An introduction to what will hopefully be an intermittent series of musing on life and labor within the New York City building trades and struggles within and against business unionism.
I'll begin this new blog with an anecdote:
It was a hot summer morning several months into my apprenticeship within the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. It was also two weeks since I had 'broken into' (that is to say, gained consistent employment with) a large scaffolding and hoist company based in Queens, New York. I had gotten a text from the General Foreman the afternoon before that I was to report to the company yard at 7:00am. I arrived early with my coffee and bagel, prepared for my first day of shop work.
Shop work! Both a blessing and a curse - at once freed from the glaring sun and psychological abuses of toiling on the busy streets of New York, while at the same time toiling under the constant surveillance of the company brass.
The shop foreman, a younger Greek-American guy with a penchant for alternating rapid-fire, cynical humor with full-throated tirades of anger at all and sundry, directed me to the area of the dusty old building he had set up for me to work. He gave me hasty instructions on how to build a wooden parapet (the ubiquitous, green, wooden panels that surround every work site in New York City) before leaving me with the tools and materials I would for eight hours of work. He then ran off to yell at somebody about something. I was too morning-dazed and overwhelmed by my three minute tutorial on parapet making to acknowledge what that might be.
"Ok," I thought to myself, "let's get to it." As a first year apprentice I knew I had to bust ass to keep my job and I knew that this task would require me to discover a system that would increase my output quickly. As a radical who disdains wage labor and the toll it takes on mind and body, I looked forward to getting to that point where I could work on auto-pilot: letting my muscle memory do the work while I could let my mind drift to anything (ANYTHING!) besides the visceral tedium and indignity that derives from the commodification and alienation of my labor.
After making a few panels I felt like I had a pretty good system going: cut a bunch of 54" pieces of 2' x 4' with shop saw, insert studs and braces into metal frame, square and plumb, use the big nails in the nail gun to affix studs, lift and position plywood on top, change nails in gun to smaller ones, square and tack the plywood, run a line of nails around the outside and middle of the panel, place completed parapet onto a nice stack accessible to the forklift.
As the morning went on I was feeling good about my progress and even better about the fact that nobody had come by that corner of the shop to break my balls about work or anything else. I plugged away and began to get into the zone where I could think about politics, my social relationships, or life in general. I even zoned out enough to get a good soundtrack of my favorite songs going in my head. "Yay shop work!" I thought to myself as my stack of parapets grew higher and my muscles, sore from the day before, loosened up and my thoughts drifted pleasantly.
And then it all changed. The number one, Billy, and number two, Guiseppe, in the company's union hierarchy walked into the shop loudly arguing about something. I was immediately brought out of my daze. My mental mixtape morphed instantly to the white noise of anxiety and dread. I was hoping the General Foreman and Safety Foreman wouldn't notice me as they entered, that they would walk on by and leave me to work in peace. My hopes were instantly dashed as they made a bee line in my direction.
"Hey, kid! You getting anything done over here or what?" said Billy, in his typically sarcastic, hyper cant. This guy was the kind of union 'brother' who would work you like a dog. His loyalty was to the company and his paycheck and nothing else. Billy hustled over to my completed stack of parapets (one thing about Billy, he always hustled) and counted them up. "Eleven, eh? You've been here three fucking hours and you've made eleven goddamn panels?!"
I looked at the stack and started muttered something about how I just learned how to do them and how I was getting faster and better at it... He cut me off: "Four fucking panels an hour! Wow, kid, have you been working or playing with your dick all day?" The number two union guy, Giuseppe, made brief eye contact with me then looked away with a wry smirk on his face.
Billy continued, "Come on, now, you should be making ten or twelve of these an hour! Do you even know how to use a nail gun? Are you a carpenter or what? What the fuck are you good for..." et cetera et cetera, as I just nodded at him tight-lipped and terrified. Meanwhile, I thought of how I'd gained confidence in my work all morning. But within thirty seconds, all this confidence was dashed as Billy assaulted me with a torrent of abuse coupled with confusing, rapid-fire tips on how to produce more, faster. He grabbed some tools and knocked them around a bit, waved his hands around and then as quick as he came to ruin my day, he was off to break somebody else's balls.
