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Some Workers Return to Work as Construction Boom Tanks

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Rob Rooke, former Recording Secretary, Carpenters Local 713

As orders to stop non-essential construction work are lifted around the country, workers are wondering what their job site will look like as they return. Will measures be in place to ensure sites don’t become hotbeds for viral transmission so workers are not then bringing C-19 home to their families?

Construction in the U.S. is a $1.3 trillion industry and one of the biggest consumers of manufacturing and mining. The top 400 construction contractors are doing well, with revenues of $405 billion in 2018. Construction contractors also gave $136 million in political donations in the 2016 election. In short, it is a vital industry to the U.S. economy, and it is dominated by a small number of big wealthy contractors who are highly organized politically to get what they want.

Close to one million construction jobs were lost in April. Some jobs will now be reopening with fewer workers. Other jobs will simply be cancelled as owners go bankrupt or investors pull their money. In the last recession the Carpenters Union lost 100,000 members. During the Great Depression, a better comparison, half of all carpenters’ jobs were lost.

The employers are eager to get back to making money. Dennis Cornick, Vice President of the $26 billion Gilbane Building Company put it succinctly, “All the work in the world doesn’t do a bit of good if you aren’t making a reasonable return on it.” As the former CEO of General Motors once put it, “we are not in the business of making cars, we are in the business of making money.” The General contractors’ obsession with cost-cutting and profits may look good to investors, but it creates a high-risk environment for workers.

Contractor Opposition to Job Safety

In the Bay Area, the current COVID-19 Large Construction Project Safety Protocol for sites with over 20,000 square feet of floor space has already come up against business opposition. The United Contractors, an employer federation, opposes the regulations it lays out. Vice President of United Contractors Emily Cohen called the order, “arbitrary, unworkable and a step backward.” In specific opposition to requiring Generals hire a third-party safety officer, Michele Daugherty of the Associate Builders and Contractors, stunningly argued, “This is now adding another body on the job site.” They imply that adding an independent safety officer would increase risk of infection. Their inability to see beyond the dollar is stunning. 

The bosses’ concerns are straight forward. They want to continue to build up their bank accounts without delay. They have no time for construction delays. They see more safety regulations as impediments to this end. To their bean counters, construction workers are no different to the wood and steel that are installed in the building: the necessary ingredients to get the job done that don’t require a second thought once the job is complete. If we had no union, every job would be piece work and construction workers would be paid in pennies.

COVID-19 On the Job 

The twin dangers facing construction workers today are mass unemployment and a second wave of COVID-19. For workers to have any say or control over these dangers, the unions will need to step up and put forward demands that put the construction worker first, not the contractors’ schedule. Workers at every job will have to connect with other workers to talk about what needs to be done to make the workplace safe.

All job sites must move beyond “no hard hat, no work” to everyone wearing a face covering. Surgical and other effective masks should be mandatory. Social distancing must be adhered to: no packed job elevators. Stairways and hallway traffic should be directional so that people aren’t forced to pass one another. Sharing of tools should be prohibited. Workers should have the right to immediately be informed of a C-19 case on the job. The macho individualism of just getting the job done, that contractors encourage in construction workers will only make our jobs less safe. 

The problem will be enforcement. Government agencies like OSHA and Labor & Industry are charged with implementing and regulating safety on the job. However, they’re largely toothless and underfunded given their responsibilities. Covering the entire U.S. workforce is only 2,100 state and federal OSHA inspectors, only one inspector for every 59,000 workers.

Even when caught flagrantly violating safety requirements, employers face a slap on the wrist. Seattle witnessed a deadly crane collapse in April of 2019, killing two union ironworkers and two people in their cars. Three contractors were found at fault for the four deaths, but between the three companies the fines barely passed the six figure mark.

The construction unions need to step up to the plate and take back control of safety. They must be our defenders when we call out the boss on COVID-19 safety issues. 

Safety and the “Team Concept”

Unfortunately, the main obstacle is that our union leaders have been wedded to the idea that the unions are on the same team as the contractors and the contractors are generally all about the money. In recent decades our unions have been reshaped to suit the view that union members have more in common with union contractors than non-union workers. This has not in any way helped prevent the collapse of union density in construction from 1973 when 40% of private construction was union to 16% today.

