The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941

By Walter Galenson | Go to book overview
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16
The Building Trades

The building trades constituted the hard core of the American Federation of Labor prior to the expansion of AFL membership in the years following 1933. 1 Among the first to organize in the nineteenth century, the workers engaged in building construction displayed a consistent though by no means complete adherence to the principle of trade unionism thereafter. The power of building unionism rose sharply during the first World War, but it was affected adversely by the decline in building activity during the depression. Membership in building unions fell from 800,000 in 1928 to 500,000 in 1933. 2 By 1936, membership had once more risen. Unions affiliated with the Building Trades Department of the AFL reported an average of 650,000 members in good standing during that year. 3 During 1936, contract construction offered employment to about 1.1 million workers. 4

The term "building trades" is a convenient label for a heterogeneous group of national unions, varying in structure from craft to semi-industrial, in size from tiny to giant, and in jurisdiction from narrow building construction to multi-industry. Between 1936 and 1941 there were nineteen separate unions affiliated with the Building Trades Department, ranging from the Marble Polishers, the Asbestos Workers, the Stone Cutters, the Roofers, and the Granite Cutters, with between 4000 and 5000 members each, and confined entirely to the construction industry, to the Carpenters' Union, which straddled the construction, lumber, and furniture industries. The larger and more powerful unions were, in addition to the Carpenters, the Electrical Workers, the Laborers, the Painters, the Plumbers, and the Bricklayers. The Teamsters' Union was affiliated for that portion of its membership which was engaged in building construction. In addition to the national unions, there were affiliated to the Building Trades Department about 500 local and a dozen state building and construction trades councils. It would be manifestly impossible, within the confines of a general history, to trace through in any detail the experiences of all the building trades

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