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Building Trades – Painted into a Corner –


Painted into Corner


For over 2 decades I have watched the sheer frustration and downright anger of the Rank & File regarding the bargaining of a new contract and loss of job opportunities, due to declining market share.

Many members think that our negotiating team is in the room with the union contractors, when in fact it is the increasing non-union market share that largely controls the outcome of the negotiations. True, the state of the economy factors into the equation; so larger jobs in Western Canada and the US, which BTW are mostly PLA agreements and not full CBA’s, increasingly it is the anti/non-union increasing market share that dictates the ultimate terms of OUR contracts.

Large numbers of the Rank & File believe that their skills and safety deserve increases in wages, benefits and conditions, and that the construction world needs us. Some also think that either our union negotiating team failed to make that case sufficient enough to bring home the contract that we feel we deserve, or even worse – the union sold out!

Question for that contingent of Brothers & Sisters: Who gets the better contract year in and year out – a union that has 85% of all the work but the hands are dogs, or the union with 25% of the work and every hand is Cracker Jack?

If you hesitated even for a moment with that equation, then your pride in your skills got in the way. For over 2 decades we have been taught to believe that our skills win the day in securing higher wages, benefits and conditions. In the Building Trades, we call it “Value on Display”. Certainly having great pride in one’s skills is a high priority. But until we have that same level of pride in Organizing, and even more importantly the commitment to our union, our market share will continue to fail.

Organizing is taking the COMPANY and not just the non-union workers, and imposing a Collect Bargaining Agreement on those contractors, regardless if they want one or not. Many confuse increased economic activity in an area with increased market share. This is how we in the Building Trades historically have gotten into a lot of trouble, because historically after EVERY boom, is when the Building Trades