There Is Power in Our Union | Letters | Chicago Reader

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There Is Power in Our Union

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To the editor:

We read a story in a recent article in the Reader that claimed to be about the carpenters' union ["Suits vs. Boots," January 10], but it had little to do with the reality of our union. The leadership of the Chicago and Northeast Illinois District Council of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America has been one of the most effective and successful in the union's long history. We just achieved the highest increase in wages in the history of the union with a four-year contract that catapulted wages/benefits by $8.40. The union also achieved the same wage rate for commercial and residential work; this is found nowhere else in the country. On top of that, the union increased pension benefits to members by a staggering 82 percent over the past eight years. No other union can come close to these great benefits.

Even more important, however, is that our union has worked to make sure that Chicago uses union labor more than any other major city in the nation. Ninety-three percent of all commercial building in Chicago is done with union workers and 80 percent of residential work is performed by union carpenters. This is far and away the highest percentage of union work in the nation. A full 50 of the top 60 developers in the Chicago area use union carpenters. These exceptional numbers do not happen by accident, but with the hard work and dedication of union leaders that are extremely effective in their representation.

Despite this great success, however, the union has not been complacent. We have actively sought to expand and worked to increase our membership by nearly 6,000 members in six years. We increased the number of union organizers from 4 in 1995 to 27 today.

Nor has the union been complacent in terms of quality. We strive to make sure that Chicago's union carpenters are the best in the world. In 1999 we built the most impressive 35,000-square-foot inner-city apprenticeship school and are now working to double the size of this training center. In Elk Grove Village we had a 95,000-square-foot facility and recently completed a 45,000-square-foot addition to train new members. We also have training centers in Joliet and Elgin and offer skill advancement courses in every aspect of the trade. Approximately 7,000 of our apprentices and seasoned journeymen take part in more than 500 different courses that are offered not only in English but also in Polish and Spanish. These bilingual courses keep us on the cutting edge of the carpentry trade.

Of course as a large group we have differences of opinion in our union. But we have always welcomed dissent and discussion. Certainly not every member will agree with changes made at the international union, but we know that they have made them in good faith. We do not understand, however, why members would choose to distort the laudable record and do so in a forum that has nothing to do with the internal dynamics of union life.

Regardless, this is the real story of the carpenters' union in Chicago: a story of a union that leads the nation, that works effectively with builders and developers on behalf of its members, and that has kept its members working at better wages and more frequently than any other union in the country.

Earl J. Oliver

President/executive secretary-treasurer

Chicago and Northeast Illinois District Council of Carpenters

Tori Marlan replies:

It's interesting that Mr. Oliver has finally decided to register his point of view. While I was working on the story he didn't return my phone calls. Nor did he respond to written requests, made via E-mail, for interviews either with him or Local One officials, who'd said they needed his permission to talk to me. In late October the president of Local One finally agreed to an interview. But when I showed up at the appointed time he turned me away, saying, essentially, that union business was none of the public's business and that he didn't have Mr. Oliver's permission to talk to me anyway.

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