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An Assault on Union Democracy
Fighting for the Soul of the Carpenters’ Union
by SHAMUS COOKE
All working people should pay attention to the egregious assault on union democracy happening in the Carpenters Union’s Pacific North West Regional Council, which covers all the Carpenter’s Locals in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, and Montana. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters has a proud history and should take immediate action to overturn a recent Regional Council decision that disciplined innocent, union-dedicated Carpenters with fines and a loss of membership privileges. Those punished included twelve Carpenters who had recently won elections to lead their local union – mega-Local 156 of Oregon and South West Washington – as well as many regional delegate seats. The newly elected President and Vice President of Local 156 – as well as the other newly elected officers on the slate – are now facing fines up to $1,500 and six years of stripped membership privileges (the Carpenters interviewed for this article chose to remain anonymous, for fear of further retaliation). What were the crimes of these long standing union Carpenters? They held a “get out the vote” phone bank. For this they were charged with:
1) causing dissent in the ranks
2) failure to uphold the union oath
3) defrauding the union.
The real crime of the convicted Carpenters was that they ran a well-organized election campaign promising to reform their union on a pro-democracy basis, and they won.
Their campaign succeeded because they reached out to the union rank and file at the work sites while campaigning to fight for more democracy and transparency in the union and, more importantly, for better contracts by fighting harder against the employers attempts to reduce the standard of living of the membership. The reform group raised all of the money at their disposal at work sites from rank and file Carpenters.
Turmoil had been simmering in the Regional Council for quite some time, since century-old Carpenters locals throughout the state of Oregon and South West Washington were shut down and merged into a “mega-local,” which was done in a way that restricted the democracy previously enjoyed by the smaller locals.
For example, rural carpenters were made to drive hours to attend a union meeting if they wanted a voice in their union, since their local office was closed. Statewide decisions were centralized without the ability of carpenters to participate in the decision making process on a local level. The connectedness that Carpenters felt to their union was removed by hundreds of miles; their personal investment in their union was forcibly made impersonal.
The “mega-local” phenomenon has been a virus running throughout organized labor for years, creating the above, predictable effects. The reform-minded Carpenters saw this happening in their union and fought back against it.
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