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1999 Carpenters’ Wildcat Strike: What We Won and How

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Rob Rooke, Carpenters Local 713 Recording Secretary (2000-2003)

In May 1999 over 5,000 construction workers participated in an illegal, unsanctioned, 4-day strike. Most of Northern California’s major construction job-sites were closed down. It was set in the background of two colliding elements: a booming economy and a weak contract that was forced on the members of the Carpenters Union by their own union leaders.

Five days before the strike at the Carpenters Regional Council an explosion of rank and file anger erupted. The Regional Council was dominated by full-time appointed staff where delegates were due to vote on the contract.

Over a hundred non-delegate carpenters showed up on Saturday May 15 to protest the weak contract that offered members little, while rents and house prices were rocketing.  The contract included a small wage gain coupled with no morning coffee break (allowing employers to work you 5-hours without a break) and no-overtime on Saturday if you were rained off during the week.

Workers were pissed. Not being allowed to vote on your own contract was one thing, not being allowed to go into our “rep council” to hear the debate was too much. One worker noticed that delegates were being given a cheap red sticker for ID, so he popped down to the nearest drug store and got a bunch. The general feeling was that they’ve stolen our right to vote, so we will stop this charade any way we can.

At some point all the delegates were in and we were all locked out. We were chanting, “No! No! NO!” Someone closed the double doors so the delegates wouldn’t be disturbed by the mob. This may have been the last straw. A group of us passed the word that we were going to rush the door. Enthusiasm for an invasion was pretty unanimous.

Rank and File Break Through

The Regional Council’s thugs manning the door had no clue we were going to rush them. First one member rushed through, then another, then a flood of members filled the hallway that connected the outside to the inside of the hall. Reinforcements from the Council failed to dam up the corridor as we packed into the hall. We were surrounded by dozens of full-time staff as we continued to yell, “No! No! No!” I remember the utter shock of the delegates, even the rank and file delegates and the left wing ones! They had no real idea how pissed-off the members were.

The business of the Council was halted temporarily and then the pushing and shoving began and we were slowly, elbows and shoulders flailing, pushed back to the entrance. We’d made our point and scared the crap out of the Machine. The Machine that’d refused us the right to vote on our own contract. The Machine that sold us out with a piss poor contract.

As we re-assembled outside, we knew we had made a mark on events. Nothing like this had happened before. We were keen to ratchet up this fight. Most of the workers from California’s biggest jobsite, the new International Terminal, were ready to start organizing a strike. “They want to strike out at the Airport,” we were told. They were going to strike whether we helped or not. We agreed to meet on Monday after work in the parking lot of Local 713. 

It was at that tailgate meeting of about 150 workers that we set about the plan to close down all job-sites until we got a better contract or the right to vote this one down.

The Strike is Launched

I picked up my buddy at 3.30am and we drove over the Bridge to the San Francisco Airport, where we had no clue if 300 guys would be there or ten. This was to be Day-One of the 1999 Northern California Carpenters Wildcat strike.

Days earlier our tailgate meetings in the parking lot of Local 713 had grown to almost 200 workers working to organize the strike. This was a strike against a crummy contract shoved down our throats with no vote. It was also a strike against a union machine, increasingly out of touch with the workers and increasingly in love with the employers. An Officer Friendly union official had got on the back of our speakers’ truck to argue against the strike. He lost the argument, because whatever he put forward wasn’t going to mean more money on the check, or a guaranteed morning break, or stopping straight-time Saturdays.

We got to the parking lot of the airport pretty early. It was dark and a few cars’ headlights began to show up. Within an hour, from our perch on the back of my pickup truck, dozens of rank and file carpenters were lining up to take the bullhorn and argue for a solid strike. At the airport job, workers were prepared by days of word and mouth and were ready for this fight. One rank and filer, a former Marine, helped line up the hundreds of carpenters to send them out to the different job entrances. We were going for a 100% close down. During the first days of the strike I was to head down to the city’s new ball park to close that job. After that our crew were to march around San Francisco with a growing group of strikers and a bullhorn to shut down any work we would see.

