Standardization Of Materials And Tools Is Eliminating The Skill of Building Workers

DAY by day building construction workers are being robbed of their skill, and in no country is this process so active as in the United States. In numbers that constantly increase workers who have spent their lives in this industry find themselves driven to a congested slave market, and many thousands find their unenviable places in the horde of unemployed to tramp the streets, or go from place to place in search of masters.

To find these masters becomes a more difficult matter in proportion to the progress of standardization and simplification of building tools and materials that is taking place. It is a startling fact that more progress has been made in these respects during the last three years than in any like period of history. No longer can the building worker look with pride to a building of his creation as in days gone by, when it required the brain, brawn and skilful hands and eyes of the mechanics from the foundation’s beginning until the last touch had been completed. These days are gone, never to return.

We no longer see an army of men digging foundations with a long line of wagons to haul away the dirt. Instead, we see powerful steam shovels eating through the earth and loading powerful trucks which haul away the dirt. Concrete mixers instead of stone masons build walls. The keen eye and steady hands of carpenters are no longer needed. Lathers, plasterers, plumbers, and other craftsmen have security in their skill no more. We live in a different age, an age where machinery is all-powerful, where materials and tools are standardized and simplified to such a degree that nearly all skill is eliminated.

Standardization On A Large Scale

One of the most stupendous undertakings in standardization is in the lumber industry, which offers a reduction of nearly sixty per cent in the number of finished yard lumber items in basic standards of size and weight. Frame dwellings can now be bought from many companies located from coast to coast. These dwellings are built either in sections at the factory or else the lumber is cut to the proper sizes so that all that is required is nailing the pieces together. Every piece is cut ready to be nailed into its place. This does not apply to the rough lumber only but to all built-in fixtures as well.

Reinforcing bars have been simplified to ten different sizes: Metal lath from 125 varieties have been reduced to 24, a reduction of eighty per cent. Shingles have been reduced to four different sizes, bricks are being reduced in grades and sizes and lime mortar has almost disappeared. Nearly all plaster material is now prepared in a factory. All that is required is mixing with water or chloride, depending on the kind of material or job. However, the material alone has very little effect on plastering jobs in so far as labor is concerned, but a revolution is taking place in the tools of mixing and plastering.

In New York the concrete mixer is being used on nearly all jobs in mixing mortar, this practice displacing much labor. It is also being used on large jobs in other cities. The plaster is very shaky, due to a new invention called Gun-ite and Guncrete, which is made in the shape of a gun and connects with the mortar box. This method has been employed for three years or more and is extending, so one of these days fifty or sixty per cent of the plasterers are going to find themselves in a very disadvantageous economic position.

Roofers are also badly situated with steel roofing which requires no skill to place together. Plumbers and pipefitters are in practically the same boat, with pipes being so perfected as to do away with skill and much labor. With painting machines finding increasing favor among employers, painters are finding themselves in a very tight place. But the greatest of all machinery and standardization of the age, which will not only come very near to eliminating several crafts, but will affect workers in other industries as well, are the steel frame structures, and the electric arch welder.

Innovation Of Iron Buildings

Several thousand iron buildings have already been constructed in England and the United States. In this country many of them have been erected in California and New York. The first one to be built in this country was in Toledo, Ohio, in 1924, a five-room modern bungalow. It was steel throughout and cost $4,085. At that time no standards were in the market. The steel had to be cut and holes made on the job. Today we have standards and they are being molded in the steel mills, so all the labor that is needed is bolting them together, at wages for the workers ranging from fifty to sixty cents an hour.

The electric arch welder will not only affect iron workers, but will reach the workers in steel mills, on railroads, in mining and other industries which in any way are connected with the manufacturing of steel. They will be affected due to the fact that a third less steel will be needed on a steel bridge or building under the new system than when rivets are used. On a five-story manufacturing building erected at the Sharon works of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, 95 tons of steel were saved by welding. This means that if rivets had been used that many more tons would have been used.

At Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, an arch-welded, rivetless steel railroad bridge, the first of its kind to be built, will require 80 tons of steel. If rivets were used 120 tons of steel would be needed. This means a saving of one-third on steel alone, and the bridge with less steel will be stronger and last longer because it will be welded into one solid piece. Electric arch-welding is new, still in the experimental stage. What will it be in the next five or ten years when more perfected and when town, city and state ordinances will permit its use? This is one or the greatest revolutions in the building age.

