Rank and File: Laura G. on Carpenters’ Local 157

What is your occupation? (You don’t need to specify the company if you prefer not to.)

I am a carpenter – before I got training, I never imagined I’d do this work. I graduated college in ‘08 with a degree in public health and $84,000 in student debt. I struggled to pay the minimum payment for a few years working three low-paying, part-time jobs, and then had my life thrown into some upheaval by a violent guy I dated. I ended up having to leave my jobs and the community organizing I had been doing. I saw an ad on the subway for a program called NEW (Non-traditional Employment for Women), that helps women get into the union building trades. It seemed like a good moment to go in another direction. I found I loved the work and higher pay meant a shot at getting out from under my student debt.

My first job was high-rise concrete, building a 70-story hotel in midtown. You’re outside, working in the elements. It’s generally considered the most difficult type of carpentry. At the start of the job, I had a fear of heights. By the end, I was hanging off the side of the building 70 floors up (tied off, wearing a harness of course). As a carpenter in New York City, I’ve done a lot of office renovations; I also worked on the new Koscuiuszko Bridge for 13 months.

What union are you a member of?

I’m a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, Local 157, NYC.

How long have you been a member? How would you characterize your involvement with the union?

I’ll have been in the Carpenters’ for 7 years in January. I’ve been very involved since day one. I came in on the heels of some major shake-ups in the union – a very beloved local, 608, had just been merged into a bigger local. At the same time, the Wall and Ceiling Association was making some big demands in contract negotiations that would weaken our union. I started going to union meetings and there were many people speaking out against the changes our employers wanted to make. There was clearly a fight being waged, and I felt inspired to get in it.

What do you feel are the major issues your union is focused on right now?

Our union leadership is focused on getting more work and hours for members, as all of our work is temporary and new work constantly has to be secured. Our membership is focused on winning a good contract and maintaining our wages, benefits, and working conditions. There’s regular tension between gaining hours for our members and maintaining our standards.

What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?

This is a complicated question, because I don’t have a single employer. There are many carpentry sub-contractors, large and small. We negotiate with an association that represents a group of sub-contractors. Some of the sub-contractors have histories of employing union labor, going back 120 years, and have a stable and sometimes too-cozy relationship with the union. Other employers have more out-and-out animosity towards the union and try to undercut it with nonunion shadow companies, and they’ll try to get union foremen and some of the most skilled union carpenters to go work nonunion. Even the companies that have a relatively stable and close relationship with the union usually try to bend the rules to their advantage.

Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?

There’s always more work to do, and there are a number of issues I would like to see our union organize around. I think, for starters, our union needs to relearn shop floor organizing. We need to be more comfortable waging fights with employers and involve everyone in the organizing. Right now, internal organizing is kind of the domain of our business agents, and external organizing is the domain of our staff organizers, and the idea that workers would be a part of this is a bit of a novelty.

I think the most pressing issue for most members is our contract. It expired July 1, 2017, so we’ve been renewing our old contract monthly for nearly 17 months.

I’d like to see our union more aggressively salt (i.e., plant workers to unionize job sites) and organize nonunion construction sites. We have a small salting program, however, our approach is currently to send a salt who tries to unionize only the most highly skilled nonunion carpenters, as opposed to organizing all carpenters on the job. And while we have some undocumented members in our union, we haven’t seriously organized undocumented construction workers en masse, as some other construction unions have.

Lastly, I’d like to see our union organize more effectively for broader working class demands, like real affordable housing and rent control. We have begun to participate in neighborhood and community coalitions, however, I think we need to go much deeper into that work and align ourselves more strongly with working class struggles. As it stands right now, we become involved in a shallow way and are happy enough to get jobs out of it, no matter what those jobs look like, what’s being built, or how unwanted it is by the majority of the working class. I want us to be in a position to use our leverage as organized workers, and fight the Amazons of the world alongside the rest of the working class.

About Rebecca Capua 117 Articles
Red Letter spotlights editor, former MWG OC