While much of the Gulf Coast region remains in ruins following the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, area construction unions are gearing up for an active collective-bargaining season. But the promise of large-scale reconstruction efforts may not trigger significant wage hikes for union construction workers in the immediate future.

In Louisiana, 56% of collective-bargaining agreements tracked by the Construction Labor Research Council, Washington, D.C., are set to expire in 2007. In Alabama, 73% of the pacts will expire, according to CLRC.

Labor leaders in the region are optimistic about their chances at the bargaining table, but remain realistic about the circumstances. Donald Denese, president of the Southeast Louisiana Building and Construction Trades Council, says that while predictions of a massive labor shortage in the region could drive up wages and fringes in the future, those factors aren’t driving the market this year. “The potential is good, but organized labor has to realize you still can’t ask for the world in this state,” he says. “Most business managers understand that. They know we’re still losing work to open shop contractors. If you’re not competitive, you’re out of the game here.”

States in the south central U.S. have lagged national averages for increases in wages and fringe benefits during the past five years. From January 2002 to January 2007, union wages and fringes rose 19.9% in those states, compared to the national average of 22.6%.

Denese says many union members and leaders had hoped that major reconstruction in the region would be under way by now, but delays in relief funds and insurance hassles have slowed developers’ plans. “We thought we’d be up and running by now, but it’s still crawling,” he says. “We’re ready to answer the call, but the call hasn’t come yet.”

Missing Members

Unions in the region also are scrambling to replenish their membership rosters after losing many of members following Katrina. Apprentices were among the biggest losses, as younger, less-established workers fled the storm and did not return.

The AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept. has made plans for a Gulf Coast Training program to help bring new apprentices into the union ranks and develop them. But the program has yet to launch. Once it gets going, it could be years before construction unions reap the benefits of those training efforts.

Art Lujan, executive director of BCTD’s Gulf Coast Construction Careers Center, concedes that work force development efforts are moving slowly, but he notes that demand for more workers is not rising quickly.

“It doesn’t make much sense to launch [our program] if you don’t have a lot of work going on,” Lujan says. “Give us time to address the issues associated with getting a program started. We’re building toward the future.”

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