The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 22, 2011

Will union-busting be the spark to re-ignite the labor movement?

By The Building Tradesman



With the building trades and the rest of organized labor being attacked all over the country, AFL-CIO Building Trades Department President Mark Ayers provided his point of view to the 2011 Building Trades National Legislative Conference on April 4. Following are excerpts of his speech.

“We convene this conference during what is arguably the most critical moment in history for America’s Building Trades Unions and for all of organized labor. Not only are we continuing to struggle against an enduring economic downturn that has devastated our ranks. But, to add insult to injury, we are also fighting against what can only be labeled as an all-out assault by the radical right-wing against unions across America. These are difficult times. Yet, they are also times of great opportunity.

The national conversation that is currently taking place about unions in America presents us with a rare opening to tell our side of the story to a wide audience of our fellow citizens. Also on the bright side is the fact that the economy seems to be moving steadily toward recovery. The unemployment rate for the construction industry has been consistently dropping over the course of the first few months of this year. Additionally, we are finally starting to see an influx of fresh capital into U.S. commercial real estate, which is bringing some long-stalled commercial development projects back to life.

***

While this is all good news, it is not happening nearly fast enough to reduce the pressure and stress for many thousands of our members and their families who are struggling to make ends meet. But at least the trends are encouraging. The same cannot be said, however, about some of the dark clouds on the horizon – which have absolutely NOTHING to do with the economy!

Whether we like it or not we have been pulled into a brutal struggle in America. And it’s a struggle for the very soul of our nation and our democracy. The attacks we see today on unions all across America are being instigated by an ultra-radical conservative movement. Yes, their initial focus is to shred public employee unions under the guise of fiscal responsibility; but make no mistake about it their real purpose is the eradication of ALL unions from the American landscape.

That is why all unions must come together as ONE to fight these right-wing assaults on our unions.

Because if we let them succeed, more and more Americans will be left behind in an economy that is ever more starkly divided between the haves and the have-nots. Employer-based pensions, paid vacations, health benefits…and the fundamental right of workers to have a voice on the job…are going the way of phone booths and VCRs.

American workers who enjoy any sort of job security or retirement security are being viewed with increasing contempt. The attitude seems to be: How dare these union people enjoy any measure of economic security? That, brothers and sisters is why we must come together as never before and let the world know that WE ARE ONE.

Union busting and social destabilization should not…and will not… be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States. It’s destructive, and it’s wrong. And, TOGETHER, we intend to stop it!

***

Ironically, the labor movement has been searching for years for a spark to ignite a conversation about the role of unions in America; and now that spark has kindled a political wildfire in our nation. Clearly, this was not a fight that we went looking for…but like our union brothers and sisters before us…it’s a fight from which WE WILL NOT RETREAT! And let me be crystal clear on this: We do not intend to let these anti-union, radical, right wingers win this war!

Brothers and Sisters, here’s what we are facing. The radical worldview that is hell-bent on purging America of our unions believes in individual responsibility alone. They reject the fundamental American notion of citizens looking after their fellow citizens.

The radical right DOES NOT believe that government should ever help its people…unless, of course, those citizens just happen to be their wealthy political benefactors who are clamoring for more subsidies or tax cuts.

But things like prevailing wage laws, project labor agreements, trade adjustment assistance programs and safety standards are easily put on the chopping block. Why?

Because they are actually designed to protect and assist middle class working America! In the twisted world of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Governor John Kasich in Ohio…as well as Fox News in general…there should not be a middle class to protect!

The disturbing truth is that, politically, these conservatives now have the wherewithal to accomplish their goals. Today anti-union conservatives have as many elected lawmakers at the federal, state and local level than at any point since 1928. Twenty-two state legislative chambers changed majority control in the 2010 election cycle – all in the direction of the GOP. But as we are seeing all across the nation, these are a different breed of Republican.

They are certainly NOT like Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, had this to say about unions in America, and I quote: “Unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions…and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

***

Now, If a strong labor movement is so good for middle-class standards of living…and for the Democratic Party…then we have to be concerned about what has been, up until recently, a sense of ambivalence on the part of too many Democrats toward the concerns of labor.

Sure, they are jumping on the bandwagon now that many state governors have declared war on labor unions. But it’s fair to ask where the hell have they been the last three years…not to mention the last 30 years?!

I think many of us would agree that, in recent years, we have been viewed by some within the Democratic Party as nothing more than a source of funds and votes. Just imagine, if the Employee Free Choice Act had been a higher priority, and had been adopted in early 2009.

We could have spent the past two-and-a-half years organizing and mobilizing millions of American workers, instead of waging these defensive battles in state after state! If Democrats and other progressive forces want to turn this nation around, they must openly embrace unions as the centerpiece of that movement!

