Organize or Die

Douglas J. McCarron enters the room, takes it over, really, with his lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame, his striking white hair and beard, his penetrating intensity. He is a man who inspires superlatives, and his commanding physical presence helps explain why.

Chief of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, he is among the most aggressive and controversial of modern labor leaders: a genius to some, a manipulative tyrant to others.

He offers his hand, the beefy hand of a working-class man though without the calluses, then settles into a chair that seems far too small for him. He rarely grants interviews but approaches this one with apparent ease, folding his hands on the table in his Los Angeles office and leaning slightly forward, eager, he says, to set the record straight.

Portions of his 550,000-member union are in open revolt. A lawsuit--since dropped--alleges that he misused a $2-billion pension fund. And a respected pro-labor foundation is lobbying federal lawmakers to curb his power.


At the same time, he is drawing scorn for shrugging off decades of history and pulling the carpenters out of the AFL-CIO, the national labor federation. In his bluntly worded withdrawal letter, delivered a year ago, he portrayed federation leaders as tired bureaucrats stuck in “an era that passed years ago” and said he could do better on his own.

The letter enraged those loyal to John J. Sweeney, the federation president who was elected six years ago on a reformist platform.

Some suspect McCarron’s real motive was to get free of federation rules that blocked him from going after the work of other unions, such as roofing and painting. They say he wants to establish an empire in the building trades, now a fractious collection of 15 unions.

His enemies--and he has acquired many during his 30-year climb to power--describe him as arrogant and controlling. They say his $260,000 salary has distanced him from the rank-and-file, that he has grown too cozy with wealthy contractors and money managers. They question the union’s generous campaign contributions to mayors, governors and senators, and wonder about McCarron’s blossoming relationship with President George W. Bush, who gave the carpenters’ chief a lift on Air Force One last Labor Day.

But his bold ideas and exuberance also have earned McCarron admirers, including several of the most active and progressive union presidents in the federation.

“Doug is committed to organizing and he’s putting his money where his mouth is, and his aggressiveness is right on,” says Terence O’Sullivan of the hefty Laborers International Union of North America. “If we’re not doing aggressive things, we’re not going to survive.”

The man who churned up these passions is no easy read. At 51, he recalls with nostalgia the old days of union solidarity. In the next breath, he dismisses critics within the carpenters as fearful, selfish bureaucrats or deranged loners or communists. “God bless them,” he says at one point. “They are very hateful people.”

He boasts of having blue-collar roots, says he loves to work with his hands and speaks of a craftsman’s pride in a job well done. Then he launches into the sort of corporate-speak that makes even some supporters cringe.


In justifying the union’s new $22-million training facility in Las Vegas, McCarron compares his approach to that of retired General Electric Chairman Jack Welch, guru to the modern CEO. He refers to skilled union members as “a strong product.”

He is easy to misjudge, says Richard Bensinger, a former AFL-CIO organizing director who now consults for the carpenters. “McCarron presents a very complicated figure for people,” he says. “In some ways I think he is heartbreakingly good, because I don’t think the world is ready for him.”

The question, then, remains unanswered: Is McCarron the fresh new face of labor or a throwback to the days of bosses and patronage?

The son of a supermarket meat cutter, McCarron dropped out of Chatsworth High School 33 years ago to hang drywall in housing tracts sprouting across the San Fernando Valley. Construction work was mainly union then, and there was plenty of it. McCarron, who was already married with an infant daughter, says he preferred the physical labor to his father’s dream of a college education.


Before long his knack for maneuvering the rough world of hiring-hall politics became apparent. He was not yet 30 when elected to his drywallers’ local and named to the Southern California Council of Carpenters, the negotiating team for contracts covering union carpenters in 11 counties. Those roles put him across the bargaining table from some of the region’s top construction magnates, including a newcomer named Ron Tutor, who would later play a major role in McCarron’s career. They also exposed him to senior national officers in the carpenters’ union, who recognized a potentially strong ally in the outspoken delegate from Los Angeles.