Union Leaders Taken by Surprise

The Business Agents began showing up to tell us to go back to work. They were unenthusiastic given the huge crowds of energetic picketers. Some of the full-time officials sent out were clearly sympathetic, others just felt awkward about not being in control. One Business Agent, who is the current Executive Secretary of California Carpenters Union, clearly felt like he was scabbing and had nothing to say. Our position was that he took an appointed job, he has to do what the  head of the union tells him.

Without the restraint of the Business Agents, herding and corralling the picket-lines, and without lawyers on our backs, we were able to run an efficient, fighting strike. We had no problem trespassing job sites and dragging off workers who had crossed the line. We figured out ways of getting around the security guards and wore our hardhats both on the picket-lines and behind the picket-lines too. Workers would show us how to get onto the jobsite avoiding the front gate and we would discuss and debate with individuals and they would feel awful about working and most often walked out.

At the ball park we addressed a meeting of fifty electricians who didn’t want to cross our picket-line. Our appeal worked, they all drove off home. We marched onto job sites where they were in the delicate position of being in the midst of a wet concrete pour, where we stopped the work. On day two at other job sites, workers asked us, “Where were you? We thought you were coming to close us down yesterday. . . Okay guys, everyone off the job, we’re on strike!”

Strong Mood to Fight

At one big high-rise jobsite in the city, we circled it, with bullhorns and hardhats and were initially getting no response. A few of us went on site and started climbing the stairs up towards the top floors. As we were half way, workers were coming down the stairs with their lunch pails joining the strike. “Is there anyone else up there?” we’d ask, “Yeah. They’re just packing their tools away into the gang box.” I was surprised that their foremen weren’t threatening the workers for joining the wildcat, but the formen often sided with us, or simply shrugged their shoulders and didn’t put up a fight.

At another job a group of us entered a huge job where a safety meeting of a hundred workers was about to begin. Just as everyone was assembled and the boss was about to open his mouth, we jumped up on a table and addressed everyone. In this situation the workers were a bit intimidated by the direct eye of the boss, but some of the workers picked up their lunches and took off. The bosses brought in video cameras to film us for illegally trespassing, we told them where to go. They had footage of us, but no names.

Every day in the afternoon we had a mass meeting for everyone to have their say. This is where the strategy was discussed and reservations aired. We elected a Chair, I proposed the Recording Secretary of Local 713, a longtime older left activist in the union. All the bosses’ arguments, the union bureaucracy’s arguments, all were raised along with a powerful component of union ideas and socialist ones.

By day two the strike was rising in some new areas and showing signs of receding in existing areas. We would hear word of the strike spreading way beyond the Bay Area with new jobs just coming out. At the same time many of the other trades workers were being increasingly intimidated by their union officials to return to work and not honor our unofficial/illegal picket-line. We also had young tapers and painters join our roving pickets just to be a part of this exciting movement. Apprentices were definitely at the forefront of the strike, alongside journeymen and many foremen, talking up the issues and pulling people off jobs.

Over the weekend a planned wildcat picnic was not well attended. We heard that a fairly large number of workers returned to work at the airport on Saturday. A meeting of some wildcat leaders kicked around ideas to keep up the strike’s momentum. Given that this was an illegal strike and that the union was pressuring workers to return, the trickle back to work on Friday was likely to increase on Monday.

One of the things we probably could have done instead of simply electing a Wildcat Chair would’ve been to organize a more collective body to represent the strike: a strike committee. We had hundreds of phone numbers but not the resources to get out to everyone. The scale of the strike took everyone by complete surprise.

Mood Begins to Shift

We kicked around some direct action ideas. We seriously discussed going to the ball park and breaking into the job and climbing up the Crane Tower. From there we could hoist a banner for the strike and occupy the Crane at the same time. This, we hoped would bring media attention to the strike and get word out to new forces. This remained a bold idea but nothing more.

On day four of the strike, Monday, it was evident we were losing numbers faster than gaining new strikers. My own fear was that Tuesday would be far worse and that a slow petering out of the strike would both diminish the importance of the strike in workers’ memories but also result in large numbers being fired: although the strong construction boom meant the latter was less likely. I proposed a return to work Tuesday in an orderly, structured way. This was opposed by many workers, but accepted by the majority. I proposed we should go back to the job sites and build for a One-Day strike on July 1st right before the Fourth of July weekend and that we encourage all members to head to their monthly union meetings to take up the fight there.

