The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, August 17, 2012

‘Union Yes?’ Let’s try ‘Union Value’ Time to change public perception of labor

By The Building Tradesman

In California, considered the bluest of the blue states, polls indicated that over 40 percent of people favored restricting or eliminating collective bargaining for public sector employees.

Now first, the concept of collective bargaining is more a stated right than most of the population could ever imagine. It has shaped the national conscience and provided the economic backbone for the middle class. But I bet that the people polled likely had no idea what collective bargaining even was just two months ago. Now the national discussion is just about money, cost and the perception of entitlement.

The powerful forces pressing this message are winning over the moderates in this country who are buying into the dated and stereotypical images of unions and union members. The events of the last 18 months must be the call for labor to tell its story of value and humanity in a compelling manner. This is labor’s last stand; Winning the Hearts and Minds of America.

No less than a dozen states right now have legislation to restrict or eliminate prevailing wages or promote right-to-work.

Many cities that our union contractors bid to in California are now eliminating prevailing wage from the bidspecs; several cities have now (ABC driven) legislatively prohibited PLAs. Even worse is the fact that the public really doesn’t have a clue as to the underlying conditions or economic framework of union construction.

Here we have guys working maybe nine or ten months a year. Families often on the edge of qualifying for their benefits. And yet the opposition only cites the excessive wage and fringe package and the comparative analysis against the nonunion costs. We need to tell our story better and tell it now. Contractors have to understand how their relationship with their union has either a positive or negative impact on their ability to bid to various clients. And we cannot allow inaccurate or tainted views to dictate business decisions.

I can give a recent personal example. A very large contracting firm retained me to do a keynote speech for their leadership program. A short interval prior to the program I received a panicky call from a senior VP letting me know they were canceling. Upon further inquiry I discovered that the CEO felt I had too close of ties to organized labor and would therefore not be credible. If the quality of ideas cannot overcome the negativity of perception, we are in more trouble than we think.

As to the ongoing debate nationally about unions and public vs. private sector, I have angered some people for even bringing up the potential differences in challenges for public vs. private. I totally agree that solidarity is a powerful tool in labor which many died in this country to achieve, not for themselves, but for others and future generations.

In fairness to their views, I guess maybe my frame of reference could be too narrow by just looking at union construction. But every week, 30-40 percent of the guys I talk to are out of work, some up to a year on the bench. I grew up in a very difficult financial situation myself. I know exactly how it feels. These guys can’t wait for some national debate to solve their issues; no one is protesting for them; they just need to be working now.

And nonunion workers are most often doing their work. This is a really different set of problems than the issues that public sector union members are facing. Both are critical, but the solutions and strategies and timelines are very different. One common solution, though, is to tell a powerful story through the media. On one hand, if labor collectively goes for the “Heart and Minds” campaign (in addition to the usual political efforts) there will be many more resources and people to push it.

Perhaps “Union Yes” has worn out its cycle. Might I suggest “Union Value,” showing who the union movement really is; just people. This is the alternative. Let’s remind people that you can get more when you pay more. Despite already having worked on campaigns like this for a decade, many construction unions are still on the edge of survival. New York City is now less than 50 percent union. Most areas across the nation are over 80percent nonunion. These are do or die issues: How can, if at all, the public sector unions help them in return if they lend their time, voice and money? Can that solidarity run both ways and provide help to union construction?

Today my picture showed up in the New York Times, speaking at a recent program. I’ve come a long way from the days of doing dozens of pro bono programs for like 20 guys when no one cared or listened. The article described the challenges facing the tens of thousands of NYC contractors and union members, the same damn challenges that I have been talking about in Alberta, Seattle, Georgia, L.A. Denver, Boston, Vegas, Oklahoma  and the rest of this country and Canada.

If we could only, for once, get ahead of the curve…. But what I remember most about that NYC presentation was the new apprentices sitting down in front – enthusiastic, curious and cynical – and I felt like the old man shouting into the wind, part of the message lost because it is still unpopular or not compelling enough.

Union construction is worth saving. Those apprentices should not be working at Home Depot in ten years because we blew it. No, it is going to be about tapping the “Hearts and Minds” of the many.  Of the public. Of legislators. Of business leaders. Of the union leaders. Of the union contractors, and most of all, of the guys waiting for their opportunity to do the work and take care of their families.  The time to tell our value story is now.

Breslin lives in northern California and is a strategist, speaker and author who has addressed more than 250,000 business, labor and construction-owner leaders. He also speaks to tens of thousands of field craftsmen and apprentices across the U.S. and Canada annually. He has been invited to speak to numerous building trades union groups.