Beating the Open Shop, The Early 1900s: Part 2

Read Part 1 in case you missed it. 

The basic mission of the union–protecting carpenters’ rights on the job–remained the same. With the onset of World War I, the union faced a new challenge. Wartime needs for temporary military housing, shipbuilding, and ammunition factories pushed the federal government into a massive construction spending program. When President Woodrow Wilson allowed open shop contractors on federal construction sites, Hutcheson refused to participate in the government’s oversight boards. “While we have every desire to assist the government in the crisis we are now passing through,” he said, “we have no intention of waiving our rights to maintain for ourselves the conditions we have established.”

Despite extraordinary pressures, the union leadership held firm. On November 7, 1917, 1,300 building trades workers in eastern Massachusetts participated in a general strike on all military work in the area to protest the use of open-shop builders. The strike persisted in the face of threats from the U.S. War Department. Influential preacher Billy Sunday whipped anti-union hysteria to a higher plane, invoking the name of God to denounce Hutcheson’s treason. While that strike was settled within a week, the larger issue remained unresolved until April, 1918 when the federal government approved a new system that guaranteed closed shops in those areas that had them before the war.

Hutcheson’s firmness preserved union standards for carpenters. As the war became a memory, attacks on the patriotism of unionists gave way to a closer examination and subsequent recognition of wartime profiteering by employers. Secretary of War Newton Baker (who had been a vocal critic of the UBC) confirmed many unionists’ suspicions when he admitted that labor had been “more willing to keep in step that capital.”

Peace brought a new and different kind of battle. Employer associations of all kinds initiated a furious assault on union labor under the label of the “American Plan.” Building employers, supported by large industrialists and local Chambers of Commerce, pitched in. They took on construction unions in Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Seattle.

Contractors in Chicago insisted on a wage cut in January 1921 and locked out workers after the unions rejected their demand. In June, all the crafts except the Carpenters and Painters agreed to submit the dispute to arbitration by federal judge Kenesaw Landis. The judge’s drastic decision slashed wages beyond the initial contractor proposals and weakened long-standing union work rules. The UBC refused to recognize the judgment and let the fight against the “Citizens Committee to Enforce the Landis Award” for five years until union shop conditions finally returned to Chicago.

In San Francisco, the Industrial Association broke the 20-year reign of one of the country’s mightiest union shops in the building trades. Financed to the tune of $1.25 million and in control of the building materials’ suppliers, the Builders’ Exchange refused to call off a lockout even after the city’s Building Trades Council meekly accepted the contractors’ original wage cut demand. Determined to crush the unions, the employers of San Francisco settled for nothing less than open shop and an end to mandatory collective bargaining in the building industry.

While the American Plan did take its toll, the San Francisco experience was unusually severe. The Brotherhood survived the 1920s. The number of union carpenters declined from 400,000 in 1920 to 345,000 in 1928, but this drop in membership compared favorably to the losses of other labor unions in the prevailing anti-labor climate. Wages in the building trades actually rose by roughly five percent a year. The fury of the anti-union campaigns subsided by the end of the decade. 

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