As McCarron’s star was rising, however, organized labor was sliding into its worst slump in history. The mood in business and politics in the early 1980s was bottom-line and decidedly anti-union. Viewed by many as bloated, insular and wasteful, unions were losing members and relevancy. Nowhere was that more painfully true than in the Southern California housing market, where builders squeezed by high interest rates were turning union jobs over to recent immigrants willing to work for a fraction of the cost.

Tensions culminated in 1983 with a divisive three-month strike, mainly over the use of nonunion labor. It ended when contract language was added to protect union jobs from subcontracting. But residential construction kept going nonunion anyway.

As he watched the jobs disappear, McCarron says, he understood the need for radical change in the way the carpenters did business.


What followed over the next decade and a half is chronicled in more than 20 crates of legal files stored in the federal archives office in Laguna Niguel--a trail of lawsuits and countersuits that have McCarron’s name as their common denominator. They detail his ascension to the top carpenters job in Los Angeles, his expansion of authority in the region and finally his rise to the national presidency. They flesh out dozens of rivals who tried to stop him and failed, and were left bitter and powerless.

The trail begins in 1986, when McCarron, a relatively new trustee of the carpenters’ Southern California Pension Fund, helped instigate a civil suit in federal court against longtime fund trustees, alleging that they had made sweetheart loans to developers. The suit was filed by the newly composed pension board, which included Tutor. Several defendants today recall that Tutor and McCarron were the leading forces behind the legal action.

They were aligned against the old guard of Los Angeles construction, including the region’s top carpenters’ union officials and several prominent union contractors, who shared responsibility for making pension investments. Court documents show that several deals had gone sour, saddling the fund with foreclosed hotels and restaurants.

The longtime board members denied doing anything wrong. They said they openly made low-interest loans for large commercial projects to generate union jobs at a time when there were few to be had. They argued that they should not be blamed if some investments failed.


The lawsuit was settled in 1989 when insurance companies agreed to pay the pension fund nearly $30 million. There was no admission of guilt; no criminal charges were filed. To satisfy insurance demands, however, all defendants agreed to permanently resign from the board.

“We became more or less lepers,” says Sam Heil, a former pension trustee who was once Ventura County’s top carpenters’ official and was named in the suit. He retired soon after the settlement. Speaking recently from his home in Ventura, Heil chalks the experience up to a power play between generations of union leaders. “It’s very political,” Heil says of the carpenters’ union. “McCarron was just a little better at it than most.”

Paul Miller, who was the principal carpenters official in Los Angeles and the defiant leader of the 1983 strike, left the union under a cloud. McCarron was elected to replace him in the spring of 1987, a year after the suit was filed. He took office determined to make his mark quickly.

The organization that McCarron inherited was an unwieldy old boys’ club that hadn’t changed much in 100 years. Although nominally organized under a regional council run by an elected secretary-treasurer, the union was divided into tiny, autonomous fiefdoms, or locals--32 in Los Angeles County alone. Each local employed a set of full-time elected officers who, in their small worlds, were privileged and powerful men.


Regional contractors hated the structure and wanted it streamlined. They wanted to deal with just one jurisdiction, one set of rules, one pool of workers. “It was ludicrous,” recalls Tutor, now one of the largest public works contractors in California. “All general contractors complained about that for years.”

The builders found a kindred spirit in McCarron, who started consolidating the union’s scattered parts as soon as he took office as secretary-treasurer. In early 1988, invoking his new powers, he merged 18 locals into four, appointed leaders of the new bodies and transferred most of their assets to the regional council, which he controlled.

In a sworn declaration to a federal judge several months later, McCarron said that the mergers were intended to make the union more efficient, more attractive to contractors. Bringing jobs to members, he said, was his only consideration. “I have received no personal benefit, pecuniary or otherwise, from these changes,” he asserted.

