Structural Building Trades Alliance - Struggles


The SBTA struggled in its first year. Despite Gubbins' election as president, Bricklayer locals refused to approve the international union's participation in the SBTA. Vice-president Frank Duffy to charge as acting president in Gubbins' place. The Iron Workers along with the Plasterers and Electrical Workers failed to send delegates to SBTA's first convention in the summer of 1904, but Frank Buchanan, president of the Iron Workers, was elected SBTA president all the same.

SBTA members began to broaden the organization's membership to specialty unions in 1905. The Gas and Steam Fitters, Tile Layers, Composition Roofers, Elevator Constructors and Lathers all petitioned for membership. But these membership petitions threatened the SBTA's fragile governing coalition. All SBTA members but the Plumbers were in favor of admitting the Gas and Steam Fitters; all SBTA members but the Iron Workers were in favor of admitting the Lathers. When locals of the Bricklayers, Electrical Workers and Plasterers unions refused to approve their respective unions' membership in the Alliance, these international unions were forced to withdraw from the group. The remaining SBTA members immediately voted to admit the five specialty unions, a move which then led the Iron Workers to withdraw. James Kirby, president of the Chicago District Council of the Carpenters' union, was elected president as his replacement.

Friction with the AFL continued as well. Spencer was elected an AFL vice president in 1904, which significantly lessened the AFL's suspicions regarding the SBTA. In March 1905, the AFL assisted the SBTA in a conflict with contractors in New York City. But local SBTA and AFL building trades councils continued to fight with one another, and repeated jurisdictional battles and calls for sympathy strikes weakened SBTA local alliances.

SBTA also struggled to enforce its rules without causing additional disaffiliations. SBTA president Kirby successfully established many new local councils, and resolved conflicts which threatened to sunder existing ones. But the Alliance's one union-one vote rule often meant that smaller specialty unions were easily able to build majorities to sanction larger unions for infringement on speciality union jurisdiction. The offended larger union would then threaten to withdraw from the local alliance, taking its dues and influence with contractors went with it. Local alliances would then ask the national SBTA to enforce the rules. Kirby and Spencer were sympathetic to the demands made by local councils, but often refused to take any enforcement action for fear that the large unions would disaffiliate.

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