UBC History

Learn about the UBC’s roots, from our founding through the first turbulent years to growth and today.

1881–1900:
Born from Many Voices

In 1881, McGuire could see that trade was changing. Up until then, a carpenter’s life ran a predictable course. As the building industry grew, however, the individual master could not keep up with the increased demands of capital and labor.

The old system was breaking down. Contractors now coordinated and supervised construction, while the journeymen and apprentices wielded the hammers and saws. The number of large building employers multiplied, threatening the average carpenter’s dreams of becoming an independent master.

McGuire recognized the potential effects of a new way of working. His insights and observations about the trade were based on experiences on the job. In January 1881, he wrote a letter to a friend describing his current job, building a self-supporting roof 120 feet in the air in “arctic weather.” Work was hard to come by, and he did not complain: “I keep the job because it will last until summer and is $2.50 per day of nine hours.”

He also saw developments in the trade through the eyes of an experienced organizer. He believed that workers could only combat powerlessness through organization. If the trade of the carpenter was under attack, there was only one thing to do—protect and defend the trade through the collective strength of the workers.

The Chicago convention that gave birth to the UBC led to difficult years. The union grew slowly, from a membership of 2,042 in 1881 to 5,789 in 1885. Some cities were well-organized, while others remained entirely nonunion. At the national level, McGuire spent 18 hours a day speaking, writing, and organizing to keep the union afloat. The national office followed him—to St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York—as he moved around, responding to one crisis after another. He rarely collected his $20 weekly salary, and if he did, it immediately went toward union expenses.

Historians have labeled 1886 as “the year of the great uprising of labor.” Never before had so many American workers acted in unison for a common goal: 340,000 workers demonstrated for shorter hours in cities across the country. As the Wisconsin Commissioner of Labor put it, “The agitation permeated our entire social atmosphere... It was the topic of conversation in the shop, on the street, at the family table, at the bar, in the counting rooms, and the subject of numerous able sermons from the pulpit.”

Workers from every industry participated, but building tradesmen were the central force. UBC locals led the marching columns in every city, inspiring others with their determination. And, not surprisingly, the Brotherhood’s top officer was one of the major national spokesmen for the strikers. McGuire criss-crossed the country, calling for reduced hours in front of countless audiences. His involvement was so complete that he had to temporarily suspend the regular business of the union.

McGuire, along with General President Gabriel Edmonston, devised a May 1st general strike—a gambit that paid handsome dividends. Union carpenters won higher wages and better conditions in 53 cities. The successes of the union and the dynamic character of its leader attracted thousands of unorganized carpenters. By the end of summer 1886, the Brotherhood had swelled to 21,423 members. Four years later, membership topped 50,000 and McGuire reported that the UBC was “now the largest and most powerful organization, numerically, of any special trade in the whole civilized world.”

The eight-hour strike of 1886 and another in 1890 transformed the struggling Carpenters’ Union into a flourishing organization. Through most of the 1890s, the annual budget was in six figures. In addition to his skill as an organizer, McGuire was increasingly recognized as an astute and capable executive. He was amused by his newfound respectability and fame, once commenting on the change from the past, when “labor agitators were a much-despised class, often without a dinner or a meal. Now they have mayors and governors to welcome them when assembled in convention.”