisors, the project developer, estimates a 17.14% return on the project. The building itself was estimated to cost just under $73 million, a target that was met, says Jim Curnyn, the owner's construction manager and a principal of Curnyn & Associates, Alpharetta, Ga.

The old building was demolished in August 1999 and ground broken in October for the 10-story, 750,000-sq-ft commercial office building. It includes five levels below grade, four of which will be used for parking.

The Feb. 1 target date was met for the first tenants to move into the 501,000 sq ft of rentable space. The union will occupy only 22,000 sq ft on the top floor. Rent from tenants will add $20 million annually to union coffers. Designed by Shalom Baranes Associates, Washington, D.C., the building was constructed by Clark Construction Group Inc., Bethesda, Md.

With his own union on sure footing, McCarron turned his attention to the bigger institutions that support his members. His unhappiness with the AFL-CIO's leadership is legendary. He believes there are too many extraneous expenditures and not enough emphasis on labor's traditional meaty issues. When he makes decisions, he says he asks himself: "How does this add value to the carpenter in the field?"

McCarron also has a bone to pick with the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Dept., which represents the 14 remaining construction unions. The building trades "haven't changed with the times," he claims.

When the carpenters dropped out of the AFL-CIO last year, McCarron expected the union to remain a member of the BCTD (ENR 4/9/01 p. 10). When talks aimed at uniting the carpenters with the federation proved unsuccessful, McCarron's displeasure with BCTD President Edward C. Sullivan and his operation seemed to grow. The union slowly was forced out of all department activities, including its Heavy and Highway Division, which is instrumental in negotiating labor terms for key projects.

The carpenters' absence proved too much for other key unions and a short time later, the operating engineers pulled out of the unit. Eventually, the division separated from the BCTD and now operates independently. Once again, the carpenters are participants.

ORGANIZING Union has increased number of organizers from 50 to 700 to gain market share. (Photo courtesy of the UBC/Rick Reinhard)

As McCarron's independence became more visible, the BCTD seemed to fade. Complaints surfaced about weak leadership, some unions' failure to pay their per capita dues, a lack of national focus, sluggish organizing and the apparent failure of an expensive campaign to halt activities of temporary labor agencies. There was a sense that something had to be done.

At the same time, reports were intensifying that it was just a matter of time until the carpenters, operating engineers, laborers and perhaps one or two other big unions would break away from the BCTD and form a new entity.

Some of the 14 union presidents were hoping to keep the BCTD intact and invited McCarron and his union back. Only under certain conditions, he responded. Those included the ouster of Sullivan and BCTD Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Maloney. The battle lines were drawn.

Sullivan insists that he will serve out his five-year term, but union observers say his time as president is drawing to a close. If only one of the large unions withdraws from the department and there will be no more BCTD, says one insider.

In a March 11 letter to building trade councils, Sullivan claims that the ongoing dispute "is unlikely to be resolved any time soon." Sullivan says he expects to deliver specific "clear policies to deal with this unpleasant situation" to the governing board of union presidents in the next few weeks. The policies will address the carpenters' participation in national agreements and project labor agreements, picket lines and other operational issues. It is unclear whether the policies will be considered before the BCTD's legislative conference in Washington, D.C., which begins April 15. Some insiders say that could be the showdown between factions.

Numerous industry sources say the battle is shaping up mostly between larger and smaller unions and that the laborers and the operating engineers are likely to join up with McCarron. "The deal has been cut," says one observer. The only question that remains is the timing.

But Frank Hanley, president of the operating engineers' union, claims "all that is in flux." Hanley insists that everything possible should be done to get the carpenters back in the BCTD. He admits that there are internal problems, but says he is optimistic they can be resolved. And one regional carpenter official claims there is good cooperation among the trades.

Terence M. O'Sullivan, president of the laborers' union, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Labor sources say that the plumbers' and the painters' unions also are likely to defect. Some "rough meetings" are likely as the presidents shape the new direction of the BCTD, says Martin J. Maddaloni, president of the plumbers' and pipefitters' union. He expects the building trades to stay together, but the structure will be "changed as we know it today."

The only union that openly endorses Sullivan is his own, the elevator constructors. Says one observer: "At the end of the day, each union president will do what is in the best interest of their members."

One large union general contractor in the Northwest says that all of the union turmoil in Washington, D.C., "has caused us no problems" in terms of collective bargaining or the administration of project labor agreements among the trades. "We didn't see any cracks in their armor...but the carpenters carry a lot of weight."

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