A 21st Century Union Campaign
At some jobs, employees are asked to give money to charities like the United Way and the Salvation Army. At Greg Butler’s job, the charity was the legal defense fund for indicted union executive Michael Forde.
Butler was none too happy about being asked to help defend Forde, the executive secretary treasurer of the New York District Council of Carpenters, against federal charges of labor racketeering. Forde was indicted in September 2000, charged with taking bribes from contractors to allow the use of non-union labor. Over two years later, the case is still pending.
When a fellow worker asked Butler if he was going to contribute, he replied, "I’m not going to give him a penny. If he goes to prison I might send him a pack of cigarettes, but I ain’t paying for his lawyers!" He laughed, recounting the story during a recent interview.
In a system union dissidents say is rooted in loyalty secured by bribes and favors, many would rather keep their job than speak out. Butler is different. Not only does he voice his opinions freely, he posts them on the Internet, and sends daily email updates to hundreds of union activists worldwide. Unlike other reformers, Butler is not interested in running for office. He exists outside the web of power and connections, providing a rare glimpse inside the curious world of a New York union carpenter committed to the seemingly Sisyphean task of revolutionizing the labor movement.
"Our business community is dominated by thieves and criminals," said Butler, 34, a large, bulky man who smiles easily and lets the words roll out in perfect sentences, giving the impression of having said all this a million times before. "Our labor movement is dominated by thieves and criminals as well. That’s a fact. If you want to change it, you have to acknowledge that fact."
A carpenter and member of Local 608 of the New York District Council Of Carpenters, Butler runs the website and listserve Gang Box, dedicated to exposing the corruption of construction unions and advocating a complete overhaul of the labor movement.
Every union dissident knows that the labor movement is in crisis. Over the last 50 years, the labor movement has lost most of its power in the United States. In 2002, only 13.2 percent of workers were union members, compared to a high of 35 percent in the 1950s, according to the Department of Labor. Despite the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s increased emphasis on organizing, union membership continues its steady decline. Butler, along with a small group of like-minded rank-and-file dissidents, believes that unless drastic measures are taken, the labor movement might not survive through the 21st century.
Butler was drawn to carpentry from an early age. "I’d always liked mechanical things," he said. "I always wanted to build stuff." After working briefly in a machine shop, he turned to the construction industry, where he could make more money and receive formal training in the union-run apprentice program. He began his apprenticeship in the summer of 1992, going to school one night a week and working during the day. His tasks were basic. "You’re the one who unloads the trucks, who gets coffee, and if they need screws you go into the shanty [office] and get the screws," he said.
Construction is a volatile industry. Contractors hire workers for specific jobs. Full-time is generally 35 hours a week, usually from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with a half-hour unpaid lunch. But there is no guarantee of full-time employment. Some construction workers work five days a week. Others work three. Butler estimates that apprentices make from $14,000 to $31,000 a year and union journeymen make from $37,000 to $61,000.
In a recent interview, union official Julia Gordon said she could not provide specific salary information. "It depends on so many different factors that determining these general statistics is pretty much impossible," she said.
After four years Butler was a journeyman, and qualified for the full union pay. "Like we always used to say in carpenter school, ‘Then you get to be unemployed full-time," he said, laughing.
The work schedule is erratic. "Working on trade show carpentry jobs, you might go in and get four hours and you might get 80 hours. You might go in and work 36 hours straight," he said. "They have what the employer calls flexibility. Flexibility means that they can use you and abuse you and dispose of you as they see fit."
Butler said he soon discovered that some carpenters worked for cash, usually significantly less than the union rate. He saw workers blacklisted for speaking up, while others got the best jobs because of connections to union officials and the mob, he said.
The New York District Council of Carpenters has a long history of fraud. For example, Forde is the fourth union leader since 1980 to be indicted for corruption. Forde’s predecessor, Fred Devine, was convicted in 1998 of stealing union funds. Union leader Paschal McGuinness was acquitted of federal bribery charges in 1991. Ex-union chief Theodore Maritas disappeared after rumors that he spoke to the FBI pending federal charges of helping the mob control the drywall business. His wallet was discovered in the East River.
When workers are fired, the union rarely asks for a reason, Butler said. "There’s no such thing as grievances or arbitration or anything like that. All of that technically has to be in here," he said, holding up the union contract. "But if you look in here, under arbitration they list these four guys. And you wonder why they’ve only got four guys to handle it in a union with 25,000 members."
After a few years, Butler decided to become a shop steward. (The steward is responsible for collecting dues, making sure all the workers on the site are union members, and representing the union on the job site.) But Butler soon became frustrated. "As far as having the power to actually represent people, you really don’t have that. Even in terms of occupational safety stuff. You can call the business agent and then he’ll come down and take a bribe to look the other way. Or you can organize a wildcat strike. But if you’re a shop steward, you’re less likely to do that because you’ll get, as we say, ruled off the job. The union will come in and replace you," he said.
Butler also criticized the wages and benefits in the union contract. "Some outsiders think we make a lot of money," he said. "More than we should. But, you know if you look at what they bill for what we do, we don’t make that much money. Union scale is $70 an hour, with benefits. But if they’re billing $250 an hour, where did that $180 go? It didn’t go to the person who did the work."
To qualify for health insurance, a worker has to work 1,000 hours a year, he said. "If you work out of the hall and you’re not somebody’s friend or somebody’s cousin, you might work 600-700 hours the whole year," he said. "So you don’t get any benefits. You pay for them, but you don’t get any."
