The exploding South Florida concrete construction market, with an annual put-in-place value of $350 million, is proving a successful organizing target for the Laborers' International Union of North America.

The union began exploring the Florida concrete market in mid-2001. It is a market with a number of high-rise hotels and condominium projects along the Florida coast being built by contractors that often tap the immigrant community for craft workers despite deficiencies in language and skills. The contractors were "all competing using the people that were available at the competitive wage rate," says Bob Hanna, director of the Ohio Valley and Southern States Laborers' Employers Cooperation Education Trust, Nashville. That was not a living wage, he says.

About eight of the approximately 50 specialty contractors in that Florida market perform about 80% of the work and it was essential to sign up at least four, according to the union. At that time, one key player, Fort Lauderdale-based Form Works Inc., was working on a union-financed project using union labor under a project agreement. A bottom-up organizing effort was successful.

Form Works' President Don Marks was sensitive to creating a contract that would allow his firm to reap the benefits of union training and safety programs but still keep him competitive, says Hanna. The union allowed the firm to initially pay workers the prevailing wage that was lower than union scale to stay competitive, with higher rates being phased in over time.

"Rather than make one rate for everything, we let them phase up with fringes and benefits based on our ability to bring more competition into the group," says Hanna. Some of these projects have what he describes as a "modified fringe package," which is phased in based on the union's ability to sign more contractors. An employer also can easily move workers back and forth between jobs that may or may not have full fringes without penalty.

In the past nine months, $50 million worth of concrete work has been completed by union labor, says Hanna. Another $58 million in work is "ready to start over the next 12 months," he says. Hanna expects that amount to climb.

Three other contractors have joined Form Works, including J.A.M. Shell Builders Inc., Pembroke Park, Fla. The employers have just launched the South Florida Structural Concrete Contractors Association. Jack Bullis, J.A.M.'s vice president, will be vice president of the group. "We're looking to level the playing field," he says. "We're paying higher wages than our competitors, but with more elite manpower, we finish our jobs on time and build a more quality product."

"I'd like to have 80% of the market for our contractors," says Hanna. "Once you have that much, it's not impossible to get all of it."

Click below to read more from First Quarterly Cost Report >>

Summary: Surge in energy prices causes cost headaches

Asphalt: Oil prices hammer asphalt paving costs

Equipment: High fuel prices squeeze operating costs

Indexes: Commercial building downturn crushes costs

Methodology: Analyzing inflation's split personality