There are many other mechanical improvements that I could write about, all tending to the same elimination of skill and displacement of labor, but citing one more should be sufficient to open the eyes of building workers, to cause them to seek a means for protecting their very existence.

Steel Frame Erected In Three Hours!

Concrete has been used for many years and it has eliminated thousands of workers from the building industry, but the most far-reaching elimination of labor from the building construction field is now taking place in remote places, with a machine that smoothes the walls and plastering is applied without any lath. With the plastering guns in use it will do a way with carpenters, lathers, plasterers, and bricklayers, not to mention the effect that it will have on the steel mills, mines, and lumber mills, when millions of yards of metal lath and millions of feet of lumber will not be needed because of the new method.

Why The Contractors Are Powerful

Building contractors understand fully that to make their profits increase and to secure them is by having absolute power over the jobs. They know further that to have that power it is necessary to use up-to-date organization methods, and to create as many labor-saving devices as possible. Since new inventions applied to the building construction industry have revolutionized it, contractors are succeeding very well. These inventions mark the way for future progress. They are the most important factors in this progress. And they are now in possession not of those who use them, but those who own without toiling. Mankind has made tremendous advances in the conquest of time and space. Railroad, steamship, automobile, airplane transportation; the radio, telephones, telegraphy—these have brought all the earth’s races and peoples into closer contact and are rapidly removing all barriers of race and nation among workers. In line with this change the building industry bids fair to outclass other industries in the world-wide process of social adjustment to see the needs of the time.

As in other industries, building construction is marked by the assumption of machine power importance, moving swiftly from day to day toward absolute productive efficiency. Machinery flings aside laborious hand methods. Its speed, accuracy and tirelessness insure its existence; its reduction of production costs make it welcome to employers. Their power is made greater with every advance of the machine. Concrete mixers have superseded the old shovel board methods and this has resulted in displacing many thousands of workers; power woodworking machines have not only been remarkable time savers for the boss but have produced greater economy in material. Power hoist derricks, trenching machines, motor trucks and tractors, power loaders, air compressors, pumps, concrete distributing towers, and last, but not least, the electric arch-welder have made it possible for massive structures to rise like magic almost overnight from sub-basement to roof. Today the workers in the building construction industry find themselves in the greatest predicament in the history of the human race in its struggle for economic security.

Craftsmanship Is A Thing Of The Past

As these experiments in standardizing material and developing labor-saving devices become more successful, the craftsman finds himself deprived of all chance to apply the skill he has been years acquiring. He becomes merely a machine tender, a handy man. His wages are reduced. Should he quit or be discharged, replacement is an easy matter for the company, as no special skill is needed to tend machines or fit together parts of a building which have already been prepared by the machines in the required shapes and sizes.

Of course, many of the building workers today, as in other days, refuse to look around them and observe this evolution of materials and tools. When the subject is brought to their attention, nine times out of ten the argument is made in answer that in the building industry we have so many different kinds of materials in sizes and shapes that it would take several months for an inexperienced worker to get acquainted with them. They fail to see that contractors with powerful organizations are taking care of this instruction. All that should be needed to convince anyone of this truth, is to examine the modern operation of dwelling houses, apartments, or skyscrapers, and then let one’s mind go back ten, fifteen or twenty years, when it used to take a number of weeks to build a five or six-room dwelling, or several years for the construction of a skyscraper. In those days we did not see a wood-working machine on the job doing cross cutting, ripping, jointing, sanding, planing, routing, plowing, mitering, rabbetting, moulding, grinding, matching, stair cutting, side, door jambs, jack rafter, etc., etc. In fact, there are wood-working machines that perform as many as thirty different operations that the carpenter used to do entirely by hand. Now you simply plaice a piece of lumber in one end of the machine and it comes out the other end ready to be nailed in place. All-plastic ornaments are being molded in desired shapes and hung on the walls. And with the plastering guns in operation on the increase, which does away with a lot of muscular work which has been called skill, the plasterer will be on a pair with the so-called common laborer.

