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History of the Allied Building Trades Council

Although workers in Rochester’s Building Trades had been among the first to organize unions, they did not come together to form their own Council until 1888. The carpenters and joiners and the masons and bricklayers had organized as early as 1853, joined in 1863 by the painters.

Meanwhile, unorganized canal laborers struck in 1855, 1859 and again in 1869. Not until 1882 did construction workers begin to join forces as the Knights of Labor, having organized Local Assemblies in several of the trades, made real demands on Rochester’s building contractors. They backed up their demands in June, when over 6000 Knights and other union members demonstrated their strength as part of a massive parade dominated by workers in the shoe trades. The Building Trades, having demanded increased wages and declaring that they would not work with non-union men, joined the parade in significant numbers: the KOL carpenters and joiners sent 850 members, while the plumbers and gasfitters, the stone masons, the teamsters and the tinsmiths each sent more than 100; the non-KOL bricklayers and masons sent over 200 members. But it was the 8-hour struggle of 1886 that led these unions to a close and enduring collaboration.

The Allied Building Trades Council (BTC) was formally established in Rochester in 1888, concurrent with the establishment of the Central Trades and Labor Council, with which they were affiliated and in which they actively participated.

The local Bricklayers, Plasterers and Masons Union demanded, and won, the nine-hour day in 1886. Laborers, seeing the masons’ victory, immediately struck to win a similar reduction in hours. Their ranks, however, were easily replaced by their employers with other recent immigrants to the area and the contractors prevailed. Later that year, the Carpenters and Joiners made it known that, despite the failure of the laborers’ effort, they expected to work a 9-hour day effective January 1887. The desire for a shorter workday was the impetus for a strike by the stonecutters in 1887. Discussions between the various trades and contractors resulted in few agreements. When the laborers again struck in 1887 over wages and “early starts,” police fired into a crowd on Gorham Street, wounding several and killing one. The Central Labor Union testified on behalf of the laborers that the contractors had violated an agreement, but to no avail; the workers were forced to return to work or be forever blacklisted. Subsequently, in the spring of 1888, the Decorators and Painters also struck unsuccessfully for the 9-hour day.

Despite the fact that these trades unions were unable to secure the 9-hour day, their efforts helped to forge a bond among them that laid the foundation for the organization of the Building Trades Council in 1888. In August of that year the BTC invited plumbers, gas fitters and steamfitters, roofers, tinsmiths, and slaters to an organizational meeting. The building trades unions soon renewed their demands for shorter hours. When the Sash, Door and Blind Makers struck in the spring of 1890 a general strike among all construction unions was feared. No such action was taken, but all of the trades unions donated funds to assist those on strike.

The Depression of 1893-1895 was devastating to the Building Trades. A census taken by the BTC showed that of 1500 Rochester carpenters, 1300 were unemployed; of 800 bricklayers, 714 were out of work. In all, approximately 90% of area construction workers lacked work. The BTC joined with the YMCA to request that the Common Council appropriate $40,000 for public works.

By 1910, the BTC was sufficiently well-organized to suspend three Laborers unions (German, Italian, and Polish) for violating their constitution.

That year, the Building Trades Department of the AFL “addressed numerous jurisdictional disputes” at their convention. In January 1911, the BTC requested the CTLC “to hereafter ignore all reports pertaining to Building Trades until such time as the subject matter had first been brought before the Building Trades Council where it properly belongs.” The CTLC replied that no affiliates’ reports could be suppressed by Council.

A BTC committee was formed in 1919 to investigate the use of non-citizens on large jobs such as river and canal deepening. Later that year contractors locked out thousands of tradesmen in an attempt to dictate who would be the unions’ business agents. Preparations were underway for a general strike among the trades when an agreement on the issue was reached a week later. A Building Trades strike in 1921 was supported by the CTLC’s suggestion that affiliates assess members 5% of their wages to provide assistance.

