I am a big fan of both Eric Loomis at LG & M and Laura Clawson at Daily Kos -- we union folks have to stick together. But I want to respectfully disagree with them about their views on organizing in the construction industry and the relationship between union and employers. Both Loomis and Clawson express distaste for the retirement of Scabby the Rat -- the large inflatable rat used as a prop in protesting against non-union construction companies -- and some rather poorly phrased words from the head of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO to the effect that Scabby is not the face that the unions want to present to employers. (Not to mention how it might make the prospective members feel.)
Loomis has some good points in his piece about the importance of a culture of solidarity and what he deems the folly of unions attempting to appeal to CEOs. Clawson echoes these sentiments. Both of them see a lack of militancy undermining the future of unions.
My experience in the industry suggests that they are wrong. I have been involved in a few "bottom up" organizing campaigns over the years. Non-union workers persuaded, authorization cards obtained, NLRB elections successfully held -- the entire path that advocates of the organizing model of unionism urge upon us. I then sat down with the employers to negotiate an initial agreement and got exactly nowhere. They had no interest in reaching agreement, but went through the motions of good faith bargaining until the point where they could declare an impasse. And then the choice arrives for the employees -- most of whom in recent campaigns in which I have been involved have been primarily immigrants from Mexico and Central America and were simply not interested in striking. Absent the threat of a strike, the organizing campaigns came to an end with a whimper.
I am afraid that I have become a proponent of top-down organizing these days -- that is organizing in the construction industry that is dependent on attracting an employer to sign what is known as a pre-hire agreement with a union. This entails selling the benefits of a relationship with a union directly to the employer -- maybe the employer wants the ability to hire twenty-five certified welders at one time, maybe he wants access to people with specialized training or apprentices, maybe the appeal is to be able to man up for a large job and then lay off a work force that is used to returning to a union hiring hall at the completion of a project. Hell, some employers even want to be union because they would like their employees to have medical and pension benefits.
Basically a building trades local union is only as successful as the contractors with whom it has relationships. The ability of employers to win work and perform it effectively in a hideously competitive environment is the key to keeping union members employed at good wage rates. In such an enviroment, a posture that is overly adverserial is likely to be self-defeating in a profound way. Right now, unionized employers and unions in the building trades are allied in a fierce battle with the non-union employers, many of whom eagerly exploit undocumented workers in a manner that undermines wages and benefits in entire sectors of the construction economy. (There is precious little enforcement of federal or state laws that would prevent this exploitation from occurring.) It is distressing to watch companies that have been long time model employers -- yes, there is such a thing -- get eviscerated by these bottom feeders out there, something I feel like am constantly witnessing these days.
I understand the visceral appeal of militancy while we are in the midst of the new guilded age. But most unionized construction employers are not Jaime Diamond or Bill Gates. They are typically small to medium sized companies -- the vast majority with fewer than 100 employees -- often owned by former union members who went into business. My experience with most of them -- and I deal with them constantly -- is that they are pretty fair people with some sense of obligation to their employees and a willingness to accept unions as their partners.
As for the commited bottom feeders out there, I see little hope for organizing them under existing law. It is much too easy to lay off union adherents in the construction industry when an organizing campaign is ongoing and even where an election is won, efforts to get a contract from an unwilling employer are usually futile. The best approach to employers like this in good construction markers is "stripping" them, i.e. attracting their most skilled employees to the union and referring them to a good contractor.. During times of slack employment, we need to be able to rely on the authorities to enforce laws against phony subcontracting, failure to pay overtime, worker misclassification on prevailing wage jobs, and the use of undocumented workers, although the latter causes discomfort among a lot of folks on the left.
Ultimately, I think being a union employer can be sold to a receptive company, but it is almost impossible to jam down the throat of a business that resists unless circumstances are exceptionally favorable. I don't mean to sound tepid or defeatist, but 27 years of experience with the trades leads me to think I'm correct here.