No more dithering. No more “fair weather” political friends.

Unions aren’t just good for workers and working families. Unions are good for America! And it’s high time for our would-be political friends at all levels…especially those who claim an interest in our declining middle-class…to GET ON BOARD.

***

Brothers and sisters, nobody in this room believes we are perfect… nor should we EVER think that way. In fact, like many corporations and organizations today, our unions have adopted the mindset that if we are not constantly innovating and improving…then we are simply moving backwards.

Now more than ever…it is critically important for us to engage key stakeholders within our industry and among federal, state and local lawmakers, and impress upon them the detailed nature of our brand proposition: “Value on Display… Every Day.” Many of you are already doing this.

I have heard stories and anecdotes from many of you who have actually invited local elected officials out to a JATC facility, and then hearing those folks say something to the effect of: “I had no idea this is what you all do!”
Brothers and sisters…this is our ace in the hole.

It is similar to our historical commitment to the rational center when it comes to politics. Ours is a business model that is centered upon seeking cooperation and common ground with our industry and political partners to develop innovations and solutions that benefit everyone.

And on that score, we are more in tune with the central thinking of the vast majority of the American people who are sick and tired of the incessant drumbeat of conflict and caricature, and are instead seeking cooperation and solutions that lead to shared prosperity for ALL Americans…and not just the privileged few!

***

And as I stand here today, please be assured that we will stand by you and with you in this battle.

This is OUR Building Trades… and we must stand together to protect it. And protect it we will!

In these times of dark and confrontational rhetoric that constantly bubbles forth from the extreme left and the extreme right, we need to be the voice of the rational center. As for those who are hell-bent on seeking the destruction of our unions… well, I would encourage them to study a little history.

Specifically, the events of that fateful day on Dec. 7, 1941 after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. They should recall the words of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after he heard the news of the successful raid on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii. Admiral Yamamoto did not celebrate upon hearing the news. Rather, he stood stone-faced and remarked to an aide, and I quote: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Brothers and sisters… the resolve of America’s building trades unions from this moment forward will be to impress upon owners and contractors, as well as reasonable and rational elected leaders, that our nation has work to do… and that our unions are uniquely equipped to help do that work.

But, for those that continue to spoil for a fight…YOU CAN BET YOUR LIFE THAT WE WILL GIVE THEM MORE THAN THEY EVER BARGAINED FOR! But our main desire is to impress upon this great nation, that we have the opportunity to create a NEW AMERICA every morning when we wake up.

America’s building trades unions choose to see an America not in a setting of despair and conflict…where cynical and diabolical interests continue to turn worker against worker. No, our unions see an America where every man, woman and child has a chance to share in our nation’s wealth; to hold a good paying job and have a pension and health care.
We see great days ahead for our unions and our nation.

And these great days are only possible when men and women of vision and a cooperative spirit come together in a common purpose. That is our vision; and that is our quest. And we will not let any detractors stand in our way.

***

While this is all good news, it is not happening nearly fast enough to reduce the pressure and stress for many thousands of our members and their families who are struggling to make ends meet. But at least the trends are encouraging. The same cannot be said, however, about some of the dark clouds on the horizon – which have absolutely NOTHING to do with the economy! Whether we like it or not we have been pulled into a brutal struggle in America. And it’s a struggle for the very soul of our nation and our democracy. The attacks we see today on unions all across America are being instigated by an ultra-radical conservative movement. Yes, their initial focus is to shred public employee unions under the guise of fiscal responsibility; but make no mistake about it their real purpose is the eradication of ALL unions from the American landscape. That is why all unions must come together as ONE to fight these right-wing assaults on our unions. Because if we let them succeed, more and more Americans will be left behind in an economy that is ever more starkly divided between the haves and the have-nots. Employer-based pensions, paid vacations, health benefits…and the fundamental right of workers to have a voice on the job…are going the way of phone booths and VCRs. American workers who enjoy any sort of job security or retirement security are being viewed with increasing contempt. The attitude seems to be: How dare these union people enjoy any measure of economic security? That, brothers and sisters is why we must come together as never before and let the world know that WE ARE ONE. Union busting and social destabilization should not…and will not… be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States. It’s destructive, and it’s wrong. And, TOGETHER, we intend to stop it!

