The state's building trades unions have had their share of good luck over the past few years, mainly in the form of having the state's prevailing wage law still in place. But that luck also stemmed from hard work, and more of it is going to become necessary to make sure that the taxpayer-and industry-friendly operations of the state's unionized construction industry is understood and appreciated by state lawmakers, the rest of the building industry, and the general public.
Mike Crawford, executive director of the Michigan Chapter NECA, the National Electrical Contractors Association, told delegates to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council on March 8 that union leaders and their contractor partners responded "quickly, professionally and effectively" to the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors dual attempts in 2015 and 2016 to overturn the prevailing wage law via (failed) petition drives.
The trades and the rest of the construction industry, he said, were fortunate that Gov. Rick Snyder has been willing to thumb his nose at the rest of the Republican Party and exercise a veto against prevailing wage repeal, which was made the GOP's top legislative priority the past two years.
Furthermore, he said the trades spent their resources wisely by hiring the right people - attorney John Pirich and public relations firm Martin Waymire for Protect Michigan Jobs - to successfully overturn the 2015 petition drive to overturn prevailing wage by finding thousands of illegitimate signatures. Crawford said it was "a powerful and effective response to this ABC attack."
The union-backed Protect Michigan Jobs group was created in the tradition of other advocacy "front" groups that disseminate information for a cause or a product, in this case, to defend the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act and to promote unionized construction. Protect Michigan Jobs, Crawford said, came "with facts and statistics aimed at our legislators and governor. Once we developed those facts, we put together a public policy campaign, a public relations campaign, a grass roots education campaign that involved social media, targeted mailings, and contacts with key legislators with renewed focus on grassroots lobbying that involved the over 100,000 building trades men and women in Michigan."
The money and effort worked. "They did such a good job the ABC ran into a big issue: the governor's veto" Crawford said. He said the ABC responded with the dual petition campaigns, the biggest threat to prevailing wage he has seen in the 38 years he has been in the business.
Labor and management worked together, Crawford said, using attorney Pirich to plan the legal attack against the ABC, and for Martin Waymire to handle the public relations campaign. They then hired "the best voter verification list verification group in Michigan, Practical Political Consulting," Crawford said, "which screened hundreds of thousands of signatures. and found the most fraudulent ballot initiative in Michigan's recent history."
More than $1 million was raised collectively to stop the ABC's legislative and petition efforts to overturn prevailing wage. Crawford said the effort "dealt a devastating blow to the ABC. You did that. Labor and management did that."
The efforts to overturn prevailing wage have calmed a bit, but the threat of a veto by Gov. Snyder is the only thing keeping repealers at bay. Crawford said the new legislative term this year brings 40 brand new state representatives out of the 110 total, plus the same 38 state senators. And Republicans have solid majorities in both houses. It's time, he said, for a new education process with them about the value that union construction brings to the industry and to taxpayers.
"Let's start that process by focusing on the best kept secret we have in our industry, and that's our apprenticeship programs," Crawford said. Media reports have been many and varied over the past few years about the skills gap - and how the cost of a college education keeps rising while apprentices can't be found for jobs that are available right now that pay you while you learn - and don't charge for training.
"Legislators and our governor have latched onto this skilled trades issue in a big way," Crawford said. "There's a whole lot of buzz about it. We need to show not only the 110 state reps, not only the 38 state senators, not only the governor's office, about what our best value added proposition is, and that's the value of our training, and the fact that it's done at no cost to the Michigan taxpayer. That's a huge deal."
The problem, Crawford said, is that the union construction sector has historically done a lousy job of promoting itself. "We have not done our job, and that's what we need to fix," Crawford said. "Because now you have the ABC with its hand out trying to take the state for millions of dollars in alleged money that they need to enhance their skilled training programs. That's bogus folks. We need to engage our legislators and put a whole lot of sunshine on this whole ABC initiative. We need to talk to our legislators about what we do, and what we have done for over 100 years. Nobody does it better. Nobody does construction training with the same productivity, work ethic-driven, training that you folks do. ABC has done a masterful job of over-promoting and overselling their side of the industry."
What the union sector also needs to do, and will now do, Crawford said, is to compile information about itself and push it out. "We need to quantify the quality of our training, and we have started that process. We need to talk about how many apprentices we train. I think we all know about our specific industries but we have not taken the step forward to quantify what we all do. And when you take a look at that number it will be powerful, folks.
"You do not need to have any better information than the size of our training programs. What do we spend? How many apprentices do we train? What is the asset value of our facilities? We don't have that data and we're going to start working to get it. Let's work together to generate the cold hard facts that the union construction industry is the best possible provider of top quality training. Once we gather those statistics what do we do next? We then package that information in such a manner that it's easily understood. And the most important part, easily marketed.
"We hate talking about ourselves, and that's something we've got to fix, because we have an awful lot to be proud of. We need to start sending that message."