New faces front labor unions

STEUBENVILLE – The four men sitting at the union hall conference table are veterans of the organized labor movement.

But while they firmly support and believe in the union philosophy of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, they also have become practical in their approach to competing with illegal immigrant workers and domestic nonunion workers who often compete for the same jobs.

And in today’s economy where oil and gas and related businesses are dominating the workplace, the men who represent building and trade workers say they want to send the best employees into the field.

“We often tell our members we aren’t our grandfather’s union any more,” said Clint Powell. “Our members know they have to go out and produce to help our customers. Our contracts are production-oriented because our customers have to be a successful business.”

“Out-of-town contractors don’t always want to use our local labor halls because they may be used to using nonunion workers. But we are getting more phone calls because the contractors are learning they are better off using qualified union labor instead of outside workers. We constantly preach to our members that if our customers aren’t successful, we won’t be successful,” continued Powell, business manager of Laborer’s International Union Local 809.

“I think we are probably more successful because we are in a smaller market with small union locals. Our union leadership is more hands-on with our members. You know the members and their families. We have very hands-on unions here. I believe we are more of what a union is meant to be,” said Jim Conrad, business representative of the Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters Local 186.

“One of our challenges is getting our message out. We have qualified, trained workers who believe in doing a good job. We aren’t here today and then leave town. We are here and ready to help and support our customers,” Conrad added.

“I have never been involved in a strike myself. We have ways of making our voices heard through informational actions,” noted Joe Miller, also a business representative of Carpenters Local 186.

“When outside contractors come in they do spend dollars locally. Maybe they buy some gas or a cup of coffee. But when local union members work, their dollars will circulate at least seven or eight times in the community, plus we pay the local tax dollars. So in addition to the work we provide, we also support the local businesses and economy,” explained Conrad.

Kyle Brown, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 246, has been involved in organized labor and the building trades for more than 40 years.

“I graduated from high school and enrolled in the electrical workers apprenticeship program. My father and a couple other family members were electricians, and I wanted to be an electrician. I thought it was a good way to start and I never looked back,” said Brown.

“I worked as an electrician in Atlanta early on in an open shop. The contractor told me he could pay me overtime pay but save it for me when I went back to Ohio. When I asked him if it was going to be time-and-a-half pay he said he couldn’t afford it. That’s when I left and came back here. But that happens all the time because building and trade employees are at-will employees,” said Brown.

“We are seeing a change in the Kroger and Wal-Mart competition. Wal-Mart is nonunion, and Kroger is getting tougher on its employees because of the competition with Wal-Mart. In the end that just hurts business for everyone,” remarked Brown.

“Our contractors pay the same rates for the union workers. But a nonunion contractor may start cutting corners to save money. And they have an obligation to their shareholders, so they want to squeeze here and there. The battle hasn’t changed in 130 years. But unions will continue to push for a fair wage, respect and safety on the job site,” said Brown.

According to Brown, the key to success starts with a highly trained unionized work force.

“The wages are better and working conditions are better. We maintain the area wage and we don’t want people coming in and undercutting the area wage,” he said.

“We always hear comments about we are overpaid. But, we are seeing a lot more contracts, especially with the MarkWest work in Harrison County because they know our work is good. A lot of contractors bid on those projects, but the union contractors are getting the work,” said Powell.

“They are learning you get what you pay for,” said Conrad.

“We have been very successful with construction companies competing against outside contractors who use illegal aliens to come in and do some work. All of our crafts know how to be competitive. We have a high safety record in the construction business. Unfortunately, illegal workers have no training or rules for safety,” Brown said.

Miller said the union workers also are facing competition from Amish workers, “who come off the farm for a few days to do a job but don’t pay the taxes.”

“They will work a number of hours without any overtime rules followed. They don’t follow all of the safety rules and requirements and don’t always pay the required taxes. A contractor doesn’t have to include safety measures in their project bid. And, their wages go back to their family and certainly don’t re-circulate in the community like our union dollars do. They are making it harder for our contractors to compete for the same jobs,” cited Miller.

“The Amish workers probably cost half of what union workers do, but they are spending money on safety training or safety equipment. That isn’t fair,” said Conrad.

Powell said the building and trades union workers, “are held to the highest standards.”

“We know we are in a very competitive industry. Our local contractors are continuously including safety training in their jobs. Our union workers have a great work ethic that is based on earning while you are learning. And we tell our members that if they find out electrical or carpentry work isn’t for them, they should move on. We have 10,000 members in our Upper Ohio Valley Buildings and Trades organization and we want them to be the best. If those 10,000 jobs disappear, the entire Ohio Valley will suffer,” commented Brown.

“Our membership increases about 5 percent every year. We expect them to be with us until they retire and beyond. The structures we help build create permanent jobs in the Tri-State Area. We offer one of the few good jobs still available in the Ohio Valley,” explained Brown.

“All of our apprenticeships are paid for by our union members. The apprenticeship program is funded through our wages,” Conrad pointed out.

“Training is a big part of our union. Our customers see the benefit of hiring union workers because they get qualified workers who care about their jobs,” said Powell.

“Our biggest challenges these days are the right-to-work-for-less philosophies. It is a political battle we face every day,” noted Powell.

“That right to work is cheaper argument is simply not true. It may sound good, but the union sets the standard for nonunion workers. The right-to-work campaign is a race to the bottom, and I wish more people would realize that issue. We are not the enemy. We work here and spend our money here,” Powell said.

Miller said union members are usually involved with the local schools, ball teams, American Red Cross and United Way organizations as well as all community events.

“I know there is a longtime public perception of labor unions. But you should remember trade unions are different. We aren’t outside people who come in for a job and leave. We believe in our communities. We have to be the best at what we do to be competitive,” according to Miller.

“Our other challenge is the political groups who can spend unlimited funds to influence elections. They can spend those unlimited funds from unnamed sources to erase what the people want at the ballot box,” noted Brown.

“We will battle every day. We will fight to go forward and will fight the battles that are handed to us,” said Powell.

“We have seen the union movement ebb and flow. Right now we are on the down side of the roller coaster ride. But when I hear about someone complain about unions I remind them what we do. We work and experience all four seasons and work all of the hours,” said Miller.

“That’s right. We create the wealth. We get up early on a February morning when its 5 degrees outside and pour the concrete. If it wasn’t for us, many jobs wouldn’t happen. We always do the right thing. Our union members have seen our wages and benefits increase over the years. We work hard at making our members’ lives more successful. But that also requires us to be more competitive and we embrace that challenge,” Conrad stated.

“We have thousands of skilled union workers but sometimes no work is available. Our job is to maintain that skilled and efficient group of workers and be competitive for our contractor customers,” said Brown.