The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, December 07, 2001

Will low wages in Louisiana lead to union resurgence?

By The Building Tradesman

Edward Steimel said that shortsighted industries in Louisiana have underpaid construction workers so much that they "are creating a climate for a return of unions. Unions are a very normal and proper response when workers are provided unfair wages, benefits and working conditions."

Who is this guy? The head of the state's AFL-CIO?

No, he's the former president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), who was at the forefront of the successful effort to adopt Louisiana's right-to-work law in 1976.

Now, he said in a press release, the "pendulum has swung too far" resulting in the state's construction workers being underpaid - and that Louisiana is risking losing construction workers to other states.

"A look at the construction craftsmen's wage rates in Louisiana for the year 2000 compared to wage rates in Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois show a bleak story for Louisiana workers," Steimel said. "It also explains why so many workers are leaving their families here in search of higher pay elsewhere."

He cited U.S. Department of Labor figures showing that average construction wages in Louisiana in 2000 averaged $17.10 per hour, compared with New Jersey at $29.50, Michigan at $27.82 and Illinois at $22.97.

Now director of development for Louisiana State University's College of Engineering, Steimel called the craft pay situation, especially for the state's huge petrochemical plant maintenance industry, "terrible economics for Louisiana." Construction workers performing maintenance work at petrochem plants find themselves making $7-$10 per hour less than employees in the plant - for doing work which essentially requires the same skills. "It results in Louisiana training craftsmen for other states and creates worker unrest here…we are losing many of our best-trained workers to northern and eastern states," he said.

According to the Bureau of National Affairs, union membership in Louisiana stood last year at 135,000, down from 237,000 in 1975, the year before the right-to-work law took effect. The current LABI President, Don Juneau, told the Construction Labor Report that if Steimel's analysis were correct, there would be a membership increase in unions representing plant maintenance workers. (There hasn't been).

Louisiana State Building Trades Council President Joseph Bertucci told the Construction Labor Report that Steimel's analysis is correct. He said petrochemical plants are offering bonuses instead of wage increases to keep construction maintenance workers. He said "people in the state who control the money" in many industries manage to maintain high profits but keep wages depressed. "I don't know where it will end," Bertucci said.