Five locals refused to go along with McCarron’s decree. They sued in federal court, claiming the new structure stripped members of their democratic rights. The case did not go well, however, and the disempowered local chiefs began to make their peace with McCarron. The last holdout was Stanley Oakley, then secretary-treasurer of Local 769 in Pasadena and an aspiring political rival of McCarron’s for union leadership. Oakley resisted the takeover for three years. Then he lost an important court appeal and knew it was over.


“We waited 30 days after the appeal,” Oakley recalls. “They didn’t talk to us, so we just stood there and waited. It finally happened one day at 1 or 2 in the afternoon. There were six of them who came in. I was there by myself. They kept me in a corner. They wanted my books and my money. There was a guy screaming in my face, ‘Where’s the money?’ ”

Stripped of his office and power, Oakley returned to the old hall every day for several months. He stood on the sidewalk with shellshocked members and seethed. He could not let it go. He still cannot let it go.

A decade later, Oakley carries his bitter memories around in a frayed silver gym bag: Pocket calendars that detail a pre-McCarron life of perks such as afternoon golf outings and conventions at Lake Tahoe. Yellowed letters of protest to a succession of national carpenters officials, most of whom sided with McCarron. An old union constitution. A copy of the lawsuit. The failed appeal.

One day Oakley, now 72 and living in Pasadena, delivers the bag to a journalist, saying he wants nothing more to do with it. The old battle is a burden, he says with a raspy voice. It has ruined his marriage and his health. Sometimes, he says, he wants to pile up all the papers inside that bag and burn them. A month later, Oakley has a change of heart. He calls with an urgent request to retrieve the bag. He is sure there is damning evidence against McCarron in there, somewhere. He holds on to it still, despite a creeping certainty that no one will care.


Through the early 1990s, McCarron kept on consolidating and expanding territory. Where he expected resistance, his agents arrived without notice, backed by uniformed police officers or sheriff’s deputies. According to old news reports and the recollections of ousted leaders, the agents grabbed books and money and changed the locks behind them.

Some screamed foul. Others filed lawsuits. But McCarron moved forward steadily, determined. Dissident members began to call him Pac-Man.

He concedes that he “made some mistakes” in those early days, but defends the abrupt seizures as necessary. “We’re talking about carpenters’ families being exploited,” he says. “It’s terrible out there. I don’t believe we moved fast enough.”

As raucous as it was, the turmoil in Southern California was overshadowed by a nastier power struggle at the top levels of the carpenters’ union, one that ultimately propelled McCarron to national office.


Two camps were vying for the general presidency. McCarron cast his lot with General President Sigurd Lucassen, who won a rumor-shrouded election at Atlantic City in 1991. Lucassen in turn named McCarron as his second vice president.

The Department of Labor later charged that the election was rigged and reached a settlement that called for a new election. Lucassen did not run. His No. 2, Paschal McGuinness, had recently settled charges of labor racketeering in New York, so he was out. McCarron, the organization’s third in line, was swept to office in 1995, unopposed.

To signal a new era, McCarron ordered the demolition of the union’s historic marble-halled headquarters in Washington, D.C., in the northwest corner of the U.S. Capitol.

The building was a symbol of everything he hated about the union--its stodgy bureaucracy, its blind allegiance to the past. “There were rotary phones in the phone booths,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “They never wanted to change anything. They had a printing press that looked like something Benjamin Franklin would be working on. They were just stuck.”


In its place, a 10-story office building was built. The union rents out 9 1/2 floors, generating an estimated $18 million in annual revenue. The remaining half floor holds what is left of the union’s once-grand headquarters.

For the future of the carpenters, McCarron says, look West, to a lonely stretch of desert 10 minutes from the Las Vegas airport. There a $22-million complex of concrete and glass gives form to McCarron’s recipe for rebuilding the carpenters’ strength.

Completed in January 2001, the UBC’s International Training Center is 178,000 square feet of dormitories, classrooms and hangar-sized warehouses where trainees can learn to build stronger scaffolds or to outsmart anti-union consultants.

