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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Some Unions Now Boast of Their Contract Concessions

September 29, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

A new era has arrived for America's unionized construction workers, as dramatically demonstrated by their statements boasting about their wage freezes and their acceptance of contract provisions that they once scorned.

Wages of workers who are not in construction, unfortunately, have dropped 5% in the last 10 years after being adjusted for inflation. But far worse is the predicament of those "aristocrats of labor," as construction workers are still sometimes called because of their skills and relatively high wages.

Real wages in construction have dropped precipitously--down 14.7% in the last decade, or nearly three times more than those of other workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Instead of bemoaning the drastic reverses of their members and fighting for more money, leaders of construction unions proudly say the hefty real-wage reductions their members have approved show just how much help they are giving to their unionized employers, who must compete with low-wage, non-union construction companies.

In 1980 and 1981, construction workers were demanding and getting wage hikes of 11% or more, about twice the increases being won by other workers.

That lack of financial restraint in the 1970s and early 1980s was matched and often surpassed by many in much higher income brackets, such as corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, entertainers and others.

And most of those far wealthier than the building craft workers are still showing no interest in curbing the substantial increases of their earnings.

But union workers did raise themselves into America's middle class--sometimes even higher. But they also began to react to the fact that their healthy wage gains were primarily responsible for the soaring number of non-union contractors, which cost them jobs.

Non-union workers now do an estimated two-thirds of all construction in the United States, compared to only one-third a few years ago.

That belated awareness of the harmful results of their contract gains resulted in the change in construction union bargaining policies that has at least slowed the incursions made into their ranks by non-union firms.

And the change is continuing. Just one of many examples:

Last week, Southern California plumbers and pipe fitters' District 16 hailed as a major achievement its agreement with the Associated General Contractors to extend their two-year contract without changes. And they also agreed to give up a 50-cent hourly pay boost that they were entitled to get under the contract.

Wage restraint is only one of several tactics the construction unions are using to halt their membership decline. Two others are called "project agreements" and "continuity of work agreements."

These are pacts signed by unions with either contractors, developers or government agencies that are in charge of construction jobs, such as the $600-million Los Angeles-to-Long Beach light-rail project.

In private industry project agreements, unions pledge not to strike or interrupt work for any reason, such as jurisdictional disputes between unions. Also, they often include special contract concessions by the unions to the contractors. In return, the contractors, or developers, promise to use only union workers.

The "continuity of work" agreements used in the public sector do not require a government agency to use only union workers. Instead, they must agree to pay the wages and benefits that prevail in the area. In large cities, that usually means union scales, so the usual result is that union workers get the jobs.

In past years, such agreements weren't necessary in the public or private sector because almost all major construction jobs were union anyway. The unions didn't have to make any concessions to get jobs for their members.

But as their membership dwindled, construction unions have started signing more and more project agreements with private industry, such as one recently with the Adolph Coors Co. that came only after a 10-year union boycott of Coors.

Other project agreements have been reached with firms such as American Express and two huge Japanese construction companies that are building factories for Japanese firms in this country.

But the agreements don't always work well in the public sector, as shown by a surprising decision of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to give the Herzog Corp. of St. Joseph, Mo., a multimillion-dollar contract for work on the Los Angeles-Long Beach light-rail project.

With considerable fanfare, the commission and construction unions signed a "continuity of work" agreement in 1985. There was to be labor peace to help speed the project, and the unions thought that would mean union contractors would be used to do the job.

But Herzog, which was not the lowest bidder, is using non-union workers, most of whom were brought in from outside California. The firm got the contract over the protests of the union, minority groups and even the recommendation of the commission staff.

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