House building came to a virtual standstill during the depression and war years, a lull that gave way to a massive construction boom that reached far into the postwar period. By that time, however, the nature of the construction industry was undergoing rapid changes. The introduction of new technologies and building materials meant that buildings could be built faster and cheaper. The benefits of this rise in productivity were shared unequally by bosses and workers. While workers saw a rise in wages, many homebuilders and contractors made fortunes in the millions. Al Filardo, a carpenter who worked in the construction industry in New York, remembered that workers still faced the uncertainty of not knowing when they would find or lose work, and opposition to construction unions.Listen to Audio:
AL FILARDO: Among the union members you have a group that’s referred to as “the union group” and you have the “bosses‘ group,” even though they’re all union members. The boss will put on fifty percent if the job is a union job, they have to still put on union men, even though they’re from different districts. However, those other fifty percent that the boss puts on are referred to as the bosses’ men, even though they’re union men, which means that they have to be pacesetters. In other words, you have a competition between the fifty percent that the boss puts on, which is usually more than fifty percent, usually more like sixty percent, and then the other half that’s put on by the local, so you have a competition. You have them competing against each other. Of course, the boss tries to hold on to his men and lay off the union members, if he can. He’d get away with it sometimes, depending on how militant and what kind of shop steward has been put on the job.
Being Italian gave me an advantage over being a Jewish carpenter, so I was able to work on these big jobs which were longer lasting. Some of these jobs of that period used to last a year, two years even, whereas the small construction were much shorter jobs. By the way, interestingly enough, these same jobs that used to last two years back in 1946, twenty years later those jobs lasted for four months because the technique of construction has so increased and improved and had been mastered.
For example, the size of the brick had gone up from an inch and a half thick by 4 X 8 inches, they made it a full two inches thick. So naturally, a brick layer could still lay a two inch thick brick just as easily and as fast and cover more area. For example, the use of the sheets of plywood to cover the floor, if you use a piece of 4 X 8 that a carpenter would handle and cover a tremendous amount of area in a very short time rather than years ago when we used to use these strips of lumber, say 4 inch and 6 inch wide boards.
ANNE FILARDO: Do you remember having used to make the plywood forms for pouring concrete? When the concrete set you would rip the forms away and destroy them. Then they started coating them with plastic so they would just hose them down and they didn’t rip them apart. They passed them up to the next floor to use them again.
AL FILARDO: Yes the technology is so improved, increased. The same home, let’s say that would take two years could get done in four to six months, and be just as good work. So naturally they cut down on the number of workers they needed. So even though they may have paid a little more increase in wages, the technology has improved to such an extent that they’ve made their profits increase tremendously. It’s not unusual for bosses to gross millions and millions of dollars on these large jobs.
Source: Interviewed by Debra Bernhardt 10/10/80
Courtesy Wagner Labor Archives/Tamiment Library