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Date: Tue, 23 Feb 1999 15:48:16 -0600 (CST)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
y Organization: PACH
Subject: LABOR HISTORY: THe 'American Plan' Hits Oakland
Article: 55715
Message-ID: <bulk.24682.19990225001545@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** headlines: 149.0 **/
** Topic: LABOR HISTORY: THe 'American Plan' Hits Oakland **
** Written 4:02 PM Feb 22, 1999 by labornet in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 1:54 PM Feb 22, 1999 by nlahaie@igc.org in labr.newsline */
/* ---------- "Journeyman article (fwd)" ---------- */

Building our Unions: The "American Plan" Hits Oakland

By Albert Lannon
22 February 1999

After World War I employers across the nation embarked on a unionbusting campaign known as the American Plan. Building trades unions were a major target of the open shop zealots and in June, 1921, the American Plan hit Oakland, hard.

Builder's Exchange, a group of building materials dealers and wholesalers locked out the unions and refused to sell materials to contractors who employed union labor. The lockout lasted four months and saw two heads of Builder's Exchange indicted and arrested for restraint of trade. They were released on $50 bail, and the case was later dismissed by the court.


As had happened in a 1906 Bay Area strike for the eight hour day, the Building Trades Council did not sit still. Unions began forming co-ops to bypass the contractors and supply labor directly. Sheet Metal workers formed the American Sheet Metal Works, financed by the union, with each member owning a share of the cooperative. Plenty of work was available to all who wanted it.

Painters Local 127 soon followed suit, setting up a co-op to supply painters and paperhangers at union wages to anyone needing the work, again bypassing the contractor and his profit margin.

IBEW Local 595 formed a Contracting Bureau which steadily employed the membership for the four-month duration of the lockout. One official declared:

"There is no reason on earth why the skilled mechanics who compose this union should wait until the employer gives them the privilege of placing their skill at the service of the public."

Machinists Lodge 284 past president Jim McMasters headed the East Bay Cooperative League which set up a union-owned and operated East Bay Cooperative Store, carrying everything from food to coal, in direct competition with the non-union Emporium. The IAM also ran a restaurant at the union hall, staffed by the Ladies Auxioiary, and there was another union co-op restaurant in the basement of the Oakland federal building.


In August 1921 a call emerged for a general strike of all Bay Area building trades unions. Leaders were divided, but a rank and file referendum approved a strike by a 569 - 383 vote. The national and state Building Trades Councils of the American Federation of Labor came out against a general strike, declaring that it would be illegal.

A local Building Trades Council meeting was packed with four- or five hundred rank and file members urging the strike. The BTC moved to another room where a number of delegates spoke in favor of a general strike, but the chair ruled that it would be illegal. No one challenged the chair, and impetus for the strike faded.


The Oakland Chamber of Commerce, fearful of the general strike talk, spoke out against Builders Exchange tactics and the stage was set for a settlement of the lockout. Building trades unions accepted a seven and one-half percent wage cut at the end of August, but Builders Exchange continued to limit sales of material to non-union contractors into October, 1921.

The American Plan drove union membership down to nine percent nationally by the time the stock market collapsed in 1929. (Albert Lannon coordinates the Laney College Labor Studies Program; for information about classes, call 510/464-3210.)

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