Concern about labor relations in the construction industry led George Eastman to express, in 1921, support for a Community Conference Board to promote cooperation: “I believe that there is a way to get at difficulties, to eliminate undesirable practices from the building trades, to get fair contracts as well as good workmanship, fair profits as well as fair wages; to make Rochester production bring the best returns to everyone concerned by making it best in efficiency.” The BTC endorsed the plan and union masons, plasterers and bricklayers accepted Eastman as arbitrator in a wage dispute. As the Community Conference Board was being organized, Eastman announced: “this is not to be a board of arbitration or conciliation. It is not to be an executive body or to settle anything by vote. It is a body to ascertain facts and to lay them impartially before the employers, employees and the public.” At Eastman’s suggestion, the BTC appointed four representatives to the Board to assist in stabilizing construction in Rochester. However, lacking confidence in the Community Conference Board, the BTC withdrew in 1922.

The AFL’s Building Trades Department threatened to pull the BTC’s charter in 1922 if they refused to unseat a delegate from an unaffiliated Bricklayers local. Nonetheless, by 1925 the BTC announced that with the reaffiliation of the Carpenters District Council (which had disaffiliated in 1921), the Council had 100% of the trades affiliated. Their solidarity was short-lived, however, as the Laborers withdrew the following year, believing that two of their striking locals had not been sufficiently supported by the Council.

During the Great Depression, the BTC passed a resolution protesting that “some of the men employed on the welfare city work are not qualified to perform such labor, not having the necessary tools and not themselves being familiar with the work under which they register.” They were also concerned with delays in construction projects, such as the Rundel Library in 1933, and appointed a representative in 1934 to the Civil Works Administration committee to review the qualifications of project foremen.

The Rochester BTC did not officially affiliate with the AFL Building Trades Department until 1934, at which time the Council was comprised of five members of each building trades union.

Affiliates’ Business Agents conducted the business of the Council as its Executive Board. At their request, the CTLC resolved to support the “erection of a new City Hall, jail, County Penitentiary, Convention Hall, and other buildings for a civic center as well as a parallel Main Street.” To further support their members, the BTC passed a resolution in 1935 that only Monroe County residents be employed on city construction projects and that preference be given to locally-produced building materials on public construction projects. When the Works Project Administration set a “security wage” for employees, the BTC, representing 13 unions and 5000 members, refused to work for anything less than the prevailing scale.

In 1940 the BTC affiliated with the newly-organized Citizens’ Planning & Housing Council and, in 1942, demanded the establishment of the Rochester Housing Authority. In support of the war effort, most building trades unions accepted time and one-half rather than double time for all war-related overtime. Affiliates also bought $40,000 in U.S. Defense Savings Bonds and each donated $100 to a fund to renovate the former Jewish Young Men’s Association building to a USO clubhouse. Together the trades locals donated their labor to construct and later dismantle the Liberty Bridge across Main Street, where war bonds could be purchased.

Post-war, the Trades recruited, in 1950, 700 members to “form seventy rescue squads which will be integrated into the city’s civilian defense organization for use in helping to minimize suffering and disaster in the event of an A-bomb attack here.”

In 1956, they established a joint standing committee of union and contractor representatives to meet regularly. That same year the Council approved a plan that called for the New York State Building Trades Council to assist with jurisdictional disputes between AFL and former CIO unions in order to expedite the merger process. In 1961 the BTC resolved that all affiliates would refuse to handle, work on, or install imported materials and building supplies manufactured in foreign countries with low wage scales.

The BTC was active on legislative and policy issues, urging opposition to bills that would deny unemployment benefits to locked-out workers (1957), interfere with the established paid two-hour leave to vote on Election Day (1959), or prohibit picketing of an employer by non-employees. They endorsed legislation to remove picketing restrictions (1961) or support construction projects (1961). They were steadfast in supporting their friends and opposing their enemies, calling for only Republicans to be backed for City Council in 1961 because Democrats had opposed the construction of a civic center and Midtown Plaza. They later blasted Republicans on the Monroe County Board of Supervisors for postponing funding of local building projects (1962).

