Members of Local One of the carpenters’ union had a surprise waiting for them at their monthly meeting in April 2001. On their chairs lay a copy of a magazine article reporting that their international leaders had pulled their union out of the AFL-CIO, the nationwide federation of building trades.

It was a defining moment for some at the meeting. For Steve Wilson and Joe Quattrochi the news was a reminder that they and other rank-and-file members had little say in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. It also confirmed their belief that the local officials–who either hadn’t been given or hadn’t shared advance notice of the withdrawal–were puppets of bigger union bosses.

But then Wilson and Quattrochi didn’t believe the local officials could adequately represent their interests anyway. Only five of the nine men who formed the local’s executive board were still working carpenters. The president, vice president, and financial secretary made their living mostly by working as business agents for the Chicago and Northeast Illinois District Council, the body responsible for recruiting and organizing members and negotiating collective bargaining agreements for the 27 locals in the region and the 32,000 carpenters they represent. The council had bought the BAs luxury cars, and it paid them cushy salaries, ranging from $73,000 to $96,000. So Wilson and Quattrochi suspected the BAs weren’t eager to go to bat for the local’s members when that required standing up to the council or the international.

At the time Local One meetings were held in a conference room at the Midland Hotel, at 172 W. Adams. The officials sat at the front of the room in ties and slacks, facing members in work boots. Few of the rank and file ever showed up–about 60 out of 1,600 on a good night. And few of them ever said anything. When they did, they rarely challenged the leadership. They feared getting blacklisted–it seemed everyone in the rank and file knew someone who’d pissed off a BA and suddenly found himself out of work.

Wilson and Quattrochi had been in the UBC more than 15 years, and they remembered a time when things were different, when a gulf didn’t exist between the people running the local and the people on whose behalf it was supposed to be run. They’d recently started sitting in the first or second row at meetings and leaping out of their seats with comments or questions. They figured they’d paid $300 in annual membership dues and were entitled to voice their opinions.

Wilson, a self-described conservative, and Quattrochi, who says his politics are “right down the middle,” are both opinionated and strong willed. Quattrochi has a reputation for settling scores with his knuckles. Other carpenters describe him as a “hothead,” a “firecracker,” and a “rumbler.” At 39, he has a piercing gaze and a thick neck, around which he wears a gold chain. He stands only five-seven–“in shoes,” he says–but weighs more than 200 pounds. The tip of the middle finger on his left hand was chewed off by a miter saw during his apprenticeship, but he’s right-handed, so it’s still easy to use his tools–or throw a punch.

Wilson is a 47-year-old card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association. He has graying hair, two bad knees, and back problems from lifting heavy materials on the job. Though he’s typically more subdued than Quattrochi, at that April meeting he was the one on the verge of losing his cool. He said later that the AFL-CIO decision “stuck in my craw.” He thought it showed that the Washington-based international leaders–particularly the general president, Douglas McCarron–called the shots and that the 51 district and regional councils across the country mindlessly bent to their will. The magazine article attributed the withdrawal to McCarron’s dissatisfaction with AFL-CIO priorities and his belief that the $4 million the carpenters’ union paid the federation in dues each year could be better spent. But McCarron hadn’t brought the AFL-CIO issue to a membership vote, which, as far as Wilson was concerned, was the major problem with the union–voting, a basic democratic right, had become a thing of the past.

No one Wilson and Quattrochi knew could remember the last time the rank and file had voted on their contract. Delegates from the locals now did the voting, and they rubber-stamped whatever the district council officials put in front of them. (Three of Local One’s eight delegates were its president, vice president, and financial secretary, who were of course working for the district council.) The rank and file also used to vote for their BAs. But in the late 90s the international leaders decided that the secretary-treasurer of each district council should appoint the BAs–for life. The rank and file, already powerless to decide the terms of their labor, were now powerless to choose the people responsible for notifying them of jobs, shutting down work sites, and appointing stewards.

Stewards are the union’s eyes. They report problems–such as hazardous working conditions and the use of nonunion labor–to the BAs, who are supposed to take the issues to the contractors. Steward positions are coveted by the rank and file; they bring with them a measure of job security, since stewards are needed on-site for the duration of each project. Quattrochi says the BAs regularly gave him stewardships until he complained about losing the right to vote them out of office. Since then, he says, he’s been “in the doghouse.”

When Wilson told him at the April meeting that he was going to raise some hell about the AFL-CIO decision, Quattrochi worried that his friend might not be picking his battles wisely. He warned Wilson not to say “the V word” and said that if necessary he’d sit on Wilson’s lap to keep him in his chair. As the meeting got under way, Quattrochi pressed Wilson’s foot with his own to indicate he was serious.

Wilson was about to leap up anyway when from the back of the hall an angry voice roared, “This was a bad move!”

Wilson and Quattrochi spun around in disbelief. The voice belonged to a new member of the union, someone they’d never met–a short man in his early 30s with a goatee and Chinese characters meaning “empty hand” tattooed on his forearm.

