June 21, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
The attacks on unions these days doesn’t just take the form of stripping away collective bargaining. They also are applied with savvy advertising and a well-financed public relations and lobbying messaging machine. The Building and Construction Trades Department, along with the AFL-CIO and LIUNA, jointly announced on May 31 a new report showing on a state-by-state basis the presence of the non-union Associated Builders and Contractors in the construction industry.
The author of the report, Thomas Kriger, a professor at the National Labor College, explained ABC’s origins, activities and funding support in an interview. The full report can be read via the website, www.knowyourabc.com.
Kriger noted that ABC was founded in 1950 by seven non-union contractors in Baltimore and the Business Roundtable, an organization comprised of the leading CEOs of the biggest Fortune 500 companies, spent money on a national public relations campaign that pushed the open shop and ABC while criticizing prevailing wage laws and the Building Trades.
ABC was founded, according to Kriger, because essentially American big business didn’t want to pay high wages to skilled building tradesmen and women.
“The Building and Construction Trades always had high density in the construction industry, and some of the highest rates of unionization post-World War II,” said Krieger.
Because there were changes to the American economy during the Vietnam War, such as higher inflation, combined with the fact that many young men served in the military that lead to shortages of skilled tradesmen, enabled unionized tradesmen to command higher wages on construction projects in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Kriger.
Big business wasted no time to respond. The predecessor to the Business Roundtable, the Construction Users Anti-Inflation Roundtable, was formed with the explicit purpose of driving down wages of unionized tradesmen.
“CUAR talked a good free market game, but they tried unsuccessfully to pressure the Nixon administration to drive down construction wages,” Kriger said.
Since they weren’t successful, they turned to tactics that are equivalent to secondary boycotts, which is illegal for unions to do. Kriger explained that different businesses joined together to put pressure on general contractors, who in turn put pressure on sub-contractors to go non-union in order to hold down wages.
One item that scared the daylights out of big business was that construction workers working on industrial plants, earning high wages, would not go unnoticed by industrial workers, who in turn would demand high wages once they started working in the plants.
“So there was a real concerted effort to drive both building trade members and unionized contractors out of industrial construction,” said Kriger.
Enter ABC. Kriger noted that the Business Roundtable leads a boycott where a lot of the biggest Fortune 500 companies who are roundtable members stop using unionized contractors.
“For years large industrial corporations used unionized tradesman to build its plants, but that comes to an end when the roundtable initiates the boycott.”
From that point, the roundtable begins to finance ABC because it’s a gateway to the whole open shop sector. ABC then begins to speak for the whole non-union sector and that’s what motivated Kriger to conduct his research.
Using ABC’s own database on its website he extracted membership numbers on a state-by-state basis, and also relied on the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the number of contractors in ABC’s camp.
“ABC claims that it represents about 80 percent of the industry, but the research I conducted shows it enjoys a mere 1 percent representation,” noted Kriger.
Ironically, not all members of ABC are necessarily construction contractors. A viewing of ABC’s Empire State Chapter’s website reveals that “construction-related businesses” are counted as members, including temp agencies, insurance companies and restaurants.
If ABC represents only 1 percent of the industry, why should unionized tradesmen be concerned? Kriger explained that ABC is a well-financed PR and lobbying machine that has 80 chapters around the country and it spends a lot of money on advertising, lobbyists and messaging to reach sympathetic politicians.
Also, the group is very savvy with new media, utilizing YouTube videos, issue websites and Facebook pages to get its message out to younger workers. For example, some of the issue websites that ABC backs include the Free Enterprise Alliance, www.freeenterprisealliance.org, and Halt the Assault, www.halttheassault.com.
Kriger emphasized that one major difference between ABC and the unionized construction industry is the training each provides. According to Kriger, just the affiliate unions of the Building and Construction Trades, excluding the two non-affiliates (the Operating Engineers and Carpenters) spend around $630 million per year for training.
In contrast, ABC spends about $30 to $50 million annually for training, and even requires that workers who enter their training program to pay for their own training.
The training the union affiliates provide is possible via collective bargaining agreements where both unionized contractors and the unions allocate money towards their members’ training, which Kriger says is one of the largest privately self-funded education systems in the U.S.
“ABC believes that workers don’t need to be trained in a three or four-year program, but only require particular discrete skills to complete a job,” said Kriger.
It also doesn’t pay its workers well, which is why the Business Roundtable sought an alliance with ABC.
“ABC has a low-road strategy for labor relations. They pay low wages, low benefits and provide minimal training opportunities.”
The consequences of low pay and minimal training is a problem for ABC because non-unionized contractors fear investing in training workers only to see them leave for another higher paying job on a unionized site.
“The quality of workmanship might cause a contractor to hesitate before hiring an ABC-trained worker. I’ve talked to several contractors and they said that as many as 30 percent of the workers on a non-union site may have been trained via a unionized training program,” Kriger noted.
As of 2011, ABC had 2,000 signatory contractors, compared to the Building and Construction Trades 87,000 signatory contractors based on Kriger’s analysis of the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship RAPIDS database, which contains data for nearly 40 states. firstname.lastname@example.org