Learn about the UBC’s roots, from our founding through the first turbulent years to growth and today.
Local unions took advantage of the favorable conditions to expand into new areas of collective bargaining. In 1950, for example, the New York District Council of Carpenters negotiated a three percent payroll tax to support a Carpenters Welfare Fund. The idea of health and welfare funds became so attractive that the national office’s Health and Welfare Committee, appointed in 1954, urged all locals to set up programs as quickly as possible. Jointly trusteed pension funds soon followed, as well as other contract gains, such as safety measures, travel time, and coffee breaks. The accomplishments of this period brought additional stability into the lives of working carpenters and their families.
Unfortunately, the extended boom and success in the bargaining arena also bred a measure of complacency within the unions. With nearly full employment becoming routine, business agents often reduced their roles to those of office administration, job referrals, and contract negotiations. Traditional tasks such as organizing and membership education fell by the wayside.
The post-war construction boom, however, outpaced the unions’ abilities to satisfy all of the labor requirements. As a result, a significant number of nonunion contractors began to appear on the fringes of the industry, particularly in suburban and rural homebuilding. Many unionists remained unconcerned about the potential threat of these newcomers since work was plentiful in the growing commercial and industrial construction sectors.
Ignoring the emerging nonunion workforce came at a cost. While union workers continued to build eighty percent of all construction in the United States as late as 1969, the reliance on bigger projects and a limited membership allowed the nonunion employers to win a foothold in the industry.
In the late 1960s, escalating material costs and labor prices set off alarms in the ranks of building owners, management consultants, corporate journalists, and public policy makers. In 1969, 200 of the nation’s top executives formed the Business Roundtable to put a lid on construction bills. The Roundtable, made up of the heads of General Motors, General Electric, Exxon, U.S. Steel, and DuPont, among others, concluded that the route to financial control over capital construction costs lay in blunting the power of the building trades unions.
The Roundtable built political support to weaken legislation, such as the Davis-Bacon Act that protects construction workers’ wages. It laid out a collective-bargaining agenda to eliminate union gains. Finally, many of its members sponsored and subsidized nonunion contractors on their own projects. The Roundtable’s efforts, combined with the severe building recession of the mid-1970s and an increasingly anti-labor political climate in the United States, provided a generous window of opportunity for the open-shop movement.
Nonunion builders, gathered under the umbrella of the Associated Builders and Contractors, took advantage of these opportunities. Construction in the U.S. was no longer dominated by union contractors. Open-shop or double-breasted firms now participated in, and even controlled, many major construction markets. They reduced wages, weakened established safety and working conditions, and changed the way work was carried out on the jobsite. They sought to replace the traditional egalitarian apprentice/journeyman system with the so-called “merit shop” philosophy, in which workers are pitted against one another and have no real shot at quality training or a decent lifelong career in the trades.