The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 29, 2000

Raising nonunion standards - for all the wrong reasons

By The Building Tradesman

Nonunion contractors now masters of the obvious: Increased pay keeps workers

Tradesman viewpoint

Editor's note: Following is evidence of some appalling logic by leaders in two large, nonunion construction companies. If you ever wondered why you joined a union, we hope the information that follows will confirm that you made the right decision.

The Engineering News Record this month calls it a "big, broad-based crisis."

The problem: In many areas of the U.S., nonunion construction contractors are having difficulty attracting and keeping a sufficient workforce.

Their solution is better pay. According to Frank Yancey, senior vice president for Houston-based Brown and Root, a major nonunion general contractor that manages a workforce of 35,000: "We have to begin looking at money. It is not the total answer, but it is a beginning,"


A basic concept that has existed since economies were formed is that when times are good, workers won't do certain types of work unless their pay provides sufficient incentive. Well, times have been good in the construction industry in most of the U.S. since the present building boom began in 1992. What hasn't been so good is the industry's ability in some parts of the country to maintain a sufficient number of workers. National publications point to right-to-work states in the South and West as the biggest problem areas for lack of workers.

"We reap the crop that we sow and we have not sown enough seeds," said Ted C. Kennedy, chairman of BE & K, a huge nonunion employer out of Birmingham, Ala.,

The ENR reported that Brown and Root found that the crop they're sowing has resulted in the average construction craftsman working on the Gulf Coast making about $17 an hour - with only a disposable income of $1,489 a year after living expenses.

This "is a poor person," Yancey told a construction image summit held in Atlanta earlier this month. "I used to go to high schools in Texas and explain to students the advantages of coming into the industry. I refuse to do that now."

The ENR said both Brown and Root and BE & K are raising their workers' wages in an attempt to keep their employees in the industry.

"I have a belief that wages are way too low," said Ted C. Kennedy, BE & K's chairman, as quoted in the ENR. "I think (the hike) will attract the higher skilled and trained people."

The statements of Yancey and Kennedy lead us to a few questions, and make us wonder how they can sleep at night.

When did these business leaders arrive at their "belief" that wages are too low? If a worker earning $17 an hour is a "poor person" today, what would they call the same person five, 10 or 20 years ago? Why are they only starting to care about the poor people on their payroll now? No doubt both business leaders know how stagnant workers' wages have been over the last decade compared to inflation.

Their comments should be revolting to all workers and to fair employers who want to provide a good living for their employees. Suddenly, those two huge nonunion employers get religion about paying their workers properly - but it only comes at a time when their business interests force them to. Their philosophy comes from only one motivation: improving the bottom line of their company.

The second part of Kennedy's statement was equally appalling: "I think (the hike) will attract the higher skilled and trained people." The converse of the statement is that BE & K has been content to employ lesser-skilled and untrained workers.

The construction industry has much going against it when it comes to attracting workers - today or 30 years ago. The industry is dirty, cyclical, and worst of all, dangerous. On top of all that, some employers don't care about their workers until they're forced to.

Sounds to us like some workers need a union. Unions have been kicked around, bad-mouthed, and have seen overall membership drop to about 15 percent of the nation's workforce. Union organizing in the construction industry, however, last year accounted for about half of all of the newly organized union workers in the nation.

When workers get together and collectively bargain for their salary, benefits and basic rights on the job site, they have a way to fight back against the BE & Ks and the Brown and Roots of the world. Unions can provide a much-needed reminder that workers need to be treated fairly, even when the economy isn't doing so well.