I was paralyzed for a minute or two, both physically and psychologically. I reached for a cigarette, perhaps the most destructive ways I, and many others, find momentary chemical solace in this fucked capitalist world. A couple of drags and my anxiety receded enough for me to regather my wits. Half of my wanted to throw up my hands and tell Billy to go fuck himself. But the more reasonable (and desperate) half of me knew I couldn't afford to burn any bridges this early in my career or to be laid off for even a day. Hell, my rent was a week late already.
So I just plowed into it. This was the familiar speedup. The speedup exists everywhere in capitalist society, in its circuits of money, its movements of commodities and its exploitation of labor. Speed, productivity, profit - mental exhaustion, aching muscles, and a shitty paycheck.
Instead of placing the plywood on the studs, I heaved it off the pile and half threw it in place. Instead of meticulously inserting nails to insure the integrity of the panels, I lined myself up and let the recoil from the explosive power of the nail gun quickly pop the head into next position until my right hand was cramping and blistered. Instead of using the proper ergonomics of manual lifting, I let the boss's drive for speed take over, tweaking my back in the process. On and on until lunch, I found further 'efficiencies' and increased my rate of production as the boss would come by periodically to count my stack, shake his head, and silently walk away.
As I stumbled into the break room (blessedly air-conditioned) four or five guys in the Operating Engineers union were sitting around eating their packed lunches and playing dominoes. They looked at me, covered in shop filth and sweat, and started slapping backs and laughing.
"What's up, fellas?", I croaked out as I reached above the lockers for my cooler. The Greek Shop Foreman chuckled and yelled "Yo, the kid's run down! Whats'ammata did Billy get to ya?" More laughter. I just smiled in a wry way and took a brief round of half-joking abuse from each one of them. Thankfully, for my sake, I come from a large family of jocular pricks, so I can take this sort of thing pretty well.
Guiseppe, the number two, was sitting at the table with his sandwich. He is a quiet Italian-American guy with a constant aura of harried, hangdog exhaustion. With a sideways glance to the rest of the guys he said, "So, Billy says to the kid to make ten to twelve panels an hour." He waived his hand in my direction, "How's that working out for ya?" I told him that I was working as fast as I could, but I only had fifteen done by lunch. More laughs! Were they laughing with me or at me? My confusion was utter and complete.
Then the mood changed in an instant. The Greek stood up and slapped me on the shoulder, "Yo why the fuck you listen to Billy," and chuckled. Smiles and knowing glances all around. "This kid's breaking his ass trying to make twelve and hour!" Guiseppe looked up from his sandwich and explained wearily, "Hey look. We used to have a guy that made those things all day, all week. His job, ya know? His only job and fucker was twice the size of you. You know how many he made a day, kid?"
I quickly did the math, but before I could blurt out, "SOMEWHERE BETWEEN EIGHTY AND NINTY SIX," Guiseppe answered his own question. "Fifty."
"Yeah fifty fucking panels a day, kid, and he asks you for twelve an hour." Everyone cracked up at this and I was starting to figure out what was going on.
So, shaking my head, I asked Giuseppe, "Is that, um, Billy's way of motivating me?"
It was my turn to join in the bitter laughter when Giuseppe replied, "No. You got it all wrong, kid."
(pause for effect)
"That's Billy's way of BEING AN ASSHOLE."
End of anecdote.
The above story represents a mere half-day in the life of a building-trades apprentice in New York City. But each workday of the last four months has provided me some lessons on how the construction industry operates.
This is true on the micro level, in the day-to-day social interactions, the physical wear and tear, the cynicism and despair, the implicit and explicit power dynamics at work, and the contradictory marriage of my own drive to learn and succeed in my trade coupled with my disdain for the wage system and our place, as workers, within it.
On a macro level, the building trades are situated within a powerful, but tenuous, nexus of profit. So each day teaches me more about its political economy, the perverse logic of business unionism, and the familiar struggle between capital and labor. Along with this I've found a surprisingly overt and disturbingly intense struggle within this privileged fraction of the organized working class to maintain a relatively decent standard of living, largely by undermining basic principles of even conservative unionism and disregarding any notion of solidarity with fellow unionists, let alone the class-at-large.