As many as 120 member-trainees stay there at any given time, in surroundings that are both comfortable and spare, just as McCarron envisioned. Private dorm rooms with cinder-block walls are furnished with extra-long queen beds and computer hookups, but no televisions. The cafeteria offers plenty of complimentary food, but no alcohol. A pool and sauna sit conveniently close to the self-serve laundry room.


The center embodies the pragmatic mind-set of a carpenter, says McCarron spokesman Monte Byers as he shows a reporter around. Solid, no frills, hands-on. “Carpenters tend to be concrete, operational guys,” he says. “They don’t want theories, they want practical skills.”

Here trainees can try out a $90,000 computerized cabinet-milling machine or operate a heavy crane or build a roof over and over again until it’s perfect. Dozens of skills, from laying carpet to driving a forklift, are taught in sessions ranging from two days to two weeks.

The Las Vegas center also churns out instructional books, videos and CDs, which are shipped to training centers at cost. “We’ve got over $1 million in training manuals here,” says Dudley Light, the center’s training director, patting a row of glossy white videos on hardware installation.

All told, the union spends $110 million a year on training, funded through member paycheck deductions, says Light, a carpenter for 31 years and an enthusiastic McCarron fan. With a growing national shortage of skilled carpenters, the training in Las Vegas and at 180 smaller union centers in the U.S. and Canada will give members an edge in a tight job market, Light says. And the investment shows employers the union is serious about providing value for higher wages. The center plays another essential role in McCarron’s comeback plan: It is boot camp for his young army of union organizers.


Rebuilding union strength through aggressive organizing is not a revolutionary idea; most active unions, fighting a decades-long decline in membership, have been moving resources in that direction for years.

But McCarron has taken the concept to an extreme. His slogan: Organize or Die. He devotes half of the union’s budget to organizing, far more than most. (The AFL-CIO’s Sweeney is urging unions to spend one-third on organizing, but only a handful have done so.)

McCarron’s dream is to build a corps of street-savvy labor evangelists who can sell the union to ambivalent workers and hostile employers. He already has hired 700 full-time organizers, most pulled from the ranks of working carpenters. All of them learn the basics in Las Vegas.

Boot camp offers two weeks of immersion in the high-stakes, cutthroat world of union organizing. Trainees are given a hypothetical union campaign and come up with strategies for winning it. Then they are hit with daily plot twists. As they respond, the trainees are critiqued and coached by visiting professionals on federal labor laws, common employer tactics and the whims of the press.


Trainees, who work in teams, huddle into the night to map strategies for the next day, Byers says. The lessons stick with them, he says, preparing them for the real pressures they will soon face.

Organizing is tough work, particularly in the building trades, where job sites, bosses and crews are fluid and subcontracting is routine. It’s hard to keep track of workers, let alone persuade them to stand up to employers who may never hire them again.

But McCarron, who occasionally makes house calls with organizers, genuinely seems to enjoy the challenge of taking a prospective member “from fear to trust.” He speaks of it with the zeal of a missionary.

Only by controlling at least 70% of the work in a given industry or region can the union significantly influence pay, benefits and working conditions, he says. That was the case a generation ago, when nearly all of the construction work force was organized and wages topped $30 per hour. Now the union represents one-third or less of eligible workers, McCarron says, and is close to zero in some regions such as the South. Wages have stagnated in the industry and many employers have cut pensions and health benefits. “Think about it at 10%, how bad it would be,” he says. “There’s got to be strong unions. Otherwise, everybody’s gonna hurt.”


To make it stronger, he says, he had to streamline the union, consolidating nationally as he did in Los Angeles a decade earlier. Now, he says, he can go toe to toe with regional contractors. But critics say the new structure gives too much power to one man. “No other union has quite the autocratic setup,” says Carl Biers, executive director of the Assn. for Union Democracy, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based foundation that promotes the rights of union members. “The system allows for abuse. In a way, it’s the perfect dictatorship.”

Since assuming the presidency, McCarron has squeezed the assets and decision-making of 2,200 autonomous locals into 55 regional councils and appointed most of their leaders. Some of the largest councils are run by longtime associates of McCarron. The Southwest Region, which covers Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, is directed by his younger brother, Michael.

