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The Months of Labor—April 1881 Seeds of Change for Carpenters

April is an auspicious month for those of us who have marched in the wars against Capital. I proudly recall the spring showers that carpenters brought to St. Louis building sites in the spring of 1880.

During that era, the nation’s job sites filled with piece-workers, green hands, and untrained wood butchers, who replaced true journeymen to the point we could neigh find work. Industrialism and scientific management made their way onto our building sites in the later 1800s. Managers turned the craft of building into an assembly line. They stole carpenters’ skill and knowledge of how to organize their work and moved these roles to the hands of management or middle men. This affected working conditions and severely reduced wages. Some tradesmen wished to think it was the “system” (to me, a vague term), that created this dilemma. Others of my ilk knew it was the boss and his associations who promoted the theft of trade knowledge by portioning it out into separate, scientifically manageable parts.

I wish to report our trade worker movement in those days was not strictly about wages and hours, but about a philosophy to advance toward a cooperative commonwealth. This commonwealth included the annihilation of the industrialized system and its control by middlemen. I believed that trade unionism could be a mechanism to settle the labor question, and provide a channel to educate and ultimately assimilate large groups of carpenters and other trade workers. I imagined that through them, a system of universal cooperation would be created and managed.

So I moved to St. Louis in 1877. First I organized a position as Deputy Commissioner of the new Missouri Bureau of Labor Statistics, but I resigned in 1879 to organize a union of carpenters. We aimed to return to carpenters the ability to organize their own craft. Our success resulted in thousands of carpenters flocking there – we eventually formed four branches of one local union. By the spring of 1881, we had doubled carpenters’ wages and partially eliminated piece work.

Word spread to other cities, and even more carpenters flooded into St. Louis in numbers that swept aside some of our hard-won gains. I realized that we needed carpenter unity across the Nation to control the incentive for itinerant carpenters to move from cheap cities to others with better conditions, causing the same erosion of gains that we had experienced St. Louis.

 I wrote to Philip Van Patten, president of the Socialistic Labor Party, “I have received letters from all cities…. asking me to form a National Carpenters Union; I shall do so.”

On April 24, 1881, I organized at the St. Louis local union a Provisional Committee of the Carpenters and Joiners National Union. I was elected the secretary of that committee, and editor of The Carpenter. With The Carpenter, we transmitted our call for a founding convention to all carpenters. We selected Chicago due to it being a hot bed of radicalism at that time. I became General Secretary of the newly formed Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in August 1881, and began to organize in earnest.

Each month a long-time union member will channel the voice of a different figure from labor history. Peter McGuire was apprenticed at age 15 as a piano carpenter. At night school at Cooper Union in NYC, he met firebrands of the Socialistic Labor movement. He is also known as the father of Labor Day (May 1) and the 8-hour day in the US. McGuire’s story is based loosely on Empire in Wood by Robert Christie (Cornell Univ. 1956). The quote from the letter to Van Patten is from Philip Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, p. 499. Next month: Mary Harris Jones.


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