And while I hope to bring my personal experiences and outlook to these writings, my precarious position as an apprentice in a highly conservative, exclusivist, and often corrupt craft union forces me to maintain strict anonymity. This means I must skirt around many autobiographical details and be purposefully vague when sharing workplace or union stories. For example, any names that appear in the above story have been changed and I would be loath to mention the name of the company or even what neighborhood it's based in. This could possibly change in several years when I've 'booked out' into journeyman status and gain a degree of protection, but in the meantime I must avoid revealing too much lest I jeopardize my union card or my ability to find work.
After all, as they told us in our first orientation at the union hall, "Never forget that as first year apprentices you're the lowest of the low. In fact, you're so low you're lower than whale shit." Duly noted...
One thing I can say is that I am a newly-minted union carpenter with a college degree in the liberal arts who has even attended some graduate school. For five generations both sides of my family were blue-collar unionists in New York City, but, with the exception of a couple union carpenter uncles, my parents and most of my extended family have risen to the ranks of the home-owning, suburban middle class American 'ideal'. In fact, until recently I myself was part of the educational workforce (albeit highly contingent) and have done work in publishing and other white-collar fields.
Now, ten years ago my education may have made me a complete outlier in the building trades. But it says a lot about the state of the local and national labor market that when the roughly 150 new apprentices were asked in initial orientation were asked who had a college degree, nearly half raised their hands!
Thirty years of the globalization of production, along with capital and the state's war on unions, had made college the key for a chance at a decently-paid job in the United States. Now, after six years of generalized capitalist crisis and an 'education bubble' on the verge of busting, the college degree is failing to provide what it once did, especially as so many tertiary and 'creative-class' jobs now assume a shocking level of precarity.
Many in that room in the union hall were probably thinking the same thing as me: fuck my degree, where else could I earn a great hourly wage with full benefits and have the possibility to retire at 55 with a full, defined-benefit pension?
And so it goes. When I told my family they were pretty shocked, but understood my need to finally have a decent career as I pass into my mid-30s. When I told my white collar coworkers, who were well familiar with my class struggle radicalism, they couldn't get past the assumption I was engaging in some kind of Trotskyist 'turn-to-industry'. I kept telling them that, while intend to continue with vigor my political work inside and outside of the workplace, I really really really just needed a shot at not being broke and completely insecure for the first time in my adult life. The older and established ones, especially the more left-leaning ones, just couldn't wrap their heads around it, but those of my age cohort mostly understood. They have real experience in how brutal the capitalist labor market is at the moment for so many younger people in this city, this country and the world.
So I am starting this blog firstly because I need an outlet to pull together and try to make sense of my own experiences as I embark on this new phase of life. The day-to-day grind of heavy construction has sapped a lot of my critical faculties and I need a forum for encapsulating the lessons I've been learning.
Secondly, and more importantly in my opinion, I wish to document and analyze the political economic aspects of the building trades industry in a forum where my experience might be valuable to other class-struggle militants in this sector or any other sector of capitalist labor market, and where I might be able to share ideas and strategies on how to confront exploitation, and discuss with others ways to make libertarian communist practice even a slight force within a largely conservative and moribund union structure.
And, let's be clear, my union and all the others in the industry are in a fight for their lives. Until 1978, construction in New York City was nearly 100% union. Today that figure hovers between 30-40%, while, unsurprisingly, profits for contractors and developers are at an all-time high in the middle of a huge local construction boom. The conditions for a return to labor militancy in the trades could not riper, but instead we continue the exclusive business union strategies that have failed the rest of our class, and are in the course of failing even on their own 'pure-and-simple unionism' terms. But there are bright spots I will explore as well, such as the increasing integration of black and latino workers (and a small, but increasing, number of female workers) into what has traditionally been a citadel of reactionary, racist and misogynistic unionism.
I will attempt to explore these and many issues as time and energy allows. I'm indebted to and influenced by the great work done by prole.info in its publication The Housing Monster and the great analysis produced by NYC carpenter Greg Butler at Gangbox News. I hope to add to their insights in some small way. As I sign off on this post, I invite my Libcom comrades to provide any links or book suggestions in the same vein as those. I would also love to receive any questions or comments (or much-needed encouragement) people might have related to this introductory post. Thanks for reading!
