Woodworkers and Labor Unions

Woodworkers discuss the relevance of organized labor to modern conditions in the industry. February 6, 2007

Who here is affiliated with a union, and what are your opinions? Since I take on field jobs, manage projects and own a shop, I am interested to learn more about carpentry and millwright unions to see if there could be worthwhile benefits in involving myself.

Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor A:
I don't care for any unions. They were great in their day. They did a lot to improve working conditions in America. But they have outlived their usefulness. Now all they are is a bunch of whiney babies who don't want to work. A lot of companies who have unions are trying to break them. With good reason. I have been on job sites that were union. Every time you see a union worker, they are standing around drinking coffee watching you work, and then they complain because you are not compliant in some way. My girlfriend works for the largest package delivery company in the US. I won't name names, but we all know who it is. A package fell off the conveyer at the local hub as she was walking by and she picked it up and put it back on the line. A unioned employee saw that and took it all the way to the top brass, saying her actions took work away from a union employee. She almost lost her job over that little incident. I hate unions, but that is my opinion. I am sure they do more than complain about work and ask for more money and benefits, but I have never heard anything but bad things about them and my experience echoes those sentiments.

From contributor C:
Contributor A, since you took this on a political bend, I'll just mention that hundreds (thousands?) of union members were killed by US troops in the act of striking or organizing. Troops were marshaled by big business to stop not only union activity, but free speech and even free thought regarding union choices. This loose network was then conveniently converted to anti-Socialist activism, and on to anti-Communist, McCarthyism. Laid all the groundwork for selling fear of terrorism as a means to profit from warmongering.

From contributor R:
A touchy subject indeed. I was a member of the carpenter's union for over 9 years and received my journeyman's 4 year certificate for cabinetmaking through local 94 in Rhode Island. I will tell you I was trained by some of the best craftsman in the trade and have used that training to make myself what I am today… self employed. I was moved every six months to a new area of production - solid stock, veneer, radius department, cabinet building, plywood, door manufacturing, and all the machines. At the end of my 4 years, I was a well rounded craftsman and could run most everything in the shop. Unions are not for everybody, and I tend to agree there is a lot that could be done to balance the scale between employer, worker and the union. But for me, I am most thankful to the craftsmen and women who opened the doors to success through organized training, and the pay scale was one that I could feed my family and pay the bills. I think Unions are helpful providing they work together with all parties - owners, employees, and the union itself.

From contributor F:
I must have worked in over 15 different woodworking shops before going into business for myself. Out of all those shops, only one was union. I believe it was called something like The Industrial Carpenters Union. What I remember is that compared to the other building trade unions, it was pretty weak and the pay scale was quite a bit less than, say, the Carpenters Union.

From contributor T:
In the late 1990's I produced all the cabinets for a new house that was being built for a retiring top executive from the teamsters union. He didn't hire a single union worker to build his house.

From contributor A:
I was wondering if someone could shed some light on why union members get paid more. Contributor R got some excellent training through one, but most people I know haven't undergone any training in their respective unions, not all of which are construction related. So why the higher pay? Because they pay dues?

From contributor L:
I worked in a union shop in the early 70s. Great place to work and learn. It was the
carpenters union, but had a lower pay scale, almost half of what the carpenters
got to install the work.

From contributor J:
I think that in general, the union is a place for people who would otherwise never make it in the real workplace, for people who don't have the skills and would otherwise starve. Look at it this way - at least they aren't on the welfare roll. If you really want to pay through the nose to get your work complete, hire a union cabinet firm - even though the guys are pretty much substandard, the union will put twice as many guys as required on the job, it'll only take twice as long, and you'll only pay twice what you need to.