Membership in the AFL-CIO had always meant solidarity with other building trades, the man said. Now if the carpenters went on strike, other tradesmen wouldn’t be obligated to put down their tools and join them on the picket lines. Membership had also protected the separate trades, he said, because each agreed not to encroach on the others’ turf–ironworkers wouldn’t put up drywall, and carpenters wouldn’t lay steel reinforcement bars.

Pulling out of the AFL-CIO, the man continued, would make carpenters the black sheep of the building trades–scabs, dirty rat bastards. The international is screwing us, he warned. And then he said the V word. “This was done without a vote!”

Wilson and Quattrochi exchanged gleeful looks, and Wilson turned toward the man and shouted, “Where are you going after the meeting?”

The man looked uneasy.

“I’m gonna have to take you out and buy you a couple of beers,” Wilson bellowed.

The voice in the back of the hall belonged to Cliff Willmeng. He’d been doing carpentry for only a few years, but he was a seasoned activist. As a teenager growing up in the south suburbs, he’d focused on protesting environmental abuses and U.S. military involvement in Latin America. More recently he’d turned to challenging globalization. In 1999 he’d helped shut down the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, getting teargassed and arrested and going on a six-day hunger strike to protest what he saw as the merging of government and corporate forces at the expense of the progress that had been made by environmental, civil rights, consumer, and labor movements. He calls the protest “one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Willmeng had seen radical youths banding together with rank-and-file union members, and he was proud to find himself in the mix of “steelworkers, dockworkers, anarchists, punk wacko kids, and Lesbian Avengers.” It didn’t escape his notice that by packing the streets and blocking access to the convention center, the protesters were using direct-action techniques similar to those once used by labor movements. He knew unions hadn’t won an eight-hour workday by writing polite letters to Congress, and he left Seattle hopeful that capitalism was on the decline and somewhat deluded about the vigor of the labor movement.

Back in Chicago, he and activists he’d met in Seattle founded the Direct Action Network, an antiglobalization group that also does community organizing. He took occasional carpentry and roofing jobs to pay the rent, and in December 2000, when the side jobs started becoming more like full-time work, he joined the carpenters’ union, affiliating with Local One, whose borders encompass the Loop, extending east to the lake and west to Halsted between North Avenue and 18th Street.

He knew that the UBC belonged to the AFL-CIO, which had organized an impressive turnout in Seattle, but he was disappointed in it from the start. Trade unions had become weak during the Reagan era and had only grown weaker, down from 20 percent of the private-sector workforce in 1980 to 9 percent today. The UBC was still among the largest unions in the building trades, with more than 520,000 members, but Willmeng soon came to believe that the officials and their lawyers wanted to do all the union’s fighting themselves. They wouldn’t acknowledge that the membership could be powerful given the chance to act collectively.

Willmeng decided to rein in his activist impulses for a while. “I wanted to get to know my way around,” he says. “I didn’t really know parliamentary procedure. I needed to meet people. I needed to figure out what my place was, understand what the needs of my brother and sister carpenters were. I couldn’t come in there and ask for enormous social upheaval for the benefit of the workers right off the bat.”

He also needed time to figure out the union’s hierarchy and the roles of the numerous officials, some of whom had mystifying titles such as warden and conductor. “I had 60 billion questions all the time,” he says.

Eventually he learned that the international was responsible not only for training full-time organizers, certifying carpenters, authorizing strikes, and helping to elect prounion politicians; it also had the power to decide points of law, to create or dissolve subordinate bodies, and in certain circumstances to supervise or even conduct the affairs of established councils and locals. He also learned that contractors–the carpenters’ employers–made up half of the district council’s board of trustees, which he thought could be a conflict of interest, especially given that the district council had the power to set union rules and even hold trials for members who’d been charged with violating them.

Shortly after Willmeng joined Local One, people working in other trades told him that the carpenters were planning to pull out of the AFL-CIO. He says that in March 2001 he asked the president of his local, Tony Guida, if the rumors were true and that Guida assured him they weren’t. So Willmeng felt betrayed when he read the article about the withdrawal at the following month’s meeting.

Afterward he went with Wilson and Quattrochi to a bar a few blocks from the union hall with a handful of other carpenters who spoke out at meetings. Wilson introduced himself to Willmeng as “a right-wing motherfucker.”

“Well, I’m a left-wing motherfucker,” Willmeng replied. “You sit on the right side of the hall, I’ll sit on the left side of the hall, and we’ll triangulate them.”

An opposition movement was born.

In the ensuing months Willmeng, Wilson, Quattrochi, and a few others passed out flyers at job sites explaining their objections to the AFL-CIO withdrawal. At meetings they spoke out more vehemently than before. Emboldened, other Local One members began voicing their opinions or told Willmeng and the others they liked what they heard.

Willmeng also began networking with reform-minded carpenters across the country. That May he traveled to Champaign to attend a building-trades conference organized by a carpenter named David Johnson, who said he was concerned about “the potential for great violence” in the wake of the AFL-CIO disaffiliation.

