In the lobby on the third floor of the new Carpenters Center at 750 Dorchester Avenue are sleek black chairs and hardwood floors and the receptionist behind her desk hums along to the radio on this quiet August afternoon. Beside the long counter of the reception desk is a small metal sculpture of a carpenter wielding a hammer that make one think more of a dentist’s office or the Museum of Contemporary Art than Woody Guthrie and Eugene V. Debs.
This idea, that unionism has changed in recent years, is reiterated again and again through the new building, both in details of its structure and design and by the people who work there.
“We’re not just working for our own interests,” said Vincent Scalisi, who with Chris Shannon manages business development for the NERCC. “We are part of the fabric of the community. We’re coaching baseball teams, we’re the guys sitting next to you in church.”
Scalisi is from Hyde Park and Shannon lives in Canton, but both of them say they spend more time at the facility in Dorchester or on other union business in local neighborhoods than they do at home.
“I tell people I sleep in Canton but I live in the city,” Shannon said.
The building on Dorchester Avenue houses the New England Regional Council of Carpenters (NERCC), Pile Drivers Local 56, Mill and Cabinet Local 51, Wood Frame Local 723, Floor Coverers Local 2168, and the Boston Carpenters Apprenticeship and Training Center. There is also a branch of First Trade Union Bank and a Carpenters Vision Center, where union members are eligible for new eyeglasses annually.
The floor of the building that Shannon and Scalisi work on is also occupied by offices for community outreach, which doesn’t always mean picket lines (though Scalisi does say that when he’s going somewhere to support a political cause, his family usually goes with him.) Alex Miklowski, a recent graduate of Emerson College, is part of the new way the NERCC is trying to get its message out. On her desk is a bank of computer screens and behind her on a coat rack is her pink hard hat. “I was drawn to this position when I read a posting for it that said, ‘to describe the working man.’’
Shannon said that local strikes and walk outs typically receive little media coverage, so he and Scalisi decided they were going to produce their own videos and post them online. “This whole way we’re trying to do marketing, I don’t know if anyone else in the country does this.”
Alex is editing a video that shows a confrontation between a two non-union workers, one who wants to stay on strike until they receive back pay and another who wants to go to his job. The argument gets heated, and Scalisi and Shannon say that many non-union workers, when they are given support by the NERCC, take quickly to the ideas of unionism.
Shannon said that the NERCC often tries to lend support to non-union workers who are not being paid, or are otherwise treated unfairly.
“We expose it,” he said. “In the United States, not getting paid for the work you’re doing is a big thing. We try to expose the injustice.” Supporting these workers leads to an “evening of the playing field,” Shannon said, and benefits NERCC workers as well, 40 percent of whom are currently unemployed.
Part of the changing nature of unionism includes developing relationships with communities of immigrants, particularly from Vietnam and the Caribbean, who have entered the trades. For Scalisi, it is a matter of the union’s survival – either the union assimilates these new communities or the union will be left behind. For Shannon, it’s a matter of demographic shifts, as workers from Kerry are joined by workers from Port-au-Prince. They both say that, though some times there are communications difficulties, these new communities and the union get along very well.
“There is no standard affirmative action per se, but there is absolutely no prejudice,” Scalisi said.
Craig Ransom, a native of Dorchester, does community organizing for the union. He also coaches local baseball and football teams.
“The advantage that I have is a lot of the workers look like me,” Ransom, who is black, said. He also says that he can usually tell as soon as he meets someone interested in the union whether or not that person will be a successful carpenter.
Shannon and Scalisi agree. It is a matter of how one carries one’s self, the tools one brings to a job, how they conduct themselves on a job site. “If you’re not diligent and sincere, you don’t get in,” Ransom said. “It has to do with background and family history. How you were raised is important.”
For Ransom, Shannon, and Scalisi, whose children have received college educations and do not plan on entering the union, recruitment is important.
“We want to find good workers for when the next big boom is,” Scalisi said.
Preparing for that next boom, whenever and whatever it may be, has become an important part of the union’s work, Shannon said. The union is predicting that hospitals, biotech, and housing are what will keep their members swinging hammers in the near future, and they are contacting developers well before projects are begun to present what they see as the value of union labor.
“There are a lot of developments that could happen if money came into the market,” Shannon said.
When that money does come, it will be the training that the union has invested in its laborers that will make them attractive to developers.
“Our guys are trained and they’re carpenters, this is what they do every day.”
Training takes place on the lower levels. Down one floor from Scalisi’s and Shannon’s office are classrooms equipped with computers and projectors. The walls of some of the rooms are designed to fold back, so that the union can also host larger gatherings.
Down the hall is a room where the union teaches welding, but which also stands for the union’s whole enterprise in their new home. The outside wall is a row of windows that look out on the Southeast Expressway, and Scalisi, who himself started as an underwater welder and pile driver, and who describes the exactitude of a good weld in artistic terms, said that he hopes when classes are in here at night drivers will slow down to watch the sparks, and perhaps wonder for a moment what is being made.