Craft Union Ineffective With Passing Of Skill

Stone cutters have been almost entirely eliminated, as all stones are now cut to their proper sizes and shapes in a factory by electric and steam drills which have taken the place of the hand drills. The painting machines are on the increase all the time, and are now being used on interior work. Concrete mixers, machines to smoothe walls, and plastering guns will eliminate many thousands of laborers, carpenters, bricklayers, iron workers and lathers. Our skill gone, we can no longer rely on craft organizations for economic security.

Building contractors long ago realized that in order to increase their power, and thus their profits, it was necessary to organize and by so doing control the jobs, and not only apply modern equipment in the industry, but a modern form of economic organization. That they have succeeded most effectively is plain, since a small group of contractors are controlling the entire industry, and thereby determining the economic position of all building construction workers. Less than two hundred men organized as one, in conjunction with powerful banking houses, are dictating the existences of three million building workers and their families.

Building Work Is On A Decline

This small employing group constantly regulate building operations so as to have a large labor supply at all times, and year after year building records have been broken. Now the peak has been reached; the industry is declining. Workers can not afford the high rents charged in these new buildings and must remain in less attractive dwellings. The building interests will not tie up finances in a building that does not bring in a large profit. The outcome for us will be that we shall be compelled to enter other industries competing with other workers in the struggle for existence, or else walk the streets in quest of a job which hundreds of others will be seeking. This outcome is to be expected unless we come to a realization that the interest of one building worker is the interest of all building workers.

The building industry is only one link of all industries, as the building industry is dependent on other industries for its materials and tools. So, too, are we building workers dependent on other workers for material aid and understanding in our struggles for the security of ourselves and our dependents. What must we do in order to better our conditions, to secure and enjoy the product of our labor?

Organization Is The Only Solution

To thousands of building construction workers the word organization sounds like a nightmare, as nearly all of them at one time or another halve been members of some union, and memories of the past hard to forget appear before us. No workers have fought more valiantly, with more determination to better their conditions than we have. No other workers have been bought and sold on the auction block by business agents as we have. No other industry has had a Skinny Madden of Chicago, a McCarthy of San Francisco, a Brindell of New York—types of this sort—on so large a scale as building workers. But these have not happened accidentally; their successors are tarred with the same brush. These men are not mistakes; they are results inherent in the craft system of unionism.

The A. F. of L. craft unions in the building construction industry came into existence at a time when building construction was almost exclusively handled by petty craft contractors who had to knife one another’s throats most of the time. The tenacity of craft unionism in the building trades is still chiefly due to the existence of these craft contractors. At that time handicraft skill was still a great factor. Windows, doors, mouldings, sashes, and all sorts of fittings of wood or metal did not come ready-made from the mill and factory. The paint had to be mixed on the job. The granite blocks had to be cut and fitted by hand on the job instead of at the planing mill. Under such conditions the craft unions had an important function to perform. But something more was needed to separate the workers and sustain the system of craft unionism, and what would be better than contracts binding the workers hand and foot to the contractors for a specific length of time? So today we find, as in the past, where contracts are made by each craft and the business agents are invested by labor with authority to arrange its terms, a power is delegated to them of enormous worth when we consider that labor activity is the electric juice of industry. When it is possible for these business agents to arrange the teI1ms with assurance that the union engagement made by them for their own ends and that of employers, will be fulfilled, nothing but corruption and treachery can be expected. These men should be held personally responsible for their appearance and activity, and the A. F. of L. is based on such a system. Thus, building workers find themselves in their worst predicament because jurisdictional disputes occupy our energies instead of action to protect ourselves. With these disputes a battle rages whether the carpenter, or the sheet metal worker should hang the metal doors, window frames and metal trims; whether the plumber or steamfitter should lay a certain pipe, or the iron worker or lather should erect the reinforced bars, etc., as in Houston, Texas, Kansas City, Boston, New York and other cities too numerous to mention, where as many as 14 crafts went on a general strike over jurisdictional disputes while the business agents bargained with the contractors as to the conditions and wages of the workers. What results can we expect?