Johnson belonged to Carpenters for a Democratic Union, a national group that had formed a year earlier, after the UBC consolidated its power by, among other things, merging locals and eliminating voting rights. He’d grown up in a family headed by a union man, and he knew that jurisdictional disputes could get ugly. He remembered that his father, a cabinetmaker who was the president of his local, tucked a .38 pistol under his chair whenever tensions in the union escalated. He knew things weren’t as bad as they’d been in his father’s day, but he also knew that people tended to get angry and emotional when their livelihoods were at stake and that the building trades still attracted their share of “macho assholes” who sometimes resorted to violence to make their points.

Johnson wasn’t the only carpenter who was worried. “I’d say that we could start a betting pool tomorrow as to when the first construction worker will die on a job site, killed by another union construction worker,” Mike Orrfelt, a San Francisco carpenter and editor of Hard Hat, told Z Magazine not long after the UBC withdrew from the AFL-CIO. “I’m talking about, you’re working on the ground, and down from the thirtieth floor comes a bolt or rivet or spud wrench. What do you think happens to your flesh when that opinion arrives?”

Johnson hoped to inform the other trades that the carpenters’ withdrawal from the AFL-CIO had occurred without the rank and file’s consent and that they weren’t planning to encroach on any other trade’s turf or cross any picket lines. But the Champaign conference was small–fewer than 40 people attended, and most were carpenters–so it was going to be hard to get the word out.

Graffiti calling carpenters scabs had already begun appearing at job sites. In response, Willmeng designed stickers that said No Raiding: Unity of All Trades! and he and other carpenters put them on their hard hats in a show of solidarity.

At the time Willmeng and Quattrochi were installing cabinets and countertops at Cook County Hospital. On lunch breaks they discussed union politics with other carpenters, including Pete Garcia, who says he was “educated by Joe” after they lost the right to vote for their BAs, and Michael Sabo, a thin, soft-spoken man who thought Quattrochi was the kind of guy who would have bullied him in high school.

Sabo had helped Willmeng pass out flyers after the AFL-CIO decision. He understood, perhaps better than anyone in the group, how the union functioned. A third-generation carpenter, he’d grown up hearing about union business and learning labor history on family outings to places such as Pullman. In the late 80s he’d made an unsuccessful bid for vice president of Local One; several years later he served as a delegate to the district council from another local. Though delegates have the power to effect change by presenting motions to the district council for consideration–the current delegates could, for example, force the district council to restore voting rights to the rank and file–Sabo saw “nothing but decrees from above and no input from the floor.” Disgusted, he quit before his term was up. Now he saw a real opportunity for change.

The reformers were sitting on a lot of frustration and anger. They knew that a few district councils in the UBC allowed the rank and file to vote on their contracts. In San Francisco, for example, they’d won the right to vote after a wildcat strike. At bars before and after Local One meetings, the reformers complained about how the union had transformed itself from a labor movement into something that resembled a business. The union’s product was skilled labor–theirs–and they resented not being allowed to vote on their contracts. They also resented having the terms of their labor decided for them by, as Willmeng put it, “a cabal of contractors and union officials.”

Willmeng believed that the UBC had squandered the opportunities presented by the “almost unprecedented construction boom” of the 90s. “There was an enormous demand for skilled trades workers,” he says. “They could not get enough carpenters in Chicago. There weren’t enough to go around, which is actually very sad when it relates to union organizing, because in times when the contractors are in great need, those are typically the times when the union commands the greatest leverage against them. During that time I don’t even know if our wage kept up with the cost of living. We barely got any new members. And that’s when the degradation of the democracy started happening, and that’s when you got massive membership apathy and estrangement from the union. It’s really kind of fucked-up, because if we go into any kind of real recession, where suddenly the contractors have the upper hand–where there are 300 people that are ready to take my job at any time–we’ve planted the seeds. We’ve withdrawn our greatest strength, which is the members. We’ve pushed them out of activity in the union and marginalized them from the function of the union. Now suddenly when the contractors have the upper hand, what do we do? The contractors are going to ride completely rampant over us and dictate the terms of the union with almost impunity. ‘Cause what are we going to do? Strike? We never strike.”

In some ways the UBC operates like a secret society. Upon joining, members have to pledge not to divulge union business to outsiders–yet information about that business is so tightly controlled the members themselves sometimes have difficulty accessing it. For example, none of the rank and file had ever seen the collective bargaining agreement they were working under, which Willmeng and the other reformers found particularly irritating. The district council and the contractors had agreed on it in January 2001, and at every subsequent Local One meeting someone would ask the officials, What’s in it? When will we get a written description of it?

They had no illusions about getting the actual agreement. In 1997 a carpenter had sued Local One and the district council in federal court, trying to obtain a copy of the contract. He’d lost. Yet as the reformers understood it, the district council was obligated to at least provide locals with summaries of their collective bargaining agreements, and local officials were obligated to confront district council officials if they didn’t deliver. But the local officials hadn’t forced the district council to produce, and Willmeng and the others suspected the reason was that the local’s president, vice president, and financial secretary–Guida, Ron Culbertson, and Robert Quanstrom–were wearing too many hats, simultaneously trying to run the local, work for the district council, and serve as delegates to the district council. How could they stand up to the district council when, as one reformer put it, “they are the district council”?

In January 2002, after a year of asking local officials for information about the contract, Wilson and Sabo stopped by the district council themselves. Fifteen minutes later they walked out with a bound summary of the agreement. The next month the local officials produced their own summary. It was even thinner. “It was a rinky-dink outline,” Garcia recalls. “A bullshit version of it.”

That spring the disgruntled carpenters decided to reclaim their union. They vowed to put the power back where they thought it belonged–in the hands of the members. They named themselves Carpenters for a Rank and File Union and decided to run an opposition slate in the local’s next election, on June 12.

It was a radical idea. As far as anyone knew, it was also unprecedented in Local One. The officials were thoroughly entrenched. They were elected to three-year terms but had served much longer, and there were no term limits. When the officials came up for reelection, challengers rarely stepped forward, so elections were often canceled. According to Quattrochi, before the 1999 election one challenger had emerged, but he’d ended up backing out of the race, ostensibly to save the local the expense of an election. None was held, and he started getting regular appointments as a steward.

When elections were held the campaigns usually amounted to a battle of personalities, not ideas. None of the 20 or so members of the Rank and File caucus could remember an incumbent who’d faced an organized opposition, and their collective memory went back almost 20 years. They were so unfamiliar with the election process they didn’t even realize that all of the officials’ terms expired at the same time. And the incumbents were so unused to being challenged that when a Rank and File member asked which positions were up for election, Guida allegedly said, “None,” then noted that all of the incumbents were running again. When Willmeng later repeated this story he cracked, “Welcome to Stalinism.”

On Monday nights Carpenters for a Rank and File Union convened around a bar in the basement of Quattrochi’s River Grove house, emptying coolers of Rolling Rock while strategizing. Every now and then Quattrochi, standing behind the bar, would pound a block of wood with a hammer to emphasize a point or quiet things down. The carpenters, accustomed to working around power tools and to feeling ignored, tended to shout over each other.

They also hadn’t been to many well-run meetings. When members threw out questions or ideas at Local One meetings, the officials were quick to bang the gavel and move on. “It’s like throwing a rock into a well,” Willmeng once said. “It’s gone into the void.” Even simple suggestions that could benefit the membership seemed unwelcome. Rank and File member Matt Ornelas had seen that the job list for members seeking employment contained scant information–just the contractors’ names and the jobs’ locations. So he designed a new list that included the type of work, the expected length of the project, and any details–such as the necessity of working overtime or a third shift–that would give the carpenters a better idea of whether they were interested in or even qualified for a job. Ornelas figured his list would save members a lot of time and spare them unnecessary hassles. The idea generated some discussion, but nothing came of it. And when Willmeng proposed putting together a Local One Web site and said he knew someone who’d get it up and running for free, the officials nixed the idea.

At one Rank and File meeting Wilson told the story of a 40-year-old friend named Bob Hunsinger, who’d had a couple of heart attacks and had recently been diagnosed with lupus. Hunsinger believed he was still physically capable of doing carpentry, but he was feeling forced to learn a new trade because he was running out of health benefits. In the past couple of years he’d burned through $900,000 of his $1 million lifetime allowance for doctors’ services. Wilson was concerned not only for his friend, but for all carpenters, warning that they could use up their benefits on one catastrophe. Caps on doctors’ services for other trades were higher–$1.5 million for sprinkler fitters and $2 million for electricians.

Carpenters had been given a decent $8 pay raise in the last contract, and their quarterly membership dues had been reduced from $120 to $75. But some of those gains would soon be eaten up by a 2 percent increase in “dues checkoffs,” deductions from their paychecks that funded the district council. Willmeng calculated that a carpenter earning $50,000 a year would lose $1,000 to those dues.

A couple of months before the election the Rank and File caucus hammered out a platform. They vowed to push for the right to vote for BAs and contracts, to increase the medical-insurance caps, to set up a strike fund, and to raise the insurance coverage for stolen tools (the current coverage was $500, which Quattrochi said would barely replace a third of the contents of his toolbox). They also said they’d push to lower the age at which carpenters could retire and still get a full pension; it was now 62, and they wanted it to be 55, or lower for those who’d worked a minimum of 30 years. And they hoped to create a more diverse leadership (all nine of the current executive-board members were white males): two Latinos and an African-American were on the slate, and they’d asked one of the few women who attended Local One meetings to join, though she declined.

The Rank and File knew they faced an uphill battle, even if they managed to gain control of Local One. The international had placed other independent-minded locals under “trusteeship,” then ousted the elected leaders and handpicked their replacements. And even if they won the election and the international didn’t swoop down, change would come slowly. The international had stripped locals of so much power over the years that the most they’d realistically be able to accomplish would be to voice opposition to objectionable decrees from above and try to persuade the union bosses to adopt different policies.

Yet they figured this would still be a lot more than what their current local officials were doing. Willmeng says the president, vice president, and several other officials had come into the union at a time when it was “in full retreat.” And while he suspected that the financial secretary–Robert Quanstrom, who’d probably been in the union longer than anyone else in the local–might agree with the Rank and File agenda, he thought Quanstrom had a personal stake in preserving the status quo. If, for example, Quanstrom helped restore the right to vote for BAs he could be voted out of office, which would set him back $96,000 a year.

As the June 12 election neared, the Rank and File members passed out “agitational” flyers at job sites reminding members that their contracts were “never subject to a democratic vote” and imploring them to attend meetings, take part in discussions, and ask elected and appointed officials where they stood on issues. They also encouraged members to call Carpenters for a Rank and File Union to find out about “the ongoing organizing and campaigning to place our union back in the hands of the people that make it work!”

Willmeng carried the Rank and File phone in his tool belt, eagerly awaiting calls from newly radicalized members. To his surprise, the first call came from Guida, who demanded to know what was going on. Willmeng recalls explaining politely, if nervously, why he thought the local needed new representation. But the conversation went nowhere, he says. “We were two opposing forces sitting there with nothing in common.”

Unions had long been operating under a “you’re with us or you’re against us” code, and the UBC was no exception. Besides pledging secrecy, UBC members promise to obey those in authority. According to Rank and File members, anyone who breaks this vow or is perceived to be defying the will of the group is subject to retaliation. (The only Local One official who agreed to talk at any length for this article later retracted his comments for fear of losing his job.)

Union agitating can be hazardous–labor history is littered with tales of dissidents being beaten or murdered. A less obvious form of retaliation is blacklisting. “There is no such thing,” says Quanstrom, no doubt well aware that it’s illegal. But the rank and file live in fear of it. They say BAs can–and do–withhold information about jobs and discourage contractors from hiring certain people by labeling them troublemakers or calling them lazy or hinting that their carpentry is inferior.

Not long after David Johnson organized the building-trades conference in Champaign he began to suspect he’d been blacklisted. He told Willmeng contractors in Champaign had stopped hiring him, and when he was lucky enough to get hired by out-of-town contractors, they always canned him after a few days.

Willmeng and the other Rank and File members still found jobs, but they felt they’d been partially blacklisted. They had to find work through word of mouth or by driving around to construction sites, whereas carpenters on good terms with union officials got calls from BAs about jobs. The BAs kept an out-of-work list, but if they didn’t like you, signing it was an exercise in futility. Wilson couldn’t remember the last time a BA had called him with a job. Several years had gone by since a BA had told Quattrochi where to find work. And in the year and a half he’d been with the local, Willmeng had never received a job call from a BA.

Rank and File members also had to worry about perfectly legal repercussions. Their constitution allowed officials to fine, suspend, or expel anyone who caused dissension. Local One had brought dissension charges against the carpenter who sued to obtain a copy of the contract. According to the carpenter, the district council found him guilty and slapped him with a $3,400 fine. It didn’t expell him from the union, but he could no longer attend meetings. Whenever he tried, the officials would abruptly move to adjourn.

The Rank and File caucus decided they needed help navigating the minefield of rules–the UBC constitution, the district council bylaws, federal labor law–and making sure they could hold the incumbents accountable if they didn’t abide by them. That April they hired a lawyer.

At times that spring the conference room that served as the union hall seemed like a cross between a barroom and a courtroom. Rank and File members brought motions to the floor, heated arguments ensued, gavels pounded, tempers flared, and men of questionable sobriety started brawls.

Local One had been meeting at the Midland for more than a half century. The hotel had recently undergone renovations based on what one concierge called a “trendier concept,” and after it reopened in June 2001 as the W Hotel the carpenters no longer felt at home. Quattrochi for one, wasn’t impressed by the new ambience–“more mirrors, less lights, and people who talk with little accents.” Worse, the lounge had jacked up the price of Rolling Rock to $5 a bottle. One night Quattrochi and a few other carpenters decided to splurge, and when they walked into the lounge in their work clothes they were quickly surrounded by “eight guys with wires on their ears.”

Yet the carpenters had a sentimental attachment to the building, and they weren’t thrilled to learn that election night would be the last time they would meet there. Local officials told them that the hotel had become too expensive and that after the election they would hold their meetings at the carpenters’ apprenticeship school in Pilsen. The school was outside the local’s boundaries, and the Rank and File members worried that the move there signaled a consolidation with other locals–something they intended to block if they won the election.

In March the Rank and File caucus made a motion to require the local to send out information about the upcoming increase in dues checkoffs and include a discussion of it on the following month’s agenda. The local had notified members in a mailing a year or so earlier that the paycheck deductions would increase 1 percent annually for two years, but the caucus thought the carpenters needed to be reminded that the deduction was coming and deserved to know what the extra money would be used for. The motion passed, but at the following month’s meeting no discussion of the issue was on the agenda and the carpenters were told that union officials had no intention of sending out a reminder either. According to caucus members, the officials had been assured by one of their lawyers that they had no legal obligation to honor the Rank and File motion. The Rank and File members were enraged.

Things only got worse when Quattrochi stood up to complain and a man started heckling him. The Rank and File members recognized the heckler as a regular steward, a favorite of the BAs. They say he told Quattrochi to shut up and let the officials conduct their business. Verbal sparring between the men ensued, and then the heckler threatened to kick Quattrochi’s ass. The officials summoned the warden, who acts as a bouncer, and the heckler moved to the back of the room, planting himself next to a table of union trustees.

After the meeting the heckler followed the Rank and File members out of the hall, taunting Quattrochi, on whom he had at least three inches and more than 60 pounds. Outside the hotel Quattrochi tossed his phone to Sabo, saw the heckler swat it out of the air, then felt a punch glance off the side of his face. He returned the swing and then some.

Carpenters, doormen, and hotel patrons gathered to watch the fight. With the exception of Willmeng–who half-jokingly yelled, “Joe, we don’t have a bail fund yet! We gotta get out of here!”–no one tried to break it up. The heckler fell down, but Quattrochi kept pummeling him. By the time a fire engine and squad cars arrived, the heckler had crawled away, his face bloody. The police made no arrests, calling the two “mutual combatants.”

The union’s constitution prohibits “improper harassment of any member,” and Quattrochi later complained about the incident to the district council. “The intimidation and harassment was in plain view of all those at the meeting,” he wrote, “yet the officials did not take charge in the matter at the proper time and it was allowed to escalate to an incident which required police intervention.” He got no response.

At the May meeting the members of Carpenters for a Rank and File Union sat in a cluster, according to Willmeng, “completely nervous and stressed-out.” It was nomination night, and the brawl was still fresh in their minds.

Willmeng had prepared a speech introducing the Rank and File candidates and focusing on the need for what he called “a stronger, more democratic, and better-fighting union.” The caucus had candidates for all eight delegate positions and seven of the nine seats on the executive board. They’d left the president and vice president slots unchallenged–they didn’t want anyone to worry that neophytes would be running the whole show. As the newest union member in the caucus, Willmeng had decided not to run for any office. He figured he’d run in three years if things didn’t improve.

As the meeting got under way, Willmeng realized that the heckler was sitting right behind him, in the company of “two other completely drunk carpenters.” He overheard one of them say, “We can take the little motherfucker,” and saw out of the corner of his eye that the guy was gripping an empty beer bottle. “My head is kind of important,” he says, “so I got up and walked over to the other side of the hall.” His speech went off without a hitch.

Within two days one of the Rank and File candidates, Rich Davis, lost his steward position. Ron Culbertson, the vice president of Local One and a BA, had called Davis’s boss, Chuck Kakos, with the news. According to Kakos, Culbertson said that because Davis was getting special treatment–Kakos was paying him a dollar over scale as a reward for being a good worker–the union could no longer trust him to put its interests above those of Kakos’s company. Kakos remembers thinking the timing was strange, because Davis had been paid more than scale for several months.

Later that same week another Rank and File candidate, Matt Ornelas, was fired. He’s one of the few carpenters who can work jobs “rough to trim,” from start to finish, yet he says his foreman told him, “You’re just not working out.”

Because so few carpenters ever attended Local One meetings, Willmeng wrote a letter to spread the word about the opposition movement and galvanize the members. In it he said the local’s officials had “changed from the strong and democratically elected leaders they used to be and started to look and act more like the lawyers and corporate heads they originally fought against.” He enlisted his friends at the Direct Action Network to help stuff envelopes.

The response to the campaign mailing was simultaneously heartening and disappointing. Members contacted the Rank and File, concerned about the issues the letter raised, but most wouldn’t give their names. “Almost everyone is anonymous,” Willmeng told a caucus meeting nine days before the election. “People are pretty fucking freaked out.”

Willmeng thought of the Rank and File as “an island of resistance in a sea of terrified members,” and he and the other members drew inspiration from stories about other regions in the international. One night they watched a video of a carpenters’ meeting in British Columbia, where the district council had begun proceedings to withdraw from the UBC to protest the erosion of democratic rights. Douglas McCarron had flown out to try to dissuade them.

McCarron is a controversial leader, reviled as an autocrat by some, hailed as a genius by others. Shortly after being elected general president in 1995, in what seemed an obvious symbolic gesture, he ordered the union’s historic headquarters in Washington, D.C., demolished, then replaced it with a ten-story building full of rental spaces that generate about $20 million a year. In the years since, he’s implemented major structural changes in the UBC, merging autonomous locals and district councils, stripping their democratically elected leaders of power, and staffing the consolidated bodies with people loyal to the international.

Critics accuse McCarron of being cozy with contractors and of acting more like a businessman than an organizer. His $260,000 salary adds to that impression, as does his jetting around with George W. Bush on Air Force One on Labor Day–he was the subject of a September New York Times article titled “Bush Finds a Friend in Carpenters’ Union President.” He’s now under investigation by the federal government for his role in questionable insurance stock deals.

The video showed McCarron at a table with district council officials. One stood up at the start of the meeting and asked McCarron whether carpenters would be allowed to vote for their own BAs and vote on structural changes in the union. When McCarron said no, the man called the discussion “an absolutely bloody charade and just a goddamn bunch of smoke and air.” The hall erupted in cheers, someone flicked off the lights, and the angry carpenters stormed out, leaving their general president in a dim room.

As the camera zoomed in on McCarron for a close-up, Rank and File candidate Bob Sheehan said, “That’s the face of the guy that’s gonna sell everybody out.” Willmeng said he thought McCarron looked nervous, and it seemed the general president had reason to be. The video ended with the British Columbian carpenters in a spontaneous and spirited parking-lot rally.

News about insurgents wasn’t always so uplifting. A recording secretary from a south-suburban local, an area governed by the Rank and File’s district council, had recently questioned fellow officials about their handling of finances, then organized an opposition slate to challenge them in the next election. The local officials promptly charged him with causing dissension and defrauding the membership.

When the Local One incumbents saw that their competition was serious, they sent out their own mailing, trumpeting gains made during their administration–namely the $8 pay raise and the dues reduction. They also promised to fight to increase the stolen-tool coverage and to make it so that carpenters could retire at 55 or after 30 years of service. “They stole our platform!” Quattrochi cried after seeing the flyer.

The Rank and File decided to put out a second mailing. Wilson wrote a letter that promised “nothing on the fast track, nothing on the sneak” and pledged not to “take the advice of lawyers over our membership” and to “push the District Council for information on health, welfare, and pension to be available at all local meetings.”

According to the Rank and File, local officials at first tried to block the mailing, refusing to hand over envelopes with members’ addresses on them, even though the UBC constitution required them to “honor reasonable requests from candidates to have their campaign literature mailed by the Union at the candidates’ expense.” At this point the election was a week away. Caucus members say Quanstrom told them the request was being considered by a committee, but after the Rank and File lawyer faxed over a strongly worded letter he produced the envelopes.

A few days before the election Quattrochi heard clunking and scraping noises while driving his Jeep to work. He figured something was wrong with the brakes, but when he got to the construction site he noticed that one of his tires appeared to be “hanging on by a thread.” Then he saw that four of its six lug nuts were missing and looked as though they’d been sheared off clean. He felt lucky to have made it to work alive. “I’m still a little shaken,” he said the next day, adding that lugs don’t just break off by themselves.

The Rank and File caucus held a final preelection meeting two days before the vote. The recording secretary from the south suburbs who’d organized an opposition slate came to offer advice and encouragement, but his presence was a reminder of everything the Rank and File had to lose. His slate had just been crushed at the polls, and he was facing possible expulsion from the UBC.

Quattrochi called the meeting to order, promising a limited agenda so the men would have time to call members and urge them to get out and vote. Wilson didn’t see the point of having a meeting at all. “What is more important than getting on the telephone right now?” he asked.

But there were loose ends to tie up. Who, besides Willmeng, would be an election observer? Did they need to inform the local of how many observers they’d bring, even though the constitution allowed one per candidate? How would the observers ensure a fair election?

Election fraud is a union tradition on a par with blacklisting–fairly common but hard to prove. The booklet How to Get an Honest Union Election, published in 1987 by the Association for Union Democracy, details the lengths people have gone to in stealing elections. In one truck drivers’ election the fourth man in line at the polls smuggled in a hatchet and chopped open the ballot box. Scores of premarked ballots spilled out. Willmeng told this story to the group, which decided their observers would get counters to make sure the number of votes cast matched the number of voters.

The last order of business was financial. “Who needs to ante up?” Quattrochi asked, sweeping his eyes along the bar. Folded 50s and 20s wended their way down to Sabo, who was running for financial secretary. Several conversations broke out at once, and Wilson raised his hand.

“Brother Wilson has a point of order here,” Quattrochi said.

“I want the end of the meeting,” Wilson grumbled.

Soon Quattrochi brought down his hammer and adjourned the meeting. But no one budged. There were beers to finish.

“You guys are all feeling good?” Wilson hollered. “I feel like shit! I called people last night. I called people today. Mr. Sabo stopped by the house when I was doing the last one.” Our opponents, he continued, “are sitting in the union hall, using the union phone, OK? Two people that I talked to today said they’ve been called four times. How many fucking telephone calls have you guys made? Now we’ve had our nice little meeting, but that’s not what we need to be doing.”

The men stood up, began new conversations, then fished more beers out of the cooler. Someone suggested posing for a group photo. The men crowded together in front of a couch. Quattrochi stood in the center, gripping his hammer. Willmeng clenched a fist. The recording secretary from the south suburbs snapped the picture, then said, “I’ve been a member of Greenpeace for many years, but I have never been in a room with so many endangered species.”

The poll in the W Hotel conference room opened at 3 PM on June 12. A gauntlet of candidates–half in suits and ties, half in jeans–stood on the sidewalk outside the hotel greeting voters. When they spotted someone who looked like a carpenter they slapped him on the back and stuffed campaign literature into his hands. A tall, barrel-chested man in a sport coat stood off to the side. Every so often his coat opened to reveal the police badge on his belt.

The Rank and File members had never seen a cop at a union election before. He said he’d come at the request of Local One officials to “make sure things stay tranquil.”

But the mood was palpably tense, despite efforts on both sides to portray the event as friendly competition. The Rank and File kept telling the incumbents the race “wasn’t personal,” and the incumbents publicly embraced the competition with safe platitudes. “I think democracy is a good thing,” Tony Guida said. “If the guys feel that they can do a better job getting more for our members, God bless them.”

Yet the incumbents were also distributing a flyer insinuating that the Rank and File had been corrupted with “soft money contributions” from “outside of the Brotherhood.” It cautioned, “Don’t let Local #1 be beholden to any hidden agendas or unknown outsiders!” Once the Rank and File members saw the flyer, the pretense of friendly competition unraveled.

Willmeng was irritated by what he saw as a hint that the reformers were in cahoots with some communist organization. He says local officials tell carpenters when they join the union that affiliating with the Communist Party is forbidden in their union. Rank and File members had wondered about the constitutionality of such a restriction, but they’d never made it an issue. Moreover, the only outside organization they’d received help from was Direct Action Network, which wasn’t a communist group and had only helped stuff envelopes and pass out flyers. The money for their campaign–more than three grand, according to Sabo–had come directly out of the Rank and File members’ own pockets.

“Hidden agenda!” Willmeng said when he saw the incumbents’ flyer. “Like they don’t know our fucking agenda by now! We speak it every time we get an opportunity, and someone like Joe Quattrochi speaks it so often they tell him to shut up.”

“They’re not happy about us,” said Quattrochi, nodding his head. “Their idea of a democratic election was like what happened last time around–nobody opposed them, and they were all slid right in. That’s their idea of a democratic election–don’t cost us no money. Maybe they should suggest that to the federal government.”

Inside the hotel candidates from each side stood in the second-floor hallway leading to the conference room, shouting last-minute plugs to the voters. Ornelas was passing out Rank and File postcards in the hall when the man who’d threatened Willmeng on nomination night walked out with the heckler who’d fought with Quattrochi. Ornelas asked them if they’d be returning for the short monthly meeting that would be held after the poll closed.

The guy who’d threatened Willmeng walked over and said, “Let me see what you got there.” He glanced at the postcards, then said, “I don’t think it’s going to be any of your business.” Two incumbents standing across the hall chortled. Then the guy sidled up to Ornelas and quietly farted. “You might want to move,” he said with a smug grin. “I left a scent.”

The poll closed at 7 PM. Less than a fifth of the members had voted. After the short meeting three election judges sat at a table, manually tallying the 280 ballots as the election observers and candidates looked on. Two of the judges were elderly, and the observers thought it was taking them an inordinate amount of time to record each vote.

A couple of hours later about ten bored Rank and File candidates, cigars in their shirt pockets, left the hotel in search of cheap beer. Rich Davis happened upon $30 lying under the el tracks, and he bought the first round of Rolling Rock. He hoped they’d have just as much luck at the polls.

At 10:15 Willmeng, seeming exhausted, came out of the conference room. It wasn’t looking good, he told his girlfriend and a friend from Direct Action Network, who’d shown up to offer support. But many ballots still weren’t counted, he said, so things could turn around. “By the time they get done counting these damn things,” he groused, “the three-year term will have expired.”

By 11 the incumbents’ ties were either loosened or completely undone, the hallway was filled with cigar smoke, and the count was only two-thirds complete. Some of the candidates decided to go home.

An hour and a half later the remaining candidates and observers emerged from the meeting room. The incumbents were smiling, looking at ease for the first time all night. The Rank and File candidates were crestfallen.

“We got our asses kicked,” Willmeng told his girlfriend. “We didn’t get any seats.” Still, he said, the Rank and File candidates had captured 30 percent of the vote. “I would say three years from now it’s going to be a completely different scene–because we’re not rookies anymore.”

Rank and File members say that after the election, officials accused them of being communists and threatened to bring them up on charges for divulging union business to outsiders. The guy Quattrochi had beaten up tried to pick another fight with him, and in the parking lot after one meeting a union official ground a fistful of fiberglass insulation into Willmeng’s neck.

But the Rank and File soon began organizing again, recruiting carpenters in other locals in an effort to take over the district council. By November carpenters from about 10 of the 27 locals belonging to the district council were attending monthly Rank and File meetings. Attendance at the regular Local One meetings had increased from about 60 to around 80.

About 1,600 carpenters had also signed a Rank and File petition asking that union officials fight for earlier retirement. The reformers wanted to pressure the union officials to keep their campaign promise, even if the Rank and File had been the first to propose the idea. “We’re not on a mission to beat up on union officials,” Willmeng says, “but to make life better for the carpenters.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Damon Locks.