This “Team Concept” approach disarms us from defending ourselves against the bosses on the job. Within many Carpenter Union contracts the second carpenter hired would be the shop steward, an on-the-job union rep and working carpenter. That steward had protections against being laid off so that they could speak up on the job. The Carpenters Union has subsequently gone from a strong workplace-based union steward system to a situation today, wherein many cities there isn’t even a living memory of what a shop steward is. This process means that workers have very little power in on-site conflicts with the contractors. The union’s dismantling of the shop steward system in many regions has disarmed union workers in the fight for COVID-19 on-site safety.

Workers in New York, Detroit, and Boston, where COVID-19 had a huge impact are less likely to return to work without asking questions. However once at work, the boss will then begin to try to get back to normal productivity as quickly as possible. Construction contractors are like a small army of Donald Trumps, where everything is beautiful as long as the profit rate is high. Everything problematic is swept under the carpet. However, a COVID-safe workplace will require a slow down in the pace of work and a reduction of the number of workers on each site. The question will be, are workers or contractors going to pay for this?

Construction Boom Over

The Contractors have been whining about the shortage of skilled labor since at least 2012 when construction employment finally recovered from the 2008 Recession. Average construction pay today is higher than average worker pay. Although it is uneven across the trades and across the country, construction union wages and pension benefits are the highest of any blue collar workers. Plans are in place to change all this. The marriage that the union leaders believe they are in with the big unionized contractors is about to hit a major road bump. In the recessionary years of the early 1990s many construction unions made “concessions” – took cuts in their hourly wage, in the rate of overtime pay, and in pension or health care benefits. Some construction unions bounced back in the following decades, others took longer. Many unions permanently lost things like double-time overtime.

Many construction union leaders have already begun to make concessions to get workers back to work, including removing shift differentials to accommodate smaller workforces for social distancing. With mass unemployment here for the immediate future, the bosses will be asking to either opt out of the contract or at the least that the workers give back gains in the next contract. Many union leaders will use the long lines of workers at the union hall to argue that we need to be reasonable and accept pay cuts. Union militants in the trades must respond with a program based on our needs, not on what the bosses say they can afford. 

Return to Solidarity-based Union Militancy

Most of our construction unions are ill-prepared for this coming crisis. They are top-down and don’t have a working connection to the members on the job. Almost all national construction union leaders pay themselves in the vicinity of half a million dollars a year. They see themselves as the same as the big employers and some even see our unions as businesses that supply the labor for contractors. They are not prepared for the fight that is about to break out. 

Solidarity unionism is our only way forward to avoid the wave of despondency and disunity that will come with mass unemployment. There should be cross-trade cooperation to campaign to make every construction job a union job and every job site a safe place to work.

The Carpenters Union is often ridiculed by the mechanical trades workers as only half a union. But it has long traditions of struggle and combativity. It was built in the 1880s by socialists and integrationists. Its first President PJ McGuire was a socialist and one of the unions’ first Vice Presidents was L.E. Rames, an African American carpenter. Up until recent decades the Carpenters Union constitution called for a 30-hour work week as a union response to unemployment. We need to return to the militant solidarity unionism that built our union.

In response to the call for a cut in pay, we should fight for a 32-hour week with no loss in pay to create 20% more jobs. The big contractors and developers have made billions of dollars off the fruits of construction workers’ labor during the boom. Our unions must be revitalized from bottom to top in the spirit of equality and solidarity, with no union leader making more than the average worker they represent. The shop steward infrastructure must be rebuilt to defend union rights on the job, and unions that have abandoned the election of union staff must win that back. 

The fact that most big construction companies make donations to both Democrats and Republicans is a sign of the need for labor to have its own independent voice to fight for our interests. Labor needs its own political party to win a workers’ Green New Deal to rebuild the country sustainably and to eradicate unemployment. Some construction workers’ confusion around the seriousness of COVID-19 is undoubtedly connected to labor not having its own independent voice in politics. 

COVID-19 has pulled the rug under the feet of everyone. The employers are busy planning what they want the post C-19 world to look like. Although the construction union leaders are in a unique place to prepare the fight for a safe return to work and the wider battle for a better, more economically secure world, union members must fight now to save jobs and lives.

  • Establish COVID-19 workplace safety committees
  • Union and worker control over how we go back to work;
  • Rebuild jobsite shop steward structures; 
  • Unionize all construction work;
  • 32-hour Work Week with no loss of pay;
  • Massive Public investment in union jobs for a Workers’ Green New Deal to rebuild the country.

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