Building Workers Must Organize Industrially

There is only one solution in order to eliminate corruption and treachery and to pave the way for economic security. We must organize industrially and lay the foundation for the six-hour work day, and five days a week, and to use the machine to the best possible advantage of the building workers. Of course, that can be done only by dumping overboard the entire outworn machinery of the A. F. of L. craft unionism, and organizing along Industrial Union lines. Building Construction Workers’ Industrial Union No. 330 of the Industrial Workers of the World is so formed to advance the interests of the workers in this industry.

I. W. W. Conception Of Organization

Craft unionism is based on the tool that we use. This wornout, corrupt system no longer offers any promise of improvement in this industrialized age, but only presents a perpetual struggle for slight relief under the system of wage slavery. It shatters the ranks of workers into fragments, rendering us helpless in our industrial struggles. Separation of craft from craft renders industrial and financial help impossible. Craft jealousy leads to the creation of trade monopolies. Contracts force union men to scab against union men, while craft divisions hinder growth of class consciousness, and foster the idea of harmony of interest between the contractors and workers.

These evils of the business workers can only be eradicated by an industrial movement. But such a movement of the building workers is impossible while separate crafts and wage agreements are made favoring the building bosses, and against the workers, while our energies are wasted in jurisdictional squabbles which serve only to benefit the bosses and the union officials. A movement to fulfill the needs of the building workers must consist of one great Industrial Union, embracing all of the building workers of the entire industry, providing for autonomy industrially, and working class unity national and international, with all power to rest in the hands of the collective membership, instead of in the hands of union officials. Such an organization is Building Construction Workers’ Industrial Union No. 330 of the I. W. W. It is the only union in the United States that is making an effort to organize the building workers according to the industry in which they work. In the I. W. W. we maintain that irrespective of creed, color, sex or nationality, all the workers who are working in one industry should be in one union, so that they can present to the employers united demands concerning wages, hours and conditions for all working in the industry, and, if necessary, all strike together to gain their demands. In the I. W. W. we sign no contracts, nor have we business agents to arbitrate differences and to bind us to the bosses. Instead, committees are elected by the members themselves to present the demands to the bosses and to bring back the answer. Committees have no power to settle anything. It is entirely up to the membership to accept or reject.

Building Workers Lack Initiative

No one has the power to chain us to a contract, as long ago we of the I. W. W. learned that contracts are slave chains that restrict action and make solidarity impossible among workers. It is not what is on paper that counts, but what is on the job. Contracts mean compromise, arbitration and sell-outs, which are acknowledgements of weakness. We must be organized so that we can demand what we want, not conciliate or plead for them. We have the strength to take. All that we lack is initiative, and the I. W. W. will give us that.

The over-manned building industry is now on the verge of a condition where the over-supply of workmen in every trade will compete for jobs altogether out of proportion to the men who require us. Into this insane, cutthroat competition the craft unions will enter with greatly diminished bargaining power, and as a consequence will suffer in the estimation of the membership upon whom they can not confer advantage. Moreover, in the slackened condition of the building industry that is ahead of us the open shop forces will be available as flying columns to be used by contractors whenever occasion requires. In the case of craft unions with some fight still left in the local members, the forces for the destruction of craft unionism in the building industry have been recruited and are being maintained. Many trade schools are being conducted by the bosses to turn out mechanics who have acquired just enough skill to function as strikebreakers whenever strikes occur, and to crowd out union men under the ordinary circumstances of slack times.

How are we, the building workers, to deal with our present plight and prospect? Only by the exercise of common sense and courage. The judgement to decide and the courage to act are our prime requisites. We know the facts in our own downward trend, and that the way grows steeper and more slippery. To take our own affairs in our own collective hands is the only way to improvement. We have been playthings of misleading unionism that does not unite, and of unscrupulous officials who have served everybody but the workers. This is knowledge that we do not have to acquire. We know it. But what we do not seem to understand is that we must rely upon ourselves. We are also inclined to overestimate the importance of our skill in the various crafts of the building industry, and to overestimate the skill itself.

We Have A Common Problem

Only when we get ready to thrust aside caste feeling and see ourselves as we really are, and as the bosses see us—one common working force—will we be ready to move forward for our own protection. It should not be so hard to understand that the painters, ironworkers, carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, lathers, hod carriers, and others employed on building construction work are building workers and that each is necessary to all the others in modern building construction. It should be easy enough to understand that we have a common problem even though many minor details may differ; that we must all stand together or fall separately.

