The American Plan of the 1920s challenged the status of unions in the United States, but the Great Depression of the 1930s threatened the very existence of working people. The stock market crash in 1929 was a signal to the world that the economy was in crisis. In the months that followed unemployment rose at the astonishing rate of 4,000 workers a week.
As always, the construction industry served as an advance indicator of general economic conditions. In many parts of the country, the depression started for carpenters in the midst of the “Roaring Twenties.” By 1928, many local unions were issuing “stay away” warnings to travelling carpenters. Conditions only worsened, however. Total construction in the United States amounted to $20.8 million in 1929; four years later it reached just $6.6 million. Membership ultimately dropped to a low 242,000 in 1932 and fully 40% of those members were unable to pay their dues. By the next year, the Carpenter reported that less than 30% of the union’s ranks were employed as carpenters.
The pain of unemployment was devastating. The incidence of alcoholism, divorce, emotional depression, and suicide soared during the early 1930s. Proud carpenters, whose sense of self-worth was wrapped up in their craft and their ability to make a living as independent tradesmen, were unable to put bread on the family table. Local unions tried a variety of ways to ease the pain–lowering dues payments, negotiating for 24- or 30-hour work weeks, forbidding overtime, and instituting job-sharing programs. But all of these attempts were little more than bandaids on a fundamentally crippled industry.
Some union leaders on the local level looked to political action as a solution to their problems. A number of locals called for an independent Labor party as an alternative to the Republican and Democratic political parties. In 1932, the Chicago Carpenters District Council urged the UBC national leadership to lead the fight for an unemployment insurance system. Hutcheson was wary of such activities. His mistrust of governmental intervention in the collective bargaining process, fueled by his experiences during World War I, made him reluctant to support an activist agenda by the federal government. While Hutcheson ultimately accepted the idea of unemployment insurance, he unsuccessfully opposed the AFL’s endorsement of a minimum-wage bill in 1937. As late as 1940, after eight years of popular New Deal legislation, Hutcheson maintained his opposition to extensive federal involvement. “Labor,” said Hutcheson, “has known that what government gives, government can take away.”
Rank-and-file carpenters and local leaders had less difficulty welcoming the New Deal programs. Like Hutcheson, unemployed carpenters were not advocating welfare or relief. But they did want jobs. They eagerly greeted Roosevelt’s alphabet soup of public works agencies (PWA, CWA, CCC, and WPA) instituted to help revive the ailing economy. Initially, conflicts arose between federal desires to put people to work at any price and union commitments to maintaining a decent wage. By 1936, however, federal and union policies coincided to enable skilled tradesmen to move into their customary roles.
New Deal initiatives created jobs for millions of Americas but they did not end the Depression. In fact, almost 9.5 million people were still out of work in 1939. Only the monumental task of preparing for entry into World War II was finally able to generate enough work to eliminate the suffering of the jobless. The war-driven building demand and the general post-war prosperity finally provided American carpenters with reasonable opportunities and greater financial security.
The wages of union carpenters rose 15% between 1945 and 1949, 30% through the 1950s, and 72% during the 1960s. While inflation ate away at some of those gains, by and large the quarter-century following World War II proved to be the longest period of sustained improvement in the standard of living of American workers. The nation’s labor organizations reflected this growth, representing nearly one-third of the workforce. The UBC reached its peak membership of 850,000 in 1958 and again in 1973.
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