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The way we build - reconstructing the construction trades

by Mike Matejka
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Union construction is a proud tradition that created successful unions over a century ago.  At one time, every city had strong construction locals that covered everything from residential to commercial to heavy and highway work.

So what happened and where do we need to go?

Those answers are available in this succinct 140-page volume from retired Carpenters New England Regional Council executive secretary Mark Erlich.  From his own on the job experience, union organizing and political involvement, Mark reviews how construction labor controlled the marketplace into the 1980s and how that power has diminished.   Illinois remains an island with strong unions in almost every city, but particularly in the south and southwest, construction has diminished to an immigrant, low wage, no benefits workforce, who barely survive terrible conditions in a cash economy.

From the early 20th century on, local businesses, contractors, unions and local politicians banded together to uphold union construction, so that by mid-century construction unions had higher pay and benefits.

What happened?  Large corporations banded together in the Business Roundtable in 1972.  U.S. Steel’s Edwin Gott claimed the nation’s most serious economic problem was “the effect of the high costs of labor settlements in the construction industry.”  With a vengeance, large corporations began undermining local agreements.  In some regions union construction almost totally disappeared or was limited to a few trades. 

The other serious breakdown was IRS codes that allowed for independent contractors, forcing individual workers into job situations where the worker was responsible for their own workers’ compensation, Social Security payments, taxes and other payments.  If a worker was hurt, it was their problem – although they were supervised by others, they were held legally liable.  Payroll fraud became rampant.  In 2021 two Miami shell companies pleaded guilty to providing Certificates of Insurances to work crews by the hundred, avoiding $3.6 million in insurance premiums.  Taxing bodies, insurance companies and the workers themselves were all defrauded. The Nashville Tennessean studied sixteen construction deaths in two years, 2016-2017.  Half were Latinos and two-thirds died from construction falls with no safety harnesses.

So what is the solution?  Erlich notes the unionized industry’s two strengths – apprenticeship and diversification.  For employers and users, avoiding public shame and high insurance premiums means a competent workforce, which apprenticeship delivers.  For too long the construction industry was a white male, family enclave.  Attracting a more diverse workforce builds community support but that also means unions need to create a welcoming environment, on the job and in the union hall.  It also means advocacy and outreach to immigrant workers to demonstrate the union is their ally, not a threat.  This means organizers who can speak the languages and know those workers’ customs.

For those in union leadership and active members, this is an easy read, analyzing past downfalls and the long haul to restore the security union labor once enjoyed.

Reviewed by Mike Matejka

Book Review

“The Way we Build: Restoring Dignity to Construction Work”

By Mark Erlich

University of Illinois Press, 2023