When Midtown Plaza was completed in 1962, Alex Gaby noted in Labor News that, “In all the fanfare and excitement of officially opening the huge, impressive Midtown Plaza complex, everybody came in for accolades and commendation for having had something to do with it— designers, politicians, planners, clockmakers, material providers, and contractors. This is right, because it is a wonderful job, and a delightful face-lift to the tired old cheeks of the business district of the city. But it was left to only one of the officials present to give credit to where credit is very much due— the union construction workers, material drivers, and dirt, sand, concrete, wood, and cement jockeys whose sweat, and sometimes, blood went into the hard-core making of Midtown Plaza— and this was voiced by Carl Shaw, a vice-president of the John B. Pike & Son Inc., general contractors for the project, who applauded their efforts... Thanks, Mr. Shaw, you know who really built Midtown Plaza, and we’re happy you said so.”

In 1963 the BTC, with its 18 affiliate locals representing 15,000 members, hailed the creation of the nation’s first Building Trades Joint Apprenticeship Council to assure a continuing supply of qualified construction workers.

That year they also began picketing non-union job sites and protested cuts in state spending on construction. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 heightened awareness of the lack of diversity among the ranks of building tradesmen. Discussions between BTC leaders and the Monroe County Human Relations Commission led to an agreement to better inform minority youth of apprenticeship opportunities.

In the spring of 1964 eight building trades locals went on strike over wages, hours and working conditions; those not on strike refused to cross picket lines, bringing area construction to a halt. The work stoppage lasted seven weeks.

The BTC hailed the 1964 passage of the Davis-Bacon bill, requiring that the cost of prevailing benefits be included in setting the prevailing wage for federally-funded jobs. This legislation gave union contractors the break they needed to be able to competitively bid for that work. To further support responsible union contractors, the BTC urged passage of a 1965 bill that would deny contracts for five years to any contractor that failed to pay the prevailing wage. In 1966, construction in the Rochester area boomed; there weren’t enough skilled tradesmen to man all the jobs. The BTC offered contractors a nine-hour day in order to offset the labor shortage.

When the contracts of sixteen building trades locals expired simultaneously on April 30, 1970, the BTC was unified behind a strike. Union halls set up stations where members could sign up for unemployment insurance benefits after seven weeks while $200 million in area projects remained unmanned. Although some unions reached agreement with contractors, work could not commence until all building trades contracts were settled, which did not occur until September. The four-month strike was the longest in the history of the Rochester construction trades. BTC President Anthony Castagnaro noted “This has been a very trying time for all of us, both labor and employer, and we must now get back to the work which is so vital to the construction industry and the general community.”

At the national level, President Nixon proved no friend to the building trades when he issued an Executive Order in 1971 repealing the Davis-Bacon law.

When he also instituted a wage freeze but took no action to limit profits, BTC officials were outraged and declared their intention to work toward unseating him. Locally, however, union contractors and trades unions agreed to meet regularly to discuss issues threatening the health of the local construction industry. BTC President Chris Farrell explained “We have mutual and growing problems to solve in terms of loss of work in our area, unemployment, jurisdiction settlements, productivity requirements, wages and fringe benefits in the industry; these can only be worked out through open and cooperative discussion.” Later that year, the BTC approved a plan to create a fund to be used to combat the growing threat of non-union construction, aid local organizing efforts, and institute a community-wide public relations campaign to inform residents about the contributions made by union construction trades to the community’s welfare. Also in 1972, the BTC urged that the Monroe County Airport be enlarged, rather than moving some commercial and air freight operations to a new site in Batavia or Victor, as was being considered by the New York State Department of Transportation. And, as Rochester Gas & Electric weighed its options for the location of new power plant facilities, the BTC made a valiant effort to persuade them to build the $400 million project in Monroe County.

Safety has long been a concern among the Building Trades. In the 1970s they warned public housing agencies against substandard wiring and plastic plumbing that presented fire hazards. Rochester’s Fire Commissioner in 1973 applauded the BTC’s efforts to pass legislation at both the local and state levels to improve fire prevention codes on multiple dwellings, high-rise projects, and public housing in general. That spring the Trades Council’s Safety Committee met with its counterpart from the contractors’ association to establish joint job-safety programs and the Council and union contractors vowed to bring the construction industry into full compliance with the new Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The Trades have been generous in contributing to charitable projects, including adapting a home for a paralyzed firefighter (1961), teaching inner-city residents to do their own repairs (1968), constructing a swimming pool at St. Joseph’s Villa (1968), adding a wheelchair ramp at City Hall (1971), building facilities at Camp Good Days and Special Times (1987), and regularly conducting blood drives. The numerous individual projects utilizing donated building trades labor are a tribute to these unions’ commitment to the Rochester community.

In 1973 BTC President Farrell was named president of the newly-formed Northeastern Council of Trades, affiliating over a dozen construction councils in western and upstate New York. Soon thereafter, the BTC hired Richard Marino of the Material Drivers (Teamsters) Local 398 as full-time administrative director to assist with the campaign to halt the advance of the non-union sector and to begin to organize the residential sector.

The energy crisis of the 1970s caused consternation in the construction industry as fuel shortages threatened the progress of all work.

The BTC wrote to AFL-CIO President George Meany as well as the Secretary of Labor and all federal and state representatives urging that adequate supplies of fuel be assured. By the fall of 1974, unemployment in local construction was at 15%; in the winter it climbed to 20% and the BTC urged consideration of a 32-hour work week. Trades unemployment reached 40% by the spring of 1975 while the BTC sought ways to bring federal dollars to the region as Community Development Block Grants. That November the BTC sued Monroe County for violating NYS labor law by hiring out-of-state crews instead of local residents to work on public projects.

The ecology-mindedness of the 1970s proved to be at odds with the need for jobs among building tradesmen. The BTC was relieved when Governor Carey delayed implementation of the Environmental Quality Review Act in 1976 as environmental impact studies had held up millions of dollars in building projects statewide. By 1977 BTC President Farrell, as head of Jobs and Energy Independence Region 5, was considering law suits against environmentalists who interfered with construction projects, especially nuclear power plants. The BTC urged City Council to oppose a 1978 proposal to create a local environmental review agency, expressed relief when conservationists’ efforts to halt the construction of the Outer Loop expressway and bridge across Genesee Valley Park failed, and condemned City Council’s decision to initiate an environmental impact study of the proposed Henrietta mall. When Governor Carey announced a cessation of all work on nuclear power plants until there was a plan for the safe storage of nuclear waste, the BTC assailed him for “selling out” to conservationists. The Council was heartened when they heard from the director of the Center for Environmental Information in 1979 that in the short term, despite unresolved problems, nuclear energy was the most environmentally acceptable solution to the growing energy shortage.

In the fall of 1979, the BTC served notice on New York State legislators that they would not support the $500 million state transportation bond proposal if there was no provision for payment of prevailing wages. Prevailing wages dominated the BTC’s legislative agenda in 1982 when a bill was introduced in the state legislature to make union contract wages the standard for state-financed public works projects. With the support of New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, Attorney General Robert Abrams, and various members of the Western New York delegation, the so-called “Little Davis-Bacon” was passed by the legislature in 1983. Some of the more significant projects of the era that used union labor include the Convention Center, General Motors’ research facility in Henrietta, the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel, and the expansion of Rochester General Hospital.

In 1987-1988, the Department of Energy was considering Wayne County as a site for the construction of a “superconducting supercollider”— a project that was expected to provide 4500 construction jobs over a six year period. The dream ended early in 1988 when Governor Cuomo opposed the project. Rochester Gas & Electric Company insulted their home community when, in 1990, they awarded work at the Ginna nuclear power plant to the firm Fluor Daniel, known to hire out-of-town workers at substandard wages; the BTC answered the insult with a large rally at the Wayne County facility and informational ads.

The Building Trades Council was picketing and boycotting Wal-Mart before they even opened their doors in Rochester as the company refused to use union labor in the construction of their stores.

By contrast, the BTC consistently endorsed Wegman’s supermarket for using union labor in renovation and new construction work, despite concerns of other groups about Wegman’s use of Industrial Development Agency funds, employment of non-union clerks, and other issues.

Other BTC activities in the 1990s involved demonstrations against John P. Bell at the University of Rochester (1990), advocacy for and the construction of a new baseball stadium (1997), a massive rally against the use of exploited immigrant labor at Rochester Institute of Technology (1999), an organizing campaign at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning (1999), and lobbying for increased highway funding (2000). Ongoing concerns of the BTC include misclassification of employees as independent contractors (whereby employers avoid paying workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance taxes for workers) and the award of construction contracts to irresponsible employers.