The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 28, 2014

Building Trades chief outlines pathways to the labor's success

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON – North America’s Building Trades Unions President Sean McGarvey said “the stars are now aligned for us” to improve market share through alliances with the business community that strive for cooperation, collaboration and inclusion.

Speaking on March 10 in his keynote address to delegates to the national organization’s annual legislative conference, McGarvey said building trades unions should operate under elements of “two pillars.”

“Number one,” he said, “our unmatched ability to bring bottom line value through the formal development and training of the safest, most highly skilled and productive construction workforce in the world.

“And number two, our commitment to building partnerships that lead to the creation of pathways for people of all walks of life who deserve an opportunity to achieve a stable and secure life in the American middle class.”

McGarvey has said much of the reason for optimism for a better building trades workload is the burgeoning development of domestic natural fuel resources and the related work it will bring, including the proposed Keystone Pipeline and expansion of related construction along the Gulf Coast. Matched with effective training programs that are already in place, a skilled nationwide pool of journeymen and women and a great track record on the job, he said unions continue to bring a value advantage over their nonunion counterparts.

Union contractors are making inroads among energy company owners on the Gulf, McGarvey said, building on successful experiences with jobs being done on time and on budget with a readily available skilled workforce. Areas like Texas and Louisiana have hardly been unfriendly to organized construction in the past 40 years or so, but failures in recent years by nonunion contractors have caused owners to start looking at the union model once again to deliver their work.

To capitalize, a new Gulf Coast project labor agreement has been drawn up, and the Building Trades are investing in workforce development training and opening an office in Houston on April 1 to show resolve in meeting the needs of the local contractors and owners.

“We have taken a long, hard introspective look at how we do business,” McGarvey said, “we have instituted a comprehensive cultural change that is predicated on pride, performance and professionalism; and we have systematically analyzed our strengths and weaknesses in order to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.”

He continued: “Let me be clear. Our unions today stand upon the threshold of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure significant market share gains for the union construction industry. But, in order to do that we have got to work harder, smarter and more strategically than ever before.”

Here are some other highlights from McGarvey’s speech:

*Union strength, he said, stems from strong apprenticeship training, the “Helmets to Hardhats” program which brings in military veterans to the trades, and “codes of conduct” and “codes of excellence,” which are collectively helping “to move the needle of industry and social change further in our direction.”

*Union pension plans are not adequately steering pension dollars towards sponsorships of  construction projects that can employ union members. There are several funds – ULLICO’s J for Jobs and the IBEW’s Real Estate Advisors, to name two – that are already in place, ready to take union pension dollars and hire union trades workers.

“If your union is not investing a portion of its pension fund resources into those funds that are actually helping us secure projects and put our members to work, then I suggest you re-examine your allocations!” McGarvey said.

*One of two issues “that could severely hinder our growth,” McGarvey said, is immigration reform. He said the final Senate version “is a very significant achievement,” capping guest workers in the construction year at 15,000 annually. What will happen in the Republican-run House “is anybody’s guess,” McGarvey said.

*The second  potential time bomb issue for the building trades is multi-employer pension reform.

He said in response to “unprecedented challenges” brought on by two recessions and the “depression in the construction industry,” the union construction industry and others “have crafted a set of private sector solutions to address the challenges being faced by some of our plans while simultaneously strengthening the multiemployer, defined benefit system for existing retirees and future generations of participants and sponsoring employers.”

He referred to the “Solutions Not Bailouts” plan that we reference elsewhere in this edition. “These recommendations,” McGarvey said “are now in the process of being converted into federal legislation that we intend to shepherd through Congress.”