Max K. Schwarz
Hey, just want to say thanks
Hey, just want to say thanks for writing, this looks like a really interesting new blog and look forward to reading more from you!
Totally agree that yes you need to protect your identity and anonymised details of all your stories, as do most of our contributors so don't feel bad about that!
In terms of further reading about the building trades, I agree that The Housing Monster is brilliant. In terms of historical stuff, Dynamite by Louis Adamic has some interesting snippets about the construction unions mostly in California in the early 20th century. And from a UK perspective the Solidarity pamphlet on the lump is pretty specific but has an interesting stuff in there as well.
Just to say that I really
Just to say that I really enjoyed this, looking forward to further installments.
holy balls Max Schwarz is
holy balls Max Schwarz is BACK in action! God bless you son, for returning to the commie fold and giving us some nuggets to chew on while you break your back out there. Good luck navigating that world. SOLIDARITY and wahrheit.
Been lurking on LibCom so
Been lurking on LibCom so long, but I had to finally register to say: I really enjoyed this and am looking forward to more.
I'm the Greg Butler that
I'm the Greg Butler that brother Max Schwarz references in his article - 22 years in he business, 16 of that a shop steward.
Welcome to the industry, brother - I'm on the other side of the trade - interior systems, specifically office furniture, and unlike you I don't have a steady job (most of us don't - a majority of this union is high priced day labor.
In any case, it's nice to see another leftist in this business.
He already plugged my blog, GANGBOX: Construction Workers News Service:
I'd also like to plug my book DISUNITED BROTHERHOODS ...race, racketeering and the fall of the New York construction unions
Keep up the good work - see you on the next one, brother!
Thanks for the words of
Thanks for the words of encouragement, everyone, they will keep me at it.
I had a hard time finding the parts in Dynamite that are relevant to the building trades, Steven, but the article on the Lump was interesting to the extent that I could follow the regional and historical particularities of it. What ever became of that struggle, so you know?
Onto, I saw your repost... thanks, you scabby scab you!
Greg, I'd love to check out your book. Maybe when I get the second year bump I can afford some discretionary spending haha...
I hate to get cross platform here, but I noticed your comments on Facebook,
First off, the 'aristocracy of labor' references were made with a high degree of irony. Notice that I preface 'aristocracy' with 'withered'. I will be sure to elaborate in further posts, but the title of this blog was a reference to exactly those degraded conditions for tradesmen in the industry that you have experienced and describe so well. There is still the general impression amongst the broader left that union construction workers are this privileged bastion of labor that live high on the hog at the expense of the rest of the class. You and I know that the last 30 years have completely changed the industry and that that impression is false. Hence the 'withering' of that supposed aristocracy you and I are supposed to reside in.
Secondly, I know you have particular definition of 'company man' that you use to distinguish between those who get their work through one outfit and those who get their's through the out-of-work list and shaping. But 'company man' also implies that one puts the interests of the company ahead of the interests of their union brothers and sisters... This is not me. In fact, I will write about a recent experience where the company I've been working for the last few weeks (different from the one above) was breaking the contract and I had to intervene myself to get them to stop fucking us because my steward wouldn't do shit. Yes, I have been lucky to find steady work (at three different contractors since I broke in) but that is mostly a result of my membership in one of the specialty trade locals within the district council. I can't speak for conditions in Local 157, but out local is so busy we can barely fill out gangs at this point.
Lastly, my narrative above included some of my inner thoughts as I tried to navigate a particularly tough situation I faced as a newly-minted apprentice. I respect that you've put your time in and I doubly respect that you've taken on steward duty. I'm sure you've been great at looking out for our brothers and sisters on the job. Still, I'd appreciate you lay off any assumptions about the thickness of my skin or my ability to make it in the industry. I included the narrative above not because it hurt my poor little feelings, but to highlight the sort of aggressive, macho interpersonal bullshit that is so normal in the industry. And it's that normalcy of the super or foreman breaking you down just to get more productivity out of you for the sake of company profits that is just one of the many issues we need to confront.
Day in and day out I can take it like the best of them, but is that the kind of work lives we want or the kind of world we want to live in?
Hey, yeah thinking about it
Hey, yeah thinking about it there probably wasn't that much in Dynamite about construction specifically. However there was mention of construction unions there blowing up non-union-constructed buildings!
