Once upon a time (circa the 1970s), the construction unions got too big for their blue jeans. They took to heart Samuel Gompers’ famous reply to the question of what did unions want: “More!”

They were insatiable in their demands for more wages, benefits, power, more of anything their employers had to give (and even things they didn’t, such as a bigger piece of the jurisdictional pie within the brotherhood). Who could blame them? After all, isn’t this exactly what employers want as well — more business, profits, perks, and authority?

Work was plentiful through most of the 1970s, but towards the end inflation took hold of our economy like a pit bull on a mail carrier’s leg. Double-digit inflation leads to funny money.

The business world grew lax in cutting costs, figuring it could pass along price increases to a public conditioned to accept them as the inevitable consequence of inflation. If costs rose, say, 14% in a year, owners would cuss all the way to the bank as they boosted their prices 15% to 20%. Customers coped because their own pay ratcheted up in the same fashion.

All this fanned the flames, of course, but everyone’s mentality was, “Who cares as long as we get ours.”

In this climate, Building & Construction Trades Department (BCTD) unions commonly received wage and fringe increases of as much as $5/hr at a crack.

Union blunder

Where the unions goofed was in simultaneously wanting less — less work for more money. Labor agreements were burdened with ever more work restrictions and paid time off. Strikes and work stoppages ran rampant.

Most frustrating of all, jobsites routinely got shut down over silly jurisdictional disputes, as when one union would squabble with another over who gets to install hinges and doorknobs.

As the price of labor skyrocketed, the amount of work bought by each dollar plummeted. Construction costs and hassles escalated to the point where even a Consumer Price Index approaching 20% couldn’t disguise the problem.

I’m not making this up, friends. Better authorities than I documented all this in a devastating report from the late 70s, “More Construction for the Money,” put out by the Construction Industry Cost-Effectiveness Project of The Business Roundtable. The document provided unrelenting evidence of the abuses just cited.

Somewhere along the way, more construction users got fed up and turned to nonunion labor.

In the 1960s, union labor accounted for about 60% to 70% of the overall construction market by most calculations. By the 1980s that ratio was reversed. Nonunion construction made inroads into even the toughest union towns and became dominant in most parts of the country.

Articles predicted the death of union construction. That didn’t happen, at least not in the larger commercial-industrial markets where quality still counts to some extent.

During this decade, the union-nonunion work ratio has pretty much stabilized. However, some of the BCTD unions are a shadow of their former selves. Others have stayed alive only by steady givebacks in contract negotiations.

Of babies and bathwater

Many people are inclined to smirk at the unions getting their comeuppance. Not me.

For all their sins, the construction trade unions have been, in my opinion, on the whole a positive force for the construction industry, if for no other reason than their apprenticeship training system.

Oh, I’ve heard the criticisms. They take twice as long as necessary to train a craftsman. They purposely restrict admission to hold down the supply of labor. They turn out people who are overqualified (overpaid) to perform the mundane tasks that account for most construction work. The BCTD unions have an abysmal record of minority recruitment. Some of this carping is even valid.

Nonetheless, the construction unions deserve applause for these overriding reasons:

  •  Their apprenticeship programs turned out well-trained craftsmen.

    Almost nobody disputes this. Even most union bashers will concede when pressed that union training is the best around. Many nonunion contractors and trade workers got their start as union apprentices.

  •  The construction unions used to have pay scales that made for an attractive career option.

    When I first started covering the construction industry in the late 70s, union wages used to be about double that of nonunion. The gap has since closed to about a third higher overall, and in fact most nonunion lead men earn about what union journeymen do.

    However, that’s not so much because the nonunion sector has caught up, as because trade work has been devalued. The newsletter Cockshaw’s Construction Labor News+Opinion once ran an analysis showing that most BCTD wage rates have dropped 20% to 25% factored against inflation over the last two decades.

    People who deliver packages for UPS can earn more than most skilled trade workers, with better benefits and working conditions. No wonder it’s so hard to attract ambitious people to the trades.

  •  The decline in union construction coincides with the industry’s shortage of skilled labor.

    Plenty of anecdotal evidence also suggests a steep decline in the overall quality of craftsmanship.

    In discarding the unions, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Nonunion alternatives

As local unions have disappeared or shriveled up, so have many of their training programs. What has replaced them?

Nonunion apprenticeship boasts a few pockets of excellence around the country, but across the board there is nothing to brag about.

The rabidly anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) has for many years tried to present its “Wheels of Learning” program of task-based training as the industry’s answer to union apprenticeship. But try to find craft workers who have completed an entire four-year curriculum of “Wheels” in any trade. They might learn a few skills, only to end up in dead-end task-work jobs. A few who shine brightly get prematurely promoted to lead positions by desperate contractors. Most change jobs too often to complete the program, or they leave the industry entirely.

ABC tacitly admitted the failure of “Wheels of Learning” by spearheading the establishment of the Center for Construction Education in Florida, headed by former ABC executive vice president Dan Bennet. This is a genuinely earnest attempt by the nonunion sector to put some teeth into its training efforts.

Yet, the money committed to the effort pales beside that of the BCTD unions. The center originally targeted a goal of $20 million for training in all construction crafts, and I don’t believe they’ve come anywhere near that goal.

Even if they did, compare that sum with, say, the $80 million-plus invested every year in training-related functions by the union with one of the most extensive training programs around, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters. That’s for a single trade.

Add what’s spent by the other BCTD unions, and it renders the Center for Construction Education into little more than a monument to good intentions.

Why union training works

Three key elements make union craft training intrinsically superior to anything the nonunion sector has been able to come up with.

1. Genuine dedication to craftsmanship — Union apprenticeship is designed as a training program, not a source of cheap labor. BCTD training departments devise detailed curricula that focus on turning out craftsmen capable of performing virtually any work that may arise in their trade. Production concerns are secondary for apprentices.

They also have superb “training the trainers” programs that turn out first-rate instructors, along with continuing education to adapt to new materials and technologies.

2. The hiring hall — Collective labor distribution means that all signatory contractors to a labor agreement share an interest in training all apprentices covered by the agreement, no matter who they may be working for at the moment.

By contrast, nonunion employers have a strictly proprietary interest in their apprentices. As a result, they are constantly nagged by ambivalence when it comes to training investment. Why waste money training people who are apt to jump ship at any time and work for a competitor?

3. A workable funding mechanism — Union training gets funded by cents-per-workhour contributions specified in labor agreements and backed by the force of labor law. These funds are governed by joint committees consisting of both labor and management representatives.

When I give credit to union training, I am praising employers as well as union officials. It becomes an exercise in metaphysics trying to decide whether the training funds come out of labor’s pocket or management’s. In reality, it’s the customer who pays, and that’s the way it should be.

Support for nonunion training is strictly voluntary. Nobody can force an employer to pay up, and when money gets low, the training spigot tends to be the first to get turned off.

Solutions wanted

Some of you may think of me as a shill for organized labor, but I don’t really care who provides the training that’s needed. If nonunion entities take the ball and run with it effectively, I will be the first to give them a standing ovation.

Meantime, the harsh reality is that the construction industry to which we all owe our livelihoods has some aches and pains.

Skilled manpower is in desperately short supply. Young talent is not entering the trades in sufficient numbers, and those that do aren’t being trained the way they should be. Craftsmanship is on the wane, and pay scales are not enough to compete with cleaner, safer and more glamorous industries.

I’m all for solutions wherever they may be found. But I see nothing out there that works as well as the union system in its heyday, blemishes and all.