Union Contractors Meet with Basic Trade Leaders and Hold Strategic Planning Session

October 31, 2011
AGC of America held an AGC-Basic Trades Forum and Union Contractors Committee Meeting on Oct. 17 in Washington, DC.  AGC-member union contractors and their chapter staff from across the country attended the events, which were designed to provide an opportunity for union contractors to voice their concerns to leaders of the national unions and the association. AGC-Basic Trades Forum President Mark Ayers and Secretary-Treasurer Sean McGarvey of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO (BCTD) attended the AGC-Basic Trades Forum, along with General President Walter Wise of the Iron Workers, General President James Boland of the Bricklayers, and Treasurer Earl Hurd of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons unions.  Union Contractors Committee (UCC) Chairman Jim Clemens presided over the meeting, while UCC Regional Representative Ed McNeill served as moderator, presenting questions to the labor panel on such topics as multiemployer pension problems, union contractor cost competitiveness, jurisdictional disputes, and craft worker recruitment.    AGC President Kris Young and CEO Stephen Sandherr also participated. During their introductory remarks, labor leaders decried lost man-hours and jobs over the past two years, and mentioned some of their organizations’ efforts to manage the crisis.  Ayers spoke of BCTD efforts to raise capital for both public and private construction and to be politically active.  Wise mentioned joint efforts with contractors to market the value of union construction in terms of productivity and training, as well as outreach to nonsignatory contractors seeking to overcome anti-union prejudices.  Wise, Boland, and Hurd each talked about initiatives to boost training during the period, including a significant increase in journeyman upgrading (Wise), development of a new, state-of-the-art training center (Boland), and added focus on training craft workers to keep up with changing technology and materials (Hurd). Pensions When questioned about efforts to shore up defined benefit multiemployer pension funds and willingness to consider alternative retirement plan models, some labor leaders expressed openness to veer away from traditional behaviors and pension models.  Wise reported that IMPACT, the Ironworkers’ national labor-management committee, has been examining various hybrid plan models.  While the defined benefit model gives workers the most retirement security, he said, “a compromise is out there,” and we must be willing to discuss it and to adapt.  But before we can move forward, we must get out of the crisis we’re currently in, according to Wise, which can be accomplished through growth and trustee education.  He also observed that some Ironworkers locals are shifting previously negotiated money from wages or even from an annuity into suffering pension funds to share in the burden with contributing contractors.  Boland reported that the Bricklayers are doing the same shifting with their national pension fund but that the international union has not yet looked into hybrid plans.  Hurd acknowledged that hybrid plans “have some merit” and that some of his locals are using them.  But he expressed concern for workers’ retirement security, noting that construction workers work on a seasonal basis and often fail to save properly.  It may be easier to organize open-shop contractors with a defined contribution plan, but such a plan is not what is best for the workers, he said. Cost-Competitiveness McNeill relayed union contractors’ current challenges with cost-competitiveness and market share losses to open shop contractors due to higher wage and benefit costs, inefficient work rules, restrictive subcontracting clauses, and the like.  McGarvey stated his view that most changes in those areas can be accomplished locally through difficult but fair collective bargaining negotiations.  He recommended looking at recent successes achieved by contractors in New York.  Wise noted that negotiations are more difficult this year because of the uncertainty of the economy.  While the fact that local business managers are elected can impact what positions they take in bargaining, he has seen greater interest by local union members and leaders in market share and competitiveness in recent years.  His union has initiated “Survival of the Fittest” training as one effort by to encourage this. Jurisdictional Disputes and Other Inter-Union Strife Contractors seemed taken aback when McGarvey asserted that jurisdictional disputes are “unheard of” today.  McGarvey was particularly speaking of disputes on large, industrial projects under national agreements that incorporate The Plan for the Settlement of Jurisdictional Disputes, reporting that “only” 25 arbitrations have taken place in the past two years despite the poor economy.  Contractors in the audience advised that jurisdictional disputes are quite common at the local level in many areas, often with trades that were not represented at the present meeting. This led to a discussion of the relationship between the BCTD and the Carpenters union (UBC), which, along with the Operating Engineers, is not presently affiliated with the Department.  McGarvey said that the BCTD is done trying to persuade the Carpenters to reaffiliate.  Ayers announced that the BCTD decided just the prior week to implement Resolution 70, a resolution passed by the AFL-CIO convention in 2009 authorizing the chartering of a new carpenters union, and to stop recognizing the UBC as a legitimate union.  He said that the effort will begin in the Northeast and spread over time.  