The strike got widespread coverage in all the Bay Area newspapers. In one the Regional Council spokesperson admitted their own passivity: “the union’s not strong enough to negotiate more,” he argued. Our strike proved this to be entirely false. On the other side the head of the San Francisco Airport Authority was laying down the law: “This (strike) is an illegal assembly. These workers are subject to arrest and fines.”

The role of the small number of socialists in the leadership of the strike was significant but not critical to the strike. The mood of anger, first expressed in the breaking-up of the Regional Council meeting by rank and file carpenters and then becoming the Wildcat strike, was an objective fact. The conscious pro-business elements in the movement were unable to talk-down the strike mood. The role played by the socialists was to encourage the strike forward, to help workers see its place in the wider picture and to strengthen attempts to build a more lasting organization out of the strike. If the wildcat had lasted longer, had widened, and was not isolated, the socialists could’ve played a bigger role in helping bring together a united movement. For this, we have the future, but the Wildcat deepened the reserve of direct experience with mass movements.

The booming economy and the increasingly overconfident and rigid union bureaucracy gave birth to the four-day 1999 Carpenters Wildcat Strike. The strike’s success can be measured by its legacy in the memory of the thousands of carpenters who took part, and ran their own strike. The pride of being a wildcatter resonates even to this day, where in Local 713 there is still an unspoken respect among carpenters for those that joined and led that strike. The strike built a special bond between strikers that lasted decades.

Taking the Fight Back into the Union Locals

On Monday May 24 we voted en masse to return to work as a united body and then to take the fight into our union locals.

Local 713 was probably the most militant local. Members of 713 sent wildcatters to all the other Bay Area locals to push for a vote against the contract and resolutions for the return of our right to vote on the contract. In June, Local 713 voted 85 to 6 for a “One Member One Vote” resolution and at a following meeting, in a standing vote, passed a motion against the contract of 182 to 5. I can still see the faces of the five business agents up against the wall as their votes were counted. The Wildcat strike had enormously strengthened the back of the resistance to both our union machine and this weak contract.

July 1 we had hoped would be the follow-up One-Day strike. Instead a couple of dozen workers took the day off to flyer jobsites for our noon rally at the Regional Council to protest the contract. Armed with thousands of flyers we trespassed scores of job sites, talked to hundreds of carpenters, and gave out flyers. At lunchtime about 200 workers met outside the Regional Council offices to protest. At the end of the month a far larger crowd was present to try to pressure the Regional Council when it re-voted on the contract. While the crowd was bigger, the angry mood was considerably more subdued than two months earlier. The Carpenters Council passed the contract and the period of struggle against the contract was over.

What remained was a strong mood to oust the pro-business agent leaderships in the Union Locals and to end the dominance of the business agents in the Regional Council.

In the fall of 1999, the elected Chair of the Wildcat and Recording Secretary of Local 713 was singled out and brought up on charges by the International of the Carpenters Union. Our Local initially voted 66-0 against this witch-hunt. In January 2000 Local 713’s Recording Secretary was expelled from the union and in August the Carpenters International Convention solidly upheld his expulsion.

Wildcat Carpenter Leaders Win Majority in Local Elections

In July 2000 the Wildcat slate swept both Local 713’s Executive Board elections winning 7 out of 10 seats and winning 29 out of 38 positions on the Regional Council from our Local. Within a month three of the newly elected Wildcatters were taken up on 23 trumped-up charges as a way to intimidate us. This was the Business Agent’s attempt to tie us up in long battles at the union’s Trial Board. After winning the Local election we immediately instigated simultaneous Spanish translations at our meetings to encourage increased participation of Latino/a carpenters in the Local meetings and childcare to encourage increased participation by women carpenters and parents.

