Oct. 13, 2002: Carpenters Union Building Political Clout

Let me state up front that I grew up not liking unions. My dad was a foreman for the now-defunct Railway Express Agency, and as a kid I could always count on the railroad unions to pull a wildcat strike at Christmastime and ruin our holidays. Also, the unions enjoyed a bunch of featherbedding rules that insured their members didn’t have to work nearly as hard as my dad and still were paid almost as much money. I wasn’t assuaged by the fact that after he retired, Papa and one of his union adversaries became best buddies and used to ride together to their railroad retirement club functions.
My attitude didn’t improve when I joined Southern Bell. The Communications Workers of America, which represented telephone employees, could take work rules to absurd lengths. While managing a group of service representatives in one of the company’s business offices, I had a complaint filed against me by a union steward because I adjusted a chair for a service rep after she had complained that it was too low and uncomfortable. The steward considered my actions as “management doing union work.” I was exonerated, of course, but it reinforced my opinion that the union spent more time looking for silly reasons not to do things than doing what they were hired to do.

Having said all of that, I have found a union that I could learn to like. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America doesn’t fit my negative stereotype of unions. First off, they broke away from the AFL-CIO a couple of years ago because the AFL-CIO is in bed with the national Democratic Party and doesn’t necessarily represent the thinking of rank-and-file workers, just the fat cats who run the unions. Rather than mindlessly vote Democratic, the leadership of the 500,000-member carpenter’s union decided to take an independent path and make their own political decisions. In Georgia, at least, they are backing up their talk.
Christopher Lee, the union’s political director for the Southeast, says his organization supported John Noel, the political neophyte who upset race-baiting state legislator Billy McKinney. They then pulled off a daily double by supporting Judge Denise Majette, who toppled Billy’s loony daughter, Cynthia, in the Democratic primary for the 4th district congressional seat. The carpenter’s union was the only union to support Majette. I hope Congresswoman-to-be Majette remembers that when the other unions come around trying to make nice with her.
Lee says the union’s intent is not to be taken for granted by either party and that candidates are going to have to earn union members’ votes. Not surprisingly, the Carpenters are supporting a number of Democrats in the upcoming elections in Georgia, specifically incumbent U.S. Senator Max Cleland. Maybe changing an old habit is hard after so many years of cohabitation with the AFL-CIO, but the Republicans aren’t exactly helping their cause either. Lee cites numerous examples of reaching out to the GOP and being rebuffed. Elizabeth Dole, who is running for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, won’t even return Lee’s phone calls. In Georgia, the union has tried to meet with Ralph Reed, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, but to no avail.

In fact, two Republicans have reached out to the carpenter’s union — Georgia Congressman John Linder and President George W. Bush, who addressed a union conference this past spring. Other Republicans would be wise to follow their lead.
The union says it is going to support those candidates who support its agenda. Fair enough. Maybe there are some parts of the carpenters union’s legislative program that Georgia Republicans wouldn’t agree with, but I would suggest they need to take a close look at an organization that represents 5,000 working men and women and their families in this region. These particular union families just might have the same value system that the GOP espouses. For sure, Republicans won’t know until they ask.

Maybe one day the Republican leadership in Georgia will get off its ideological high horse and show women and minorities and, yes, even unions that they have a place in the party. The carpenters union would be a good place to start.