It's been four years since the economy went on life support in a recession that still saps the lifeblood of business today. In the St. Louis construction industry, unemployment remains at a Depression-level 30 percent to 40 percent. The union sector has frozen or cut wages and modified work rules to stimulate work. But it is all too clear that this is a market without money, frozen by credit gridlock. It's a watershed moment for labor, requiring a more creative approach to negotiating with the market.
On Nov. 2, Gary LeBarbera, head of the Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO of Greater New York, gave us a compass. Speaking to more than 150 local business representatives from 15 different trades, he showed us pathways to avoid and pathways to blaze.
Misplaced union pride and complacency left the New York trades high and dry in the residential market, which in the Big Apple means 25-story high-rise apartment and condo buildings. Meanwhile "bread and butter" commercial, industrial and public projects ground to a halt in a strapped-for-cash economy, leaving 25,000 union construction workers jobless. In normal times, developers were willing to pay the premium for union wages to gain the heightened safety and proficiency highly trained workers deliver — but not when credit is tight. Faced with 25 percent unemployment, union trades had to adjust to market realities.
In 2009, the New York building trades turned to an economic recovery Project Labor Agreement that offered flexible work rules. A 70-story building needs a sensible approach to phased lunch breaks so an hour of productivity isn't lost daily transporting workers down and up elevators. Start times were altered. Work crews were optimized. The result? Projects that had been trimmed to less than 40 stories became 70 stories again, $15 billion in PLA projects moved forward and unemployment in the trades dropped to 10 percent.
Misplaced union pride and complacency contributed to the founding of the landmark St. Louis PRIDE labor-management group nearly 40 years ago. Since then, labor and PRIDE have continually worked with the buyers of construction services to make St. Louis the best place to build. But the erosion of union construction in New York and its leadership's creative response to rebuild market share is a reminder for all union workers and their leadership that we must continually adapt to market needs. Proficiency in skills and safety will only take you so far in a market that lacks capital.
A week before LeBarbera shared his perspective, the PRIDE competitive initiative committee held its first meeting to examine impediments to productivity on local construction projects. Owners, contractors and labor each submitted a list of "pet peeves." Included were concerns about jobsite readiness, professionalism, safety, unproductive work rules, change orders, sequencing of work, jurisdictional challenges and drug testing. Under the aegis of PRIDE, this collaborative effort will form the basis of a stimulus plan that we hope will get St. Louis building again.
As was the case with our brothers and sisters in New York, there figures to be heated exchanges with certain union members who cling to a past when complacency and arrogance often overshadowed the mission of justice and fair wages for working families. We will engage them, regardless, just as we will reach out to community organizations that share our vision of the pressing need to more fully utilize a workforce rigorously trained to competitively deliver a constructed product of the highest quality.
We brought to town LeBarbera, arguably the most prominent union construction official in the United States, to help to reinforce the direction our underemployed membership must embrace. It is imperative that the St. Louis union workforce acknowledge and constructively adapt to current economic realities. The ability of our hometown and state to achieve sustainable, long-term prosperity hangs in the balance.
Jeff Aboussie is executive secretary and treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO.