The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, January 11, 2013

Union brand should point to shared value as trades plan our future

By The Building Tradesman

This is the time of year when we take the occasion to pause and reflect upon the year that was; the year to come; and to resolve to find ways to better ourselves and those around us.

For the union construction industry, this time of reflection should afford us a new sense of optimism, promise and opportunity. All leading economic indicators for the construction industry point to steady and continued growth as we finally remove ourselves from the depths of one of the most debilitating recessions of our lifetime.

Many sectors of the American economy, from the oil and gas industry to power generation to pharmaceutical to manufacturing, are poised for growth over the next ten years. And that growth translates into tremendous opportunities for the union construction industry to establish new and lasting partnerships through a business model that is predicated upon delivering a wide array of value that goes well beyond our providing the safest, most highly trained and productive workforce in the world.

As with all great ambitions, this task will require our unions, and everyone associated with the union construction industry to step up to the plate and put his or her best foot forward at all times.

The recent enactment of a “right to work” law in the state of Michigan is a great example of what I mean. On the one hand, it can, and should, be viewed and confronted as an assault on collective bargaining in this nation. On the other hand, it has prompted a national conversation regarding the value and role of unions in America today. And that is a conversation within which America’s building trades unions should be eager to participate.

Today’s advancement in digital communications (especially social media) are forcing corporations, organizations and unions to rethink and rewire the way they think about, and run, their businesses and operations. Put simply, a new digital culture is shifting all manner of economic, cultural and societal landscapes one tweet at a time.

For any brand today, corporate or union, the challenges we face go far beyond simple marketing. Consumers today don’t just want a product that performs well and lasts a long time. They want to make sure that their favorite brands provide value, and act responsibly in terms of society and culture. The same holds true for unions. And I believe there is tremendous opportunity for American labor unions to re-define and re-position themselves for success.

And that is exactly what America’s Building Trades Unions are doing. In conjunction with our contractor partners, we have embarked upon a mission designed to offer up a new, value-based business model that is more collaborative in nature, and which will help to produce new platforms that benefit the ideals of both business and our society at large.

Our solution lies in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. We believe that the idea of shared value lies at the heart of the next major transformation in business thinking.

So, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are we ready to embrace this new transformation and find innovative ways to make it work through the development of new partnerships with corporations and industries?

The answer to that question is a resounding YES!

Our unions subscribe to the notion that American capitalism remains an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. There is no getting around the fact that businesses, acting as businesses, are the most powerful force for addressing many of the pressing issues we face as a nation.

For far too long, American business and societal needs have been pitted against each other, and have effectively formed the primary source of political dysfunction in the U.S. By contrast, our notion of shared value suggests that the competitiveness of a company and the health of surrounding communities are closely intertwined.

America’s building trades unions are today successfully impressing upon business and industry leaders, as well as elected officials, the notion that a business needs a successful community not only to create demand for its products or services, but also to provide critical public assets and a supportive environment. In turn, a community can only thrive when businesses provide jobs and wealth creation opportunities for its citizens.

In the old, narrow view of capitalism, the communities in which companies operated perceived very little benefit even as profits rose. As a result, they rightly perceived that profits were being generated at their expense. This impression has remained strong as the ever-shrinking American Middle Class tries to process a scenario involving rising corporate earnings coupled with high unemployment, local small business distress, and unsustainable pressures on community safety nets and services.

But it was not always this way. Once upon a time, the best companies in America embraced a broad range of roles in meeting the needs of workers and the broader community. Today, however, we bear witness to an obsessive focus on “shareholder” value as opposed to “stakeholder” value.

But, as our unions can attest through the partnerships and collaborative relationships we have developed with whole industries and many corporations, it doesn’t have to be this way. What we are demonstrating is that a partnership with our unions can be supremely beneficial for both the brand health and bottom lines of our corporate partners, and for society in general.

Holding down wage levels, reducing employee benefits, rejecting the need for skills training, and utilizing undocumented workers is not conducive for broad-based success in today’s world. Instead, we are posing a simple question to corporate and industry leaders: Can the construction and maintenance of your plants and facilities be done in such a way that is both mindful of your bottom line economic concerns, while also achieving greater community impact? Many companies are finding that the answer is “yes.”

Our unions endeavor to build a high-performance construction industry through the utmost levels of investment in skilled workforce development found anywhere. Today, our unions and our signatory contractors are investing upwards of $1 billion annually to sustain what is arguably the most successful educational system in the history of our nation – the unionized skilled craft apprenticeship infrastructure. Our advanced training results in productivity levels and quality workmanship that ensures “on time, on budget” results for construction end-users, while also providing family-sustaining wages that benefit both the workers and the surrounding community.

Further, we are working to increase apprenticeship and career training pathways for people living in historically disadvantaged communities. In other words, we are helping to create the opportunities – through private investments – that are enabling many disadvantaged Americans to become proud, productive citizens of our great nation.

We are the proud sponsors of the “Helmets to Hardhats” program that has assisted tens of thousands of transitioning military veterans in gaining jobs and career training opportunities in the construction industry. We operate the most stringent drug and alcohol testing program in the industry. And we have instituted “codes of excellence” and “codes of conduct” for our members.

These shared value partnerships and collaborations are proof positive that unions can, and are, innovating towards success by showcasing the inherent value that we provide to our end-user customers, and to our members.

And that is certainly worthy of a conversation.