Adversaries say that the regime moves quickly to silence dissenters and offer two recent examples:

Eight months after it openly defied McCarron in the summer of 2000, a union local in Atlanta was placed under trusteeship, its elected officials made powerless overnight. McCarron said there had been complaints that the officials--who had been in office less than a year--were spending union funds without approval. Yet the most damning evidence he offered was testimony that some legitimate expenditures were not announced and voted on at membership meetings. The ousted board members have hired an attorney and asked for a Department of Labor investigation.


A year earlier in San Francisco, veteran activist John Reimann was permanently expelled from the union after leading a four-day wildcat strike to protest a new master contract covering carpenters in the Bay Area. The contract, which was never put to a vote by members, covered work on a major airport expansion that involved McCarron’s old friend Ron Tutor.

Reimann’s protest, which caused union contractors to lose money for four days, was intolerable, says Byers, McCarron’s spokesman. “You just don’t do that on a project labor agreement,” he says.

Biers says the examples fit a long-standing pattern, and that his organization has been lobbying members of Congress to address it for several years. Their efforts led to a 1998 hearing on union democracy before the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations.

McCarron testified. He was polished and diplomatic. Speaking patiently, he assured committee members that all the changes he had made were legal and for the good of the union. “I take my members’ democratic rights--and their participation in the governance of our union--seriously,” he said. “Our councils are a representative democracy, not unlike the system that brings each of you to the House of Representatives.”


Nevertheless, committee members drafted legislation guaranteeing union members’ rights to vote directly for their leaders and restricting the use of trusteeships. The proposal was not vigorously pursued, however, and never made it out of committee. Similar bills have been introduced every year since, says Biers. They have stalled in committee each time.

some say that whatever his motives, McCarron’s single-mindedness eventually will backfire by driving members away. They mention what happened last spring in British Columbia, where angry carpenters voted for autonomy from the international group in order to escape McCarron’s control. “He takes virtually all the democratic rights away from the members,” says Dave Flynn, secretary-treasurer of the British Columbia Provincial Council of Carpenters, which is now negotiating its independence. “We view the union as an organization that’s run by the membership. His view is it’s run like a business, very top down.”

Flynn says that carpenters in British Columbia are free spirits who don’t like being told what to do. That was made clear early on, when McCarron came to a meeting hall to explain the structure he planned to impose. Members demanded the right to vote on any changes and to elect their new officers. When McCarron refused, they walked out en masse, turning out the lights and leaving McCarron standing at the podium.

Today he shrugs off the slight, dismissing the British Columbia rebels as misguided and incompetent idealists. “They only have seven to 10% of the market,” he says of the locals. “They’re about out of business. And there’s a high influence of the Communist Party.”


Similar rebellions have popped up around North America, giving birth to political rivals and a few virulent anti-McCarron Web sites. Still, the opposition lacks the sense of a cohesive movement. At the last international carpenters’ convention, held in Chicago in August 2000, protesters were lonely voices outside the hall on a day when 91% of delegates voted in favor of McCarron for a second term.

Dissidents note that a majority of delegates are union staff members whose jobs ultimately depend on McCarron. But there are, without a doubt, some genuine McCarron fans among the members, including at least one who lost status and power under his regime.

Wayne Catalano, the former top elected carpenters officer in Ventura County, was moved to a staff job a year ago when Ventura was merged with the Southern California region. He lost his freedom, his autonomy, his identity. But Catalano says the restructuring makes sense for the members and will help the union grow. “You have to put the welfare of the whole brotherhood ahead of your own personal concerns,” he says.

Catalano acknowledges that members have lost voting rights under McCarron and that the president has assumed unprecedented powers. Under some circumstances, that could be a scary thing, he says. But Catalano, who watched the union share of Ventura construction workers plummet 30% over two decades, says he is ready for desperate measures.


“The way I look at it, it makes you hope he’s right,” he says. “From what I have seen, we’re back on the right track of gaining members.”

