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Why we should all fear Carpenters Local 57

How this non-affiliated union is raiding shops in St. Louis and undermining the entire union movement

Kris LaGrange's picture
May 22, 2020

There are many missions in organized labor. Working together to achieve the goal of protecting workers, bargaining for better wages and benefits, gaining market share within an industry and a city - this is one of them, especially within the very volatile building and construction trades. Oftentimes on construction projects, there are territorial battles. Whose work is whose, which contractor is responsible, and so on. Laborers labor, carpenters build, plumbers plumb and electricians wire. But sometimes the task at hand isn't so easy to explain, so fights over turf happen. These turf battles are usually dealt with behind the scenes. It's a common occurrence and few people even know that jurisdictional battles exist. I once personally witnessed a fist fight between a painter and a carpenter, but that is a whole other story. 

You win some, you lose some, but for the most part if you lose a jurisdictional dispute, you move on to fight another day. It's the day and the life of the building trades... except in St. Louis.

They call themselves the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 57. Formed to compete with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1 over a jurisdictional dispute over the hanging of electrical shades in a casino. The Carpenters lost that dispute, but instead of moving on, the Carpenters decided to create an electrical local, known as Local 57. The local formed in 2008 and immediately went to work signing sweetheart deals with non-union contractors. Local 57, which is essentially a company union, doesn’t allow their “members” to vote on contracts or vote for their leaders. Wages, working conditions, and leaders are forced onto the members.  According to Frank Jacobs, Business Manager of IBEW Local 1, Local 57 even has their people working on prevailing wage jobs, but they are not paying the workers a prevailing wage. “We have recovered tens of thousands of dollars for Local 57 members when we found out the contractor wasn’t paying the prevailing wage,” said Jacobs. “We filed against that and have gotten those guys a lot of back wages.” Trade unions usually catch non-union contractors stealing from their employees on public works jobs. To have "union" employers doing this, is not just sad, its shameful and disgusting. 

According to Local 1, members of Local 57 currently make between $9.36 and $15.78 per hour less than a Local 1 electrician. This makes Local 57 a huge threat to the IBEW in St. Louis. By taking contracts at a lower rate, Local 57 is driving down overall wages for the area. Local 1 even has letters from General Contractors encouraging the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) International President Doug McCarron to continue the work of Local 57, saying “The IBEW needs competition, they are too expensive.” This is the stuff that an ABC contractor usually pulls, not fellow unions. The ABC is lobby organization that looks to repeal prevailing wages in states all across the nation. They are one of the biggest enemies to the building trade unions and are major contributors to Donald Trump. The ABC has been successful in repealing prevailing wages in West Virginia, Michigan, and New Hampshire. In October 2017, Trump appointed an ABC operative on his workforce training taskforce. 

UBC President Doug McCarron with Donald Trump in the White House. 

Matters are only getting worse in St. Louis. There is speculation that the Carpenters (UBC) use their General Contractors (GC) to juice the bidding process against them. Since about 90% of the GC’s are signatory with the UBC, they report back the bid of a Local 1 contractor. This is called "selling it on the street." This forces Local 1 contractors who play by the rules to then bid lower against an electrical contractor from Local 57 and the bids of similar non-union subcontractors. This drives down the price and makes it impossible for a Local 1 shop to compete. By making these sweetheart deals with the GCs the Carpenters union ensures that their members get work, but sell out Local 1 contractors. This process is illegal and hard to prove. 

The IBEW also alleges that Local 57 fails to properly oversee their apprentices, leading to substandard apprenticeship program that is potentially dangerous for new members, and other construction workers, on the shared job sites they work on. The local says that this is one of the main reasons why people want to leave Local 57 and join the IBEW.

Organizing isn't always about wages and benefits, safety and dignity are often motivators that inspire exploited workers to finally organize. 

Local 1 isn’t allowing Local 57 to take their work without a fight. Currently, Local 1 is in the middle of a 30 day window where they can collect authorization cards to decertify Local 57 and have the members join the IBEW. If Local 1 gets more than 30% of Local 57 members to sign a card, then there will be a NLRB certified union election for the members to decide if they want to be members of  Local 57 or Local 1.

However it isn't just work in St. Louis that is in danger. The Carpenters have also expanded their undermining operations into Southern Illinois, Kansas, and Kansas City - as well as a number of states with low union density. This has the potential to put many more union jobs at risk throughout the Midwest. IBEW Local 1 is asking all Local 57 members to check out IBEWYourVoice.org to sign an electronic union authorization card.

You can find out more about Local 1’s fight by watching Business Manager Frank Jacobs on this week’s UCOMM Live below. Not all Carpenter outfits operate this way. What was once an isolated regional issue is now spreading to other states. Local 57, and the dark powers behind it, need to be stopped before a St. Louis issues becomes an issue in every state in our divided nation.  

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