Woodworking in the Steel City: the History of Carpentry and Carpenters

Photo of the author, looking at archival materials at Senator John Heinz History Center
 

Woodworking in the Steel City: the History of Carpentry and Carpenters

Author: Paula Kane,

Professor and Marous Chair, Religious Studies Department and Work Forces workshop participant

Pittsburgh justly is famous for being the Steel City. But the very city and campus that we inhabit would not exist except for another trade, namely, carpentry. I once harbored the naïve notion that carpenters mainly made furniture and decorative wooden objects, and practiced fine woodworking in stately mansions and office buildings. In other words, I thought that carpentry was less about industry and more about craft. In fact, however, carpentry involves a host of trades including floor coverers, lathers, millworkers and cabinetmakers, millrights, pile drivers, and all-around carpenters who do residential construction. Today, due to a set of forces that include changes in building design generally, it seems that carpentry more often involves heavy-duty construction and hard-hats: rebar and cement dominate over wooden materials; forms, framing and excavation have taken the place of furniture, mantelpieces and stairways.  For the workshop, “Work Forces,” I am beginning a project about the history of carpenters in the Pittsburgh region over the last century. More precisely, it examines carpenters as a “work force,” and changes in carpentry practices over time.

American carpenters first organized a union in Chicago in 1881, named the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Pittsburgh joined soon after. National UBC membership reached 200,000 by 1910, when it was said that “the craftsman without a [union] card is a man without a trade.” Today there are over 9000 carpenters in western Pennsylvania, who are members of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Local institutions like the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC keep them employed in maintaining, renovating and repairing existing buildings, as well as in erecting new ones. In the United States there are 19 regional and district councils of the IBCJ. In 2016 the western Pennsylvania region merged with several others, including carpenter unions in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. This enormous Keystone+Mountain+Lakes Regional Council of Carpenters now has membership totals above 40,000.

Union membership, though apparently thriving, continues to be mostly white and male, and it is worth asking why there is little racial and gender diversity. Furthermore, how do carpenters’ wages and health care compare with the other building trades, such as electricians and plumbers? These questions lead me to others, such as how the recruiting process works, how apprenticeships are mentored, and how the union will sustain itself in an era when organized labor is constantly under attack and when fewer young Americans are drawn into the construction trades. Since carpenters are only paid when they are employed, health care costs and pension contributions, which must be paid out-of-pocket during periods of unemployment, remain sources of concern and financial stress for individual carpenters. 

Thus, I am interested in asking questions about the history of the carpentry union as caretaker of workers, as well as charting the changes in the practice of carpentry through the last century.  Carpentry may be nearly unique among the skilled trades in that it relies upon human labor that cannot be replaced by automation. Carpentry continues to require skills in mathematics, precision measurement, reading blueprints, understanding materials and the use of human hands and hand-held tools. If so, what effect does this necessity for human labor have on the job security of carpenters? And for those portions of the construction process that can be automated, such as machines to help lift heavy loads of sheet rock or lumber, has this innovation prevented physical strain and injury and increased efficiency?  

The early twentieth century saw carpenters, like most trades, fighting battles against open shop employers. When employers used non-union labor, this action led to worsened work conditions, weakened safety rules, and deliberate attempts by businesses and corporations to weaken or destroy labor unions. This struggle is ongoing, to which are added the new challenges cause by the globalization of labor and the increasing power of multinational corporations over work processes.

What will be the impact of the globalization of the economy on carpenters and carpentry? If you watched the new documentary, “American Factory,” the first project of Barack and Michelle Obama through their Higher Ground production company, you witnessed one example of the impact of globalization in nearby Dayton, Ohio. There, a corporation owned by a Chinese billionaire who produces glass for automotive windshields, moved into the closed and vacant General Motors plant in 2014. This experiment in global cooperation did not go smoothly: the transplanted Chinese workers were used to laboring seven days a week, and working overtime whenever asked, and regarded the American workers as lazy and indulged. For their part, the Americans were outraged that their union protections were being violated and overrun, and that their workplace protections and ultimately, their jobs were being cut and automated to save money, even though they had already taken pay cuts to work for Fuyao Glass. When the American workers begin a unionization drive, the Chinese hired consultants to oppose a union and undermine the drive. What is the fate of unionized labor in this kind of world, where one nation’s workers expect different conditions and standards?  How can American workers be educated to understand the processes affecting their lives in order to protect their trades? Are carpenters also concerned about these issues, and who is responsible for educating them about legislative and union concerns?

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