McCarron’s future and legacy will likely rest on whether he can indeed build market share as promised. Supporters point to a few small successes, such as the rebirth of a union local in Boise, Idaho.

“The local had been closed down. There were no signatory contractors left,” McCarron says. “We went up there and reissued a charter, put in a training program and said come down here and look at the training we can give. We signed two drywall contractors right away. Now we’ve got six. And we’re up to 220 members in Boise.”

McCarron says that the carpenters’ union has gained 70,000 members since he took office--a figure some dissidents dispute. Even at that, union membership would not have kept pace with the booming growth of the construction trades in the late ‘90s.


Robert Gasperow, executive director of the Construction Labor Research Council in Washington, D.C., says about 25% of building trade workers are union. The mechanical-electrical trades, which include electricians, pipe fitters and sheet metal workers, tend to have higher-than-average unionization rates, Gasperow says. The civil trades, including laborers, operating engineers, painters and carpenters, are below average.

For all of McCarron’s bluster, the carpenters are no better or worse than most, Gasperow says. The union missed its best chance to expand during the last spurt of construction. Although the jury is still out, he says, “holding their own in market share is probably the best they can hope for.”

McCarron says that the numbers don’t yet reflect his initiatives. Building an effective campaign takes time and organizers are still green. He has no doubt that he’s leading the carpenters in the right direction.

“We’re getting better and better and better at what we’re doing,” McCarron says. “You wait another five years and you’re going to really see an organizing machine. We’ve got a pretty good one now, but it’s nothing like what we can be. I mean, we can be great.”


So far, McCarron has outmaneuvered or outlasted his enemies. One of his fiercest critics, a retired drywaller named Horacio Grana, died of liver cancer in January soon after dropping a lawsuit that challenged McCarron’s stewardship of the $2-billion Southern California Carpenters’ pension fund.

The suit claimed that the fund, managed by a board that included McCarron and Tutor, overpaid investment manager Richard C. Blum, who earned $54 million in fees over an eight-year period in the mid-1990s. A spokesman for Blum, who is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, maintained that the payments were reasonable for investments that earned $459 million. Blum handled a small part of the fund.

Grana, a cranky Argentine immigrant who came out of the same union local as McCarron, alleged a murky web of political and financial intrigue involving McCarron, Tutor and Blum, but was never able to prove it. In the end, his complaints often came down to personal vitriol fed by envy. Like many critics, he couldn’t accept that a one-time equal had risen so far beyond him so fast. “He’s a man who doesn’t have principles, no scruples. He doesn’t care about the working carpenter,” said Grana, who lived on a $577 monthly pension and complained bitterly about McCarron’s six-figure salary.

The lawsuit had been the latest longshot hope for McCarron opponents; Grana’s retreat dealt a stomach punch to their campaign to undermine the union leader’s integrity.


It is a tribute to McCarron’s power that AFL-CIO leaders are still trying to woo him back a year after his stinging rebuke. Sweeney, the president of the national federation of 66 unions, has met regularly with McCarron, spokesmen for both camps confirm. Neither side will discuss the nature of the talks.

A Sweeney confidant who asked not to be identified says the federation continues to hope that the carpenters will return, boosting the AFL-CIO’s clout and finances with $4 million in annual dues. But he notes glumly that several deadlines for resolution have come and gone.

Meanwhile, other building trades unions are working with McCarron outside of official federation channels, exacerbating a crack in the so-called House of Labor at a time when the union movement is struggling to appear solid.

Construction unions involved in heavy highway work, which had been organized under an AFL-CIO department, recently established a separate alliance so that the carpenters could participate. And officials from the 14 construction unions belonging to the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department offered an olive branch late last year. Although some had been openly hostile toward McCarron, they voted unanimously to ask him back.


In response, the chief of the carpenters has been publicly mute, taunting his critics with his silence as his friends wait, confident that McCarron will emerge with what he wants.


Nancy Cleeland is a Times staff wirter who covers labor. She last wrote for the magazine about Mike Garcia, who heads a statewide janitors local.