We also immediately called a “Special Called Meeting” of the Local to begin a lawsuit against the International to undo the expulsion of our former Recording Secretary. This was, in retrospect, a significant tactical mistake. We were able to mobilize up to 300 workers for the Special Called Meeting, but only won a slim majority for the lawsuit. The Business Agents were able to argue that the new Executive wanted to sue their own union and were trying to bring the courts into our union after losing the democratic process at the union’s Convention. Over the following 3-months a civil war erupted at the Local.  The middle-ground carpenters who were initially against the expulsion were now increasingly convinced against the lawsuit and by October the lawsuit was dead.

Expulsion and the Law Suit

While using the courts should never be the first step of any struggle, the Wildcatters adopted it when all other avenues were closed. Our former Recording Secretary had borne the brunt of the post-strike backlash. The San Francisco District Attorney had threatened to fine him personally for the strike, which could have meant him losing his house. He was expelled from the union after 29 years membership and above all he was one of our own that had been taken down by our enemy, the bureaucratic union machine. Despite this, the lawsuit proved to be confusing to the members, was extremely and unnecessarily divisive and diverted attention from the struggle to take the union back. Some were against the lawsuit at the time, but did not want to be seen as not supporting our expelled Recording Secretary. If this was the case with Wildcatters then that was a sign of how confusing it was with the rank and file.

The greatest victory of the Wildcat was in the consciousness of the carpenters. The strike deeply rooted the concept of worker self-organization and of working class power in a generation of Bay Area carpenters. Months after the strike we would hear stories of big jobs that had shut down during the Wildcat that we didn’t even know about (this was in the days before cell phones). Any strike that is unauthorized is more chaotic and less organized than an official strike, lacking an organizing center and of clear lines of communications. However, the strike was also not held back by the union bureaucracy’s fear of the carpenters rising confidence, nor by the dictates of millionaire labor lawyers.

Materially, carpenters in Northern California won a huge gain in their pensions. The union machine was terrified of our uprising. They feared that in the upcoming elections for the Executive of the Regional Council that the rank and file could topple the existing regime. Our pension was one area where they were free to make concessions to this upsurge. Before the Wildcat for every year we worked we would get $40-a-month on our pension pay out. That is less than a dollar and a quarter-a-day. After the Wildcat, the Regional Council upped that monthly pension to $205-a-month for every year we worked. This freeing up of tens of millions of dollars in pension money to carpenters was a direct product of our Wildcat uprising. And in the years since carpenters wildcatted in the Bay Area have seen steady raises in pay to the current $87/ hour in wages, pension and benefit, with journeypersons making $55/hour on the check.

As Wildcatters led Local 713 we were able to continue mobilizing the membership, but the further away we went from May 1999, the harder it became. In 2001 we organized a joint construction trades meeting of about 200 workers to show that our Local opposed our International leaving the AFL-CIO federation. Not insignificantly 1400 workers and their families attended the Local’s union picnic in the summer of 2001. In 2002 to challenge our union’s ban on electing our own full time officials, who are all appointed from the top-down, we held a “Preference Poll” election and submitted the winners to the Regional Council. The Council rejected our poll.

A Taste of the Future Revolutionary Waves

The wildcat strike was a product of two opposing forces: the late 1990s economic boom and the extremely poor contract offered to the workers. An explosion on the scale of the Wildcat was not inevitable. What made it inevitable were the changes in the union and the wider labor movement: in particular the ban on a direct vote for the contract and the ban on the election of Business Agents. The bureaucracy prevented any opportunity for an explosion to dissipate. In the past workers would vote on a contract, some small changes would be made, and then workers would be forced to vote again on almost the same contract. Invariably this meant it would often pass as workers were worn down. Once all the Business Agents were appointed then our “own” elected Business Agents were not there to act as a buffer between the interests of the Machine and union members. Workers would have listened to their elected full-time officials who would in turn generally try to sway workers towards voting “yes.” The repressive changes in the union made an unofficial, unsanctioned strike the only way out for working carpenters.

Under capitalism we are all brought up as workers to accept authority and generally do as we’re told. The Wildcat was an expression not only that workers will only take so much, but also of the enormous creative potential and power that working people possess. It is this power that is the only hope for the planet, and its inhabitants. The 1999 Carpenters Wildcat is an incredible legacy that is held dear in the hearts of thousands of Northern California carpenters old enough to remember it. It is up to future generations of carpenters to finish the job we started. 

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