Butler is quick to point out that the union treats its officials quite differently. He said that the renovations for the union headquarters cost $40 million. Butler also said that Forde drives a Cadillac STS and has a bodyguard who drives a Chevrolet Suburban—paid for by the union members. Forde’s salary for 2002 was $197,094, according to the Department of Labor.
The District Council of Carpenter’s Union communications office refused to comment or to divulge Forde’s salary or any related information. Forde did not return repeated calls. A 2002 article from the Council’s newspaper, the Carpenter, included a long profile of Forde. The article is upbeat, contains no reference to his indictment, and includes statements like: "Whether it is a minor grievance or an extravaganza, [Forde] tackles the challenge vigorously."
In a recent interview, labor journalist Bob Fitch said, "These union leaders lead a lifestyle that for a working class guy does not make any sense. You would have to be the ruler of some small state like Oman to live like that."
Fitch agreed with Butler’s assessment of the District Council of Carpenters. Referring to union leaders, he said, "I think one of these crooks can operate in a fairly corrupt way. He has his own little constituency. It’s sort of like feudalism. You’re the lord of your realm and you have your vassals who parcel out jobs." According to Fitch, the corruption remains because most people have something to gain from it—money, overtime and job security. "The greatest virtue of the labor movement is loyalty," he said.
Butler started the website Gang Box in 1999. (A gang box is a large metal case in which workers lock up their tools.) He joked, "I did it because maybe not all the lights are on upstairs. I’m a little wacky. Someone’s got to say something about this. And running for office against some of these people would be a good way to get shot. I’m allergic to lead, so I don’t want that to happen. But when you go public, they don’t go after reporters. So I thought I’d re-invent myself as a journalist."
Butler figured he did not have much to lose. "I figured, let me be the kamikaze pilot here, and go out in a blaze of glory and expose them," he said.
He picked the screen name Vinnie Gangbox but signed his own name to each article. He wrote about corrupt hiring practices, union members working for cash, the exorbitant salaries of union officials, and more. "Some people read it and didn’t like what they read," Butler said. "But there were a lot of people who used to walk up and whisper to me, ‘Glad you wrote that article, man. Glad you said that.’ They were scared of someone overhearing them say that," he said.
Unlike the traditional dissident pamphlet or newsletter, passed out discretely outside the factory gates or in the mailboxes of union members, Butler’s website can be accessed easily and relatively anonymously. Also, since it exists outside the work place, few union officials or bosses stumble across it.
However, there are a few exceptions. One night a construction businessman, George Simpson, ran into Butler on the street and confronted him. "He was mad that I quoted him saying he’d run non-union jobs," Butler said. "He worked for a company called Acme Architectural Walls. They’re a union company. They build union and they install union in New York. But outside of New York, they have their union foreman from New York go over there and they get a non-union crew. That’s a pretty blatant violation of the agreement. I’m a steward for this job and this idiot is telling me this. George Simpson. I quoted him by name."
"I said, ‘Hey George. How are you doing?’ And George reaches into his backpack. I’m standing there waiting to shake hands with him. He leaves my hand standing out in the air. That’s a very embarrassing thing to do to somebody. He reaches into his backpack and takes out this article he printed out from the internet. ‘Why did you write that?’ he said. And I said, ‘Because you said it.’ And I just walked away from it and left him in the street standing there like an idiot." Simpson could not be reached for comment.
That night, Butler went home and wrote an article about the encounter and posted it on the website. After a year, Butler stopped writing about specific incidents and started concentrating on the larger issues. He rattles off a list of questions: "Why is a union that’s over 150 years old run by gangsters, thugs, and criminals? How did that happen? Why is it that way? Why do the contractors like it that way?"
Butler advocates what he calls "revolutionary unionism." He argues that unions should be run by the members, "not run by business agents who are accountable only to themselves, and their employers, and their toadies, and their political machines." He envisions what it would take to change organized labor. "You have to build a mass movement from the ground up to change it. Part of that would involve organizing the legions of nonunion workers and bringing them into the labor movement. Part of it would involve rebuilding the unions."
Butler does not spend time worrying about the decline of union membership over the past twenty years. "In some ways, it helps that they are shrinking and dying because there’s less corruption," he said. "As they get weaker, it would be easier to replace them with a new labor movement built from the ground up. That’s probably what it’s going to take."
Butler’s opinions strike a chord with many in labor dissident circles. Although Fitch is skeptical of the usefulness of Butler’s approach ("I doubt any union officials read Gang Box," he said.), he agrees with Butler’s argument. "I think [a push to revolutionize unions] has to come from outside the labor movement, from people who are willing to take risks," he said. "Greg wasn’t getting a lot of hours at his job, and so he felt like he could go for it. He’s an outsider, not a union official. I think the longer you’re in the labor movement the less passion you have."
After a recent stint teaching the basics of construction to poor, mostly minority students in the Bronx, Butler returned to work as a carpenter. He plans to enroll in The Center for Worker Education at the City College of New York in the fall to obtain a B.A. in Labor Studies. In a recent email interview, he said, "I’ve done a lot of writing and educating on that topic over the last four years. I might as well have the ‘sheepskin’ that says I know what I’m talking about!"
When asked if he would recommend a career in construction to his former students, Butler said, "I’m going to tell them it’s an option. But I urge them to go to college and get a degree so that they have more options. I’m not going to give them any illusions that everything will be wonderful in the union, because it won’t be. I’m not going to lie to them about that."
MADELEINE BARAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.