blog post photo

Photo: Karen Diemers/Skanska-Tully/from the gallery 


Unemployed union workers are in financial trouble, which means union locals could get into financial trouble.

You only have to talk to a few people about how the recession has put half the journeymen at some building trades locals on the bench to understand how bad it’s getting for craft workers. When that happens, tradesmen and tradeswomen start to think about Plan B, as one carpenter at a large New York City local told me this weekend.

Plan B for the carpenter includes working with a relative or family friend who has a home repair and remodeling contracting business; taking work off the books with another trade that might be somewhat insulated from the recession, such as roofing; withholding union dues for a couple of months and re-entering the local to take work as an apprentice at lower pay, usually a fall-off of at least $10 an hour.

When union workers can’t find jobs, union locals take a hit.

A very smart source on building trades matters recently suggested to me that union locals could be short of operating funds, especially if members begin to take advantage of the not-always-well-publicized reduced dues clauses in union rules.

Some locals, my union source suggests, have bylaws allowing members to petition for reduced dues for some circumstances, “but not all locals.” He says the information about the reduced dues often is “guarded” so that members may not be aware of it.

Reduced dues only affect what the member pays to his or her home local to cover what's required by the local association, usually an amount in the $20 range. The local itself doesn’t receive anything. Normal circumstances covered are unemployment or working in another local’s jurisdiction.

The current system for paying union dues, the way it’s been explained to me, is based on a percentage of weekly gross wages, anywhere from two and a half percent up to 15 percent; the current going rate seems to be 5 percent, depending on the local. Any craft worker who gets a job through a host local still has to pay dues to a home local. For example, the average going wage for 40 hours is roughly $1,300 a week with dues at 5 percent of gross, or $65 a week or about $260 a month (based on 4 weeks). An additional $100 to $150 a month must be paid to the home local.

 “It’s tax deductible, yes,” my source explains. “But it’s a hefty price regardless. And I’m sure you can just imagine what overtime does to the equation!”

Now think about what happens when half of a union local's members are idle, my source asks.  “If the members are taking advantage of the reduced dues clause, where are the local unions going to get operating funds from?”