***

Ironically, the labor movement has been searching for years for a spark to ignite a conversation about the role of unions in America; and now that spark has kindled a political wildfire in our nation. Clearly, this was not a fight that we went looking for…but like our union brothers and sisters before us...it’s a fight from which WE WILL NOT RETREAT! And let me be crystal clear on this: We do not intend to let these anti-union, radical, right wingers win this war! Brothers and Sisters, here’s what we are facing. The radical worldview that is hell-bent on purging America of our unions believes in individual responsibility alone. They reject the fundamental American notion of citizens looking after their fellow citizens. The radical right DOES NOT believe that government should ever help its people…unless, of course, those citizens just happen to be their wealthy political benefactors who are clamoring for more subsidies or tax cuts. But things like prevailing wage laws, project labor agreements, trade adjustment assistance programs and safety standards are easily put on the chopping block. Why? Because they are actually designed to protect and assist middle class working America! In the twisted world of Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Governor John Kasich in Ohio…as well as Fox News in general…there should not be a middle class to protect! The disturbing truth is that, politically, these conservatives now have the wherewithal to accomplish their goals. Today anti-union conservatives have as many elected lawmakers at the federal, state and local level than at any point since 1928. Twenty-two state legislative chambers changed majority control in the 2010 election cycle – all in the direction of the GOP. But as we are seeing all across the nation, these are a different breed of Republican. They are certainly NOT like Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, had this to say about unions in America, and I quote: “Unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions…and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

***

Now, If a strong labor movement is so good for middle-class standards of living…and for the Democratic Party…then we have to be concerned about what has been, up until recently, a sense of ambivalence on the part of too many Democrats toward the concerns of labor. Sure, they are jumping on the bandwagon now that many state governors have declared war on labor unions. But it’s fair to ask where the hell have they been the last three years…not to mention the last 30 years?! I think many of us would agree that, in recent years, we have been viewed by some within the Democratic Party as nothing more than a source of funds and votes. Just imagine, if the Employee Free Choice Act had been a higher priority, and had been adopted in early 2009. We could have spent the past two-and-a-half years organizing and mobilizing millions of American workers, instead of waging these defensive battles in state after state! If Democrats and other progressive forces want to turn this nation around, they must openly embrace unions as the centerpiece of that movement! No more dithering. No more “fair weather” political friends. Unions aren’t just good for workers and working families. Unions are good for America! And it’s high time for our would-be political friends at all levels…especially those who claim an interest in our declining middle-class…to GET ON BOARD.

***

Brothers and sisters, nobody in this room believes we are perfect… nor should we EVER think that way. In fact, like many corporations and organizations today, our unions have adopted the mindset that if we are not constantly innovating and improving…then we are simply moving backwards. Now more than ever…it is critically important for us to engage key stakeholders within our industry and among federal, state and local lawmakers, and impress upon them the detailed nature of our brand proposition: “Value on Display… Every Day.” Many of you are already doing this. I have heard stories and anecdotes from many of you who have actually invited local elected officials out to a JATC facility, and then hearing those folks say something to the effect of: “I had no idea this is what you all do!” Brothers and sisters…this is our ace in the hole. It is similar to our historical commitment to the rational center when it comes to politics. Ours is a business model that is centered upon seeking cooperation and common ground with our industry and political partners to develop innovations and solutions that benefit everyone. And on that score, we are more in tune with the central thinking of the vast majority of the American people who are sick and tired of the incessant drumbeat of conflict and caricature, and are instead seeking cooperation and solutions that lead to shared prosperity for ALL Americans…and not just the privileged few!

***

And as I stand here today, please be assured that we will stand by you and with you in this battle. This is OUR Building Trades… and we must stand together to protect it. And protect it we will! In these times of dark and confrontational rhetoric that constantly bubbles forth from the extreme left and the extreme right, we need to be the voice of the rational center. As for those who are hell-bent on seeking the destruction of our unions… well, I would encourage them to study a little history. Specifically, the events of that fateful day on Dec. 7, 1941 after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. They should recall the words of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after he heard the news of the successful raid on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii. Admiral Yamamoto did not celebrate upon hearing the news. Rather, he stood stone-faced and remarked to an aide, and I quote: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Brothers and sisters… the resolve of America’s building trades unions from this moment forward will be to impress upon owners and contractors, as well as reasonable and rational elected leaders, that our nation has work to do… and that our unions are uniquely equipped to help do that work. But, for those that continue to spoil for a fight…YOU CAN BET YOUR LIFE THAT WE WILL GIVE THEM MORE THAN THEY EVER BARGAINED FOR! But our main desire is to impress upon this great nation, that we have the opportunity to create a NEW AMERICA every morning when we wake up. America’s building trades unions choose to see an America not in a setting of despair and conflict…where cynical and diabolical interests continue to turn worker against worker. No, our unions see an America where every man, woman and child has a chance to share in our nation’s wealth; to hold a good paying job and have a pension and health care. We see great days ahead for our unions and our nation. And these great days are only possible when men and women of vision and a cooperative spirit come together in a common purpose. That is our vision; and that is our quest. And we will not let any detractors stand in our way.