But why repeat all this? We know that we know it. It is not so much a lack of intelligence that holds us back as courage to strike out on a new path even when the end of it is in plain sight. We, the building workers, have been flim-flammed, bought, sold, delivered, slugged, sabotaged and shot. Surely building construction workers should not fear the one unionism and the only union that can save us from the industrial swamp in which we are now floundering so helplessly. We, who can build great structures, can also build a union which will serve us at all times and under all circumstances and win for us under the most adverse conditions; a union for each because it is a union for all; a union that we shall own and run, instead of a union by which we are owned and run.

The Day Of New Organization Has Dawned

The Building Construction Workers’ Industrial Union No. 330 of the I. W. W. is founded upon more than a hundred years’ building trade experience in America, the last few years of which have been the most eventful. We of the I. W. W. recognize the folly of continuing the suicidal division of workers in our own industry and plan to unite them so that all our strength will be behind each and every effort. We realize that new days and new methods demand new organization and new plans.

We voice what every thinking worker knows, and we are attempting what every real union man wants done. We teach what the workers know to be true: that solidarity is power and that division is weakness. We want one union in the building industry to care for and advance the interests of all building workers regardless of what each one does, and each group for all and all for each, not some for the bosses and some for themselves as in the past. Only when all give full support to each other can each one serve himself. Those who want unity and strength are for the One Big Union of building workers, and those who want us divided are against it. Recognize one interest or serve no interest. Be in One Big Union, embracing all building workmen, or in one disorganized, struggling mass unable to help ourselves or to assist others. The time to choose is short, and the penalty for not choosing properly is a heavy one. Competition means death; unity means inspiration for every prospect.

The Building Construction Workers’ Industrial Union No. 330 of the I. W. W. is ours to use if we, the building workers, have the sense. A united building workers’ force will redeem conditions and add achievements. United in that manner our strength is multiplied and our way made easy. The force of all is greater than that of any one group. One Union for all; one card with universal transfer the unity of all; one enemy is yours to fight, and one cause yours to win. Join the I. W. W.

For further information, write to Building Construction Workers’ Industrial Union No. 330, 555 W. Lake Street, Chicago, Ill.


Publications of the I. W. W. Issued By
The General Executive Board

INDUSTRIAL SOLIDARITY, weekly newspaper in English, official organ of the I. W. W., $2.00 a year; single copies 5 cents, published at 555W. Lake St., Chicago, Ill.

INDUSTRIAL WORKER, weekly newspaper in English. Official Organ of the Western Branches of the I. W. W. $2.00 a year; single copies, 5 cents. Published at Seattle, Wash. Address. Box 1857.

INDUSTRIALISTI, Finnish daily newspaper, $4.75 a year; $2.75 six months, $1.75 three months. Single copies, 5 cents. Published at Duluth, Minn. Address, Box 464.

SOLIDARIDAD, bi-weekly newspaper in Spanish, $1.00 a year; single copies, 5 cents. Published at New York City, N. Y. Address, Box 1, Station U.

TIE VAPAUTEEN, Finnish monthly magazine, 32 pages, $1.75 a year; single copies, 15 cents; April and December 48 pages, 25 cents. Published at 555 West Lake St., Chicago, Ill.

BERMUNKAS, Hungarian weekly newspaper, $2.00 a year; single copies, 5 cents. Published at P. O. Box 17, Station Y, New York, N. Y.

IL PROLETARIO, Italian weekly newspaper, $2.00 a year; single copies, 5 cents. Published at Brooklyn, N. Y. Address, Box 24, Station T.

JEDNA VELKA UNIE, Czecho-Slovakian weekly newspaper, $2.00 a year; single copies, 5 cents. Published at 555 West Lake St., Chicago, Ill.

Transcribed by J. D. Crutchfield from an original kindly lent by FW Steve Kellerman. Minor errors silently corrected. Non-standard spellings left as in original.

Last updated 20 March 2004.


Last updated 5 November 2004 by David Walters for the MIA’s I.W.W. Collection. We extend our heartfelt thanks to J. D. Crutchfied for granting us permission to use his collection of online pamphlets.