On the Edge. Union construction worries about market share loss over the last 30 years.

Top officials of the laborers’ and operating engineers’ unions are sorting out the fine details of their decision to leave the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept. to form a breakaway alliance with four other construction unions. But industry observers—particularly regional union officials, contractors and owners—are watching and wondering how yet another dissident union move will impact construction labor relations. Some privately worry whether new union strife will complicate jobsites. But others chalk it up to inside-the-Beltway labor politics and don’t expect much disruption in the field.

Terry Sullivan
Laborers' President

The latest furor involves the Feb. 14 announcement by the two unions, which represent 1.1 million construction workers, to leave BCTD and form a new organization, the National Construction Alliance (ENR 2/20 p. 7). The alliance, which launches on March 1, also will include the carpenters’ and teamsters’ unions, which already have exited BCTD and the AFL-CIO, and the ironworkers’ and the bricklayers’ unions, say laborers’ General President Terence M. O’ Sullivan and operating engineers General President Vincent J. Giblin.

The two unions, which have been battling BCTD for months and whose departure the department claims was expected, say its refusal to change key practices and policies has been a key factor in the loss of significant union market share. “Over 90% of our membership is in 20 states. In 30 states, we have no presence,” O’Sullivan says. “We can’t stand idly by on the path of destruction.”

In particular, the alliance wanted several changes. One was BCTD voting based on union membership rather than “one union, one vote,” which would favor larger unions with higher dues obligations. Others included an end to traditional approaches to jurisdictional disputes, a review of budgeting and spending policies and a change in BCTD leadership and management.

Alliance officials say unions should be spending more time and money on organizing and legislative efforts and less on political lobbying.  “Issues in Washington are not issues discussed at the construction lunch table,” says Giblin. “We’ve lost our identity.” O’Sullivan says the laborers already are set to pass a resolution at their September convention to earmark a mandatory 25¢-per-hour worker contribution into a regional “organizing fund” that will generate $103 million annually toward organizing efforts.

Ed Sullivan
BCTD President

The ironworkers and bricklayers say they will remain in BCTD and the operating engineers and laborers say they have not yet separated from the AFL-CIO. Building trades officials deride the NCA. This is “a time when solidarity has never been more critical,” says BCTD President Edward C. Sullivan. “Their stated reasons for leaving do not ring true.” Sullivan claims BCTD has been working with owner and contractor groups to boost union market share. Remaining unions in the department held an “emergency” meeting on Feb. 21 to discuss issues created by the unions’ departure, says a union source. BCTD officials could not be reached for comment at ENR press time.

Details of NCA’s new leadership and organization remain sparse, with a press briefing possibly set for the first week of March, says one official close to the group, which is expected to be managed by an executive director. One possible candidate is Ray Poupore, who currently  runs the National Heavy and Highway Alliance, a labor-management organization.

NCA officials claim they have strong construction industry support. But contractor and owner groups are keeping a low public profile on the union brouhaha. “We have enjoyed a good working relationship with the basic trades in recent years, and we look forward to that continuing, regardless of their choice of national affiliations,” says Bob Epifano, chairman of the Associated General Contractors’ union contractor committee. “I don’t think my members are celebrating or worried,” says Kirk Pickerel, president of the open-shop Association of Builders and Contractors.

Owners similarly are publicly optimistic, but privately worried, about how the dispute will affect jobsite progress. “It’s none of our business how unions arrange their affiliations,” says Greg Sizemore, executive vice president of Construction Users Roundtable, an owner group based in Cincinnati that has been working with unions and contractors to bolster relations and change wasteful practices. “All the participants are already at our table.”  CURT reportedly sent letters to all union presidents after the NCA announcement, reminding them of their existing agreements with the owner group. Notes one owner executive, “We’re trying to improve the status quo. It’s hard to do with fighting at the national level.”

In the field, reaction is mixed. In St. Louis, where virtually all of the construction is done by union workers, building trades officials are confident the impact will be minor. “We survived the carpenters’ departure,” says Gerald T. Feldhaus, executive secretary-treasurer of the local building and construction trades council.

In Las Vegas, there’s less certainty. “The operating engineers want  to stay affiliated with the local building trades, but I don’t know if the national trades will allow them to do it,” says Bob Nard, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council. He says laborers’ Local 872 already has pulled out of the council and set up a new local to target commercial work.

“We increased our membership by 900 to 1,200 people last year,” says Tommy White, Local 872’s secretary-treasurer. Members can shuttle between several western states without being penalized or charged added dues.