With the lump, I think basically the "struggle" against it was doomed, because the unions had accepted pay restraint, so workers could get higher wages (and dodge tax) through this casual work.
Nowadays unions in construction are pretty much non-existent (apart from a couple of sectional exceptions, like construction electricians who had interesting disputes at the Lindsey refinery and nationally when the eight big firms tried to leave union pay agreements).
I just randomly came across this text by another construction worker who was looking back at the introduction of the lump 20-30 years on, which may be of interest:
Quote: there was mention of
So, randomly, a cousin of mine - who I hadn't seen in years - got married a while back. We saw her and her fiance a week before the wedding (a cynic might say the visit had something to do with a wedding present...). Anyway, the fiance was a manager in a construction firm and told this story about a site that was sabotaged when union workers broke in to smash up the work done by non-union builders.
To be honest, I'm not totally sure the story was true - I'm sure stories like this float around the ranks of management in the industry. But what I told him was that if he doesn't want that to happen, he shouldn't hire non-union workers.
Needless to say, we haven't seen them since.
So no wedding present then?
So no wedding present then?
Yeah, union membership for a
Yeah, union membership for a year and a subscription to Class War...nah, just a toaster or some shit.
Hi Max, from a brother on the
Hi Max, from a brother on the West Coast,
Like Greg, I feel the need to drop a little knowledge, to give a little advice, both as an activist and as a Carpenter.
>>Paying your dues, and getting broken in, a rite of passage:
It appears that you have quite a few fans, and judging by your quality of writing, you should. I had a bit of a chuckle after my first read.
I'll have to echo Greg's welcome to the industry, and having seen so many first period apprentices with soft hands come and go, I can't say I blame Greg if he is unsure that you will stick with the trade. When I was just entering the field, there were several apprentices I looked up to who I thought had far more potential than myself who washed up, and cried their way into something easier.. like standup at a comedy bar. It is a bit like an army movie where half of the squad dies and in the next scene the replacements show up green and wet behind the ears. It will take time for you to earn the respect of your fellow craftsman. We call the completion of this rite of passage, having “paid your dues.” Also, Greg is right that you appear to be a company guy, and while there are two definitions of a company man, they are related. Quite often, those with steady work become loyal to the outfit for job security, and those who are loyal to an outfit get steady work from that outfit. Most guys jump around and have a contact network that they use to get new jobs. While nobody likes to burn bridges, if they have to they can take their tools and leave with ease—a company man has no such network built (that takes years of time, bouncing from job to job).
While I would like to see that you continue writing, and attempting to understand your workplace experience in a political context, I would encourage you to NOT put your local number or any personal identifiable information in your writing. Greg has a different take on this, but Greg is also an East Coast veteran of the industry with plenty of friends and a plan—you don't have any of that. Remember something as an apprentice, especially as a first period apprentice, you're lower than whale shit. Stay humble. The workers demand respect for seniority for a reason, they don't like a kid with zero experience, fresh out of school with a theology degree bossing them around (my boss has a theology degree). Its often the bosses that undermine this seniority. This has nothing to do with macho bullshit, it has to do with respect for the craft, experience and skill. I think its great that we're getting another leftist in the industry, and I think Greg agrees with me that it is important to bring new leftists up to speed on how things work, but understand that it will take time for you to understand this new situation . Far too often do I meet young leftists who get tiny, little taste of organized labor, and fool themselves into thinking that they have figured it out. Your reputation with veteran leftists in the industry, and with the workers has already begun—don't squander it, it will be remembered!
I do not know your General Foreman, or your Safety Foreman, but most Foremen don't make much more than your average Carpenter. I've had several foremen over the years who get laid off with the rest of them and end up having to scratch up work with the rest. If one played a joke on you, he probably didn't do it for the company—he probably did it to get a laugh for himself and his crew. All I can say is get used to it, because right now, you're the new guy—and until you can prove otherwise, you're the joke.
>>The political question of Labour Aristocracy (Three Worlds Theory):
“There is still the general impression amongst the broader left that union construction workers are this privileged bastion of labor that live high on the hog at the expense of the rest of the class. You and I know that the last 30 years have completely changed the industry and that that impression is false. Hence the 'withering' of that supposed aristocracy you and I are supposed to reside in.”
You bring up an definition that comes from Mao's Three Worlds Theory. I find this to be a theory that serves the bourgeoisie, by promoting the undermining of internationalism between workers in the dominating nations and the dominated nations. There is some truth that workers in the dominating imperialist nations benefit from that domination, but they are far from the Labour Aristocracy. A Labour Aristocracy implies a partnership with the ruling class. There are some sections of the working class that may be described as Aristocracy, like the Trade Union Leaders, the Police, and maybe the soldiers, but I think it would be gravely mistaken to suggest the Trade Union workers are a part of this (as the IWW sometimes suggests). I hope that as you gain experience working you will understand the silliness of this belief. And, in my opinion, that is the main problem with the revolutionary left in the US, not the silly out dated theories that don't stack up against material reality, but the inexperience, alienation and isolation from labour and the working class.
In the future, if you are confident enough to write to members of your union, you are welcome to submit an entry to a rank and file blog The Control Line at www.thecontrolline.wordpress.com
I hope that you continue to write, and stick with the trade. Many of the graduate students of the left may think that the working class as backwards, but I hope over time you will see as I see them—as the best hope for humanity. The workers have always exceeded my expectations despite often having little to no education and a steady diet of bourgeois prejudices. One of these guys (and I mean that in a non-gender specific way) might save your ass some day.
For the Proletariat,
Max, Thanks for your
Thanks for your thoughtful reply
As Art pointed out above, you're new to this business, and this is a very harsh industry.
Would it be nice if it was different?
I know that from personal experience - I got in this game as a Black man, who didn't have any family in the union, so I know how harsh it can be.
A therapist's couch is a good place to talk about how it feels, not necessarily a public forum.
Also, as I pointed out, count yourself lucky that you've been steadily employed - but that's common when you're a first year and your pay is at the bottom of union scale.
The work gets scarcer when you start being higher paid - even for scaffold guys like yourself
Also, as Art said, you might want to be careful with your real life identity. I can get away with being public because I've been in this union a long long time - 22 years this month, 14 of that a steward.
You just got here - and I for one would like to see you stay.
Be careful - especially when you're up on those scaffolds, but also in what you write here.
Talking about the day to day of the job can get you in trouble - there's lots of carpenters on line, and they are voracious readers. It's embarrassing when your foreman comes to you with an article you wrote that talks about him (that actually happened to me when I first started writing about the business in the late 90s)
However, if you write about the union as an institution, the industry on a meta scale (not just your company, but on the various sectors in the industry) and our non union colleagues (there's about 100,000 non union workers in this town to 100,000 union - with carpenters, a majority are non union 25,000 non union carpenters to 15,000 union) - well, you won't get in trouble for that, and folks will read your stuff and appreciate your efforts
Good luck and if you want to reach out to me directly you're welcome to
Also, on a professional note - put in an application at the Javits Center - they're always looking for first and second year apprentices. The work is WAY different than what you do - a hell of a lot easier, and it's the same money putting up a booth it is climbing up a scaffold.
Trust me, when you're a third or fourth year, you'll appreciate having a Javits badge and all the money it will earn you
Good luck and hope to talk to you soon!
Max, if you're concerned
Max, if you're concerned about privacy, you could always anonymise the city you are working in, which should give you enough cover to be able to talk about your day-to-day experiences without jeopardising your anonymity. And I guess you are probably doing this already but when I write about my work I swap details around from different experiences and mix up timescales a bit to keep them less identifiable…
Thanks for your well written
Thanks for your well written story. Keep the good work.
Hey folks! I have a new blog
Hey folks! I have a new blog post up (after a whole year haha!) and it's mostly about why I haven't been able to write for so long. I've been so neglectful I haven't even checked the comments to this post since Art and Greg commented.
I am super aware of the importance of anonymity for all the reasons you guys stated in your comments. I've made sure to never mention any job sites or my local number or anything else. I have seen apprentices get into shit for a lot less than what I've written, but thankfully I'm past my first probationary year and so I have a little leeway. I'm still going to keep things on the low as much as possible. When I journey out I might have the balls to go public like Greg, but I got a ways to go to get there!
Anyways thanks again for all the comments and support and I look forward to getting feedback on #2.