The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 03, 2013

Building trades need to leverage assets, push union value, chief says

By The Building Tradesman

WASHINGTON, D.C. – With the U.S. construction industry mired in a half-decade slump (you can make that a full decade in Michigan), AFL-CIO Building Trades Department President Sean McGarvey is focusing on two things the unionized sector can control: offering value to contractors and owners, and maximizing resources.

“Our value proposition is unlike anything that can be found anywhere,” McGarvey told building trades delegates from around the U.S. and Canada.  “It is a value proposition that is predicated upon one unpretentious idea: that we can, and do, provide a wide range of services, resources, and manpower that results in bottom-line monetary value for those owners and end-users who choose the path of partnership over the ‘low road’ path of wage stagnation, exploitation and sub-standard quality outcomes.”

McGarvey made his comments on April 22 in a keynote address to the Building Trades’ 2013 annual Legislative Conference. He pointed to ongoing partnerships with industries involving oil, natural gas, pharmaceutical, nuclear power, utilities and petrochemicals that have successfully partnered with building trades unions to perform their projects. The nuts and bolts of the partnerships range from helping train workers to suit employer needs, political lobbying to move projects forward, and utilizing union pension investments to help finance and employ union construction workers.

“Stop and think about it,” McGarvey said. “The last best thing that we do is provide the best-trained, most highly skilled and productive workforce found anywhere in the world.  But, there is a whole other range of additional value that we bring to the table – which has a measurable bottom-line monetary value, and which can help us close the perceived ‘price delta’ between union and non-union construction labor.”

But union value, McGarvey said, can only be exhibited if there’s work to be done. And while there isn’t a jobs boom on the horizon, he said a variety of factors portend greater work opportunities for the building trades. Work is being created in the areas of heightened domestic energy production and skilled workforce shortages are being exacerbated by workers who have left the industry. The potential for building trades unions is a “landscape of golden opportunity,” McGarvey said, “provided, that is, that we seize these opportunities by being more strategic in our combined activities related to industry relations, politics and marketing.”

Politically, he said the building trades unions are being strategic with spending on both Republican and Democratic candidates – but that money might work better if politicians get regular reminders of who is buttering their bread.

“Let me throw a few numbers at you,” McGarvey told delegates. “The first one is this: During the 2012 election cycle, the building trades... including the Operating Engineers and the Carpenters...were the  No. 1 overall hard-dollar PAC contributor; the No. 1 hard-dollar PAC contributor to the Democratic Party; and the No. 4 hard dollar PAC contributor to the Republican Party.” For emphasis to those surprised at the trades’ support of Republicans, he reiterated, “take a moment to digest what I just said. We were the No. 1 hard-dollar PAC contributor to Democratic candidates for Congress, and we were the No. 4 hard-dollar contributor to Republican candidates.”

He said those contributions “don't amount to a hill of beans if we are not being strategic enough to generate a return on those investments.” He said the building trades should continue not to put their political eggs into the basket of one party or another. “We need to continue to foster our political independence so that we are inoculated against sudden shifts in the political winds,” McGarvey said.

There’s more strategy required on the union marketing, advertising and public relations fronts. He said the union construction industry spends about $30 million a year to “shape our brand in the minds of our industry and the general public.” That’s in the same ballpark as what is spent by Russell Athletic, Tylenol, and Mr. Clean.

“The point that I am making here is simple,” McGarvey said. “When it comes to marketing and communications, we have to start asking ourselves one simple question: Are we collectively weaving a strong, consistent message and brand identity across all of our marketing and communications platforms?”

He said the Building Trades Department is putting more emphasis on leveraging pension fund assets to finance construction projects, and for the first time, work with other unions like the American Federation of Teachers to harness pension assets from public unions, too. To date, he said, $4 billion in infrastructure projects alone are tied to union pension dollars.

“After all, the more members we have working, the more pension contributions are flowing into our funds,” he said. “And that will go a long ways towards helping to stabilize some of them.

“Brothers and sisters,” McGarvey said, “ if there is one thought that I want to plant in each and every one you this week, it’s this:  If we can simply become more coordinated and strategic in terms of our industry relations, our politics and our marketing endeavors, then we will have reached a pivotal moment in the history of the building trades.

“So, today I challenge each and every one of you in this room to embrace the simple, yet profound, idea that we can best serve the interests of our industry, our unions and our members, by serving as a catalyst for a new approach in how we do business.”

He concluded: “For the last five years, we have endured nothing short of an economic Hell.  And many of our members have experienced a personal Hell that has, in too many instances, shattered whole families.

“The choice we have today is to stand pat and do nothing…which has NEVER been the way of the Building Trades. Or, we can fight harder and smarter by leveraging and coordinating the tools and resources we have at our disposal.”