He spoke about “insurgent groups” of carpenters dissatisfied with the UBC and warned that contractors could be faced with a challenge to UBC representation by such groups via petitions for elections by the National Labor Relations Board.  When asked about such a group in the Albany, NY, area known as “Local 1,” Ayers stated that the group was not formed by the BCTD and has no formal relationship with the AFL-CIO at this time.  If they or similar groups take the steps necessary to become a “legitimate union” recognized by the federal government – such as establishing bylaws and bank accounts – then the BCTD would consider affiliation.  Despite all of this, McGarvey said that the “door is never closed” to further discussions with the UBC. McGarvey said that the Solidarity Charter option for UBC locals to participate in local Building Trade Councils remains available, at least for now.  Some UBC members disagree with the union’s business model, he said, and the BCTD supports democracy for rank-and-file union members.  However, the BCTD understands that there are positive relationships at the local level in some areas, said McGarvey. Workforce Development When asked about efforts to recruit more workers into the trades and to increase diversity, McGarvey spoke about several programs that the BCTD is involved in, including the Southeast Manpower Tripartite Alliance – a pre-apprenticeship program in the Southeast also supported by the Construction Users Roundtable and contractor associations, a Multi-Craft Core Curriculum program focused on disadvantaged populations, and outreach to women’s and veterans’ groups. UCC Meeting In an AGC-only meeting following the AGC-Basic Trades Forum, the UCC decided to send a letter to all building trades presidents asserting that – while AGC does not “pick sides” and believes it is inappropriate to advise the unions about how to organize themselves – the strife between the unions that are inside the BCTD and those outside the BCTD is causing problems for contractors and is damaging the image and marketability of union construction. Chapter Survey Results The UCC then engaged in a strategic planning session building on the results of a recent chapter survey designed to gather updated information about chapters’ collective bargaining relationships and how the Committee can best serve collective bargaining chapters today.  UCC Staff Associate Denise Gold reported that 23 of the 54 chapters and branches that responded to the survey (42.6%) indicated that 75-100% of their contractor members identify as union contractors.  Of the 44 respondents who indicated that over 10% of their contractor members identify as union contractors, 42 (95.5%) said that they provide collective bargaining negotiation services.   All remaining respondents indicated that they bargain with the Laborers, 97.6% with the Carpenters, 92.7% each with the Operating Engineers and with the Operative Plasters and Cement Masons, 65.9% with the Ironworkers 51.2% with the Teamsters, and 41.5% with the Bricklayers.   The Carpenters are considered a “lead craft” by 95.1% of respondents, followed by the Laborers (87.7%), and then the Operating Engineers (65.9%).  Thirty of 41 respondents (73.%) said that most of all of their union contractor members are signatory to two or three collective bargaining agreements with different crafts per geographic area. When asked to write in the top three issues that the chapters would like AGC of America to address with union leaders on their behalf, pension issues were mentioned by an overwhelming majority of respondents.  Jurisdictional issues and cost competitiveness were the next most common issues listed.  The remaining answers raised a host of issues, such as health care costs, work rules, jobs recovery, and workforce development.  The survey also asked collective bargaining chapters, “What else can AGC of America do to enhance your labor relations services?”  Respondents wrote in a broad array of answers, most of which involved the association’s role as a liaison to the international unions or as a provider of information.  Several respondents also expressed interest in services related to networking, management training, and solving pension problems. Strategic Planning Participants in the strategic planning session said that, among the current services and resources currently provided for union contractors by the UCC or by AGC of America in general, they find the most valuable to be the Union Contractors e-Forum, the Labor & HR Topical Resources web page, the Construction Labor Law Symposium (an annual program for attorneys and chapter staff), collective bargaining seminars, and service as a liaison to the internationals.  While no one identified any current services as not valuable, some participants suggested that AGC should promote existing resources more often and in more places, adding that labor resources should be “cross-marketed” in AGC division newsletters and other media and that such communications should include links to electronic resources.  Suggestions made for additional services and activities include:
  • More opportunities for union contractors to share “war stories” and trends;
  • More opportunities to give feedback to union leaders and on a more regular basis;
  • Meetings to foster the filtering down of information to local union leaders;
  • A legal helpline connecting contractors with outside labor and employment attorneys;
  • Webinars addressing pensions and risk management; and
  • Trustee education specifically for contractor trustees.
To view PowerPoint slides from the committee meeting, click here. The UCC is scheduled to meet next on March 13, during AGC’s Annual Convention in Honolulu, Hawaii.  For more information about the Convention, visit For more information about the UCC, contact Denise Gold at or (703) 837-5326.
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