There are perhaps no issues in the construction industry today as intensely personal — and divisive — as those that revolve around organized labor. For more than 135 years, membership in trade unions has been a tradition in some U.S. families, and unions still enjoy wide support in many areas of the country.
However, there has been a recent push — primarily on the part of Republicans and open-shop construction associations — to erode the union control that remains through the enactment of right-to-work laws.
To date, 28 states have enacted right-to-work legislation, which generally means that nonunion construction workers can’t be forced to join a union or pay union dues on a project even if labor rates and benefits have been negotiated through the collective bargaining process.
With this wave of efforts to enact right-to-work legislation, unions are pushing back and touting the benefits they can offer the industry. However, it remains to be seen whether their efforts will have any influence over the current trend.
Why states are eyeing right-to-work
Alexa Turner, manager of state and local affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors, said that many states feel they’re missing out on a competitive advantage if they don’t adopt these regulations. They want to get on board so that they will be in the running for investment dollars and opportunities, she said.
Brandon Ray, also a manager of state and local affairs for the ABC, said that being in a right-to-work state can especially benefit younger workers who come into the industry and work their way up based on ability and work ethic, not their place in line at union hall.
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens campaigned in part on his commitment to make Missouri a right-to-work state, and early last month, that promise came to pass. Greitens and state Republicans pushed for the legislation by billing it as business-friendly, but unions responded that these measures would only serve to chip away at wages and were meant to reduce union influence.
Ray doesn’t agree with that sentiment. "I think for contractors and for the industry, the statistics show that right-to-work states have higher investment, wages are going up, the standard of living is going up and more investment means more business for contractors," he said.
A 2014 Gallup Poll found that 71% Americans supported right-to-work laws, and 82% agreed that no American should be required to join a private organization like a union. According to a North America’s Building Trades Unions' analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, however, union membership is on the rise, increasing 1% in 2016 and adding 238,000 members since 2010.
The pros and cons of union influence
If nonunion workers take part in union jobs, it's typically because there is a project labor agreement in place. The parties to such agreements are usually one or more local trade unions and the owner, and they set forth working conditions, labor rates, minority participation requirements, benefits and just about anything else associated with employee compensation and treatment on that particular job.
PLAs, however, do not limit participation on a project to union contractors and their employees, and this is where the disagreements begin.
When a nonunion worker sets foot on a union-controlled project, the union has to advocate and bargain on his or her behalf as well, according to Eric Dean, general president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union, AFL-CIO. That employee, he said, has the collective bargaining process to thank for what could be a higher wage and for the ability to be able to go to the union for dispute resolution or any other problems while working on the project.
"PLAs require unions to protect people whether or not they become a member, or whether or not they opt out of paying dues," Dean said. "We don’t feel it’s a reach to ask them to pay their share towards the collective bargaining agreement that got them those benefits." He called any lesser option "grossly unfair."
In fact, Thomas Baylis, partner at Cullen and Dykman, added that the individuals who choose not to pay dues on a PLA job are commonly referred to as free-riders — those who partake in the benefits but don’t pay anything back in.
However, the ABC has a different take. "Forcing workers to pay into a benefit plan is unfair," Ray said. Dues go into benefit programs and pension plans that nonunion workers will never be able to collect on, he added.
States are exploring different options to address the free-rider issue, Ray said, including laws that allow nonunion workers to opt out of union representation on a job-by-job basis.
Dean still points to union membership as the best shot someone has for a well-paying career in construction and cites its level of training and collective bargaining power as benefits that can’t be found in open-shop programs. "We have the capacity to train workers like no one else," he said.
Ray countered that there are plenty of learning opportunities in the right-to-work world and that the ABC and its members spend more than $1 billion in training each year.
What's next for right-to-work and union labor
Baylis said the supply of states ripe for a shift to right-to-work laws is fairly exhausted and that the next logical step would be a federal right-to-work law, but he hasn’t seen any indication that is a viable step right now. The only caveat to that position, he said, would be if the Republicans see massive gains in the midterm election and get some serious leverage.
In the midst of a campaign to roll back regulation and create an environment more conducive to business, Dean said that President Donald Trump has expressed a commitment to union labor, and his organization will trust that commitment until it has a reason to believe otherwise. "We're going to hold him to his word," he said.