From contributor R:
I think some people are confusing a few words here. Organized training and labor can mean the same, but are not tied to the union. The right to work states of the US in general have less organized training programs in place than those with organized training. I have traveled in every state of the USA and trained over 1000 operators in moulders and grinder operation for almost eight years. What I have found in general is that a lot of so-called craftsmen in the woodworking field are poorly trained because they turn off the learning process at some point. As craftsmen and women, we should be learning something new every day, cross training on every machine, asking lots of questions from our co-workers and helping each other strive for excellence. This approach will bring everyone of us more money because of our knowledge, not because we belong to a union or not. I think the time any of us stop learning is maybe the time to close the cover on our casket. We could sit here and bash the union all day long, but we are wasting valuable learning time of our trade. Well, it's time for me to go to work!

From contributor I:
It would be nice to have the training without the coercion. I could offer it as a benefit, even require employees to complete two classes a year, for example. It just isn't right for a union to tell a business how to run their own business.

From contributor X:
Back in the 1950's and l960's, our local in southern California worked hand in hand with the owners of shops that us union fellas worked for. Our reps were not liked because of this. Union shops then mass produced quality work. The union trained a lot of fellas. Pay and benefits were far better, but those were the days of better living where a guy could support a family with one paycheck. Gone are those days. Can't voice an opinion of today's union.

From contributor O:
I served a union apprentice back in the mid 70's, great training, but the push was strictly quality and never about producing enough to make the company survive. The union itself was a joke. Most guys had to call previous supers for jobs, the business agent wouldn't send you out unless all the cronies and political pals were working. They had some really qualified men, and some complete hacks that couldn't frame a wall or put on a safety belt. I was a second year apprentice on one job, and had to herd around from three to four "journeymen" who didn't have a clue how to set a concrete form or line up a set of anchor bolts to a surveyor's marks.

They survive only because they do train new guys, usually ten to thirty per year, and are a dependable place to get some skilled workers. The contractors just had to keep some old farts and charity cases to get the good guys. Most of the supers knew the good guys and would call them if they were looking for help.

The benefits paid were around ten bucks an hour back in the mid 70's with very little to show for it. 1600 to 2000 per month that the union got in addition to my dues, and a piss poor insurance policy in return. Pension? Dad worked for them from the sixties till the nineties and got 75 dollars per month, thirty years, 65 years old when retired. Good training, some good craftsmen, a lot of politics, a lot of stupid old guys stuck in the fifties.

From contributor S:
Back in the early 1900's, unions served an important purpose, that of improving working conditions, safety, hours and pay. It freed the independent worker from the enslavement of the large company, which in some instances "owned" the town. Unions also provided the training for their members in many instances. Got a big job and need 3 extra journeymen this week? You called the union hall and they sent over trained reliable help. That is past history.

The union today is a whiney, over paid bunch of "make work" lazy people with their hand out for more and their ass firmly planted on the bench doing nothing. I will admit I have always owned the shop, never hired union, and have several close union friends who are truthfully as lazy and non-motivated as most of the posts above reason. They make huge money when they work, but in the L.A. area, the wait between jobs is often a long one. They bitch constantly that the "illegals" are taking their work. Let me rephrase that, they bitch that the illegals are taking their paycheck - they have very little use for the actual "work" part themselves. I have had some of them work for me in a non-union shop for very brief periods. I couldn't stand the bitching, laziness, or the constant looking at what they thought I was making off of their labor. One former New York lazy union worker once told me "You've got a pretty good thing going here, you should be sharing more of it with your employees." I ended up paying unemployment on him for a few weeks, but that guy hit the street before lunch that day.

I don't think unions even take that good care of their own members these days. The union has become a cash cow for the union bosses, and is no longer really for the benefit of the worker. Most union job sites in southern California are in some way a government job... No businessman would be willing to put up with their crap and at the same time grossly over pay them.

From contributor I:
I was once told that, by law, a carpenter in California had to be union. Is that not true anymore?

From contributor E:
There are "Right to Work" states, but there are politicians in some states who have sold out the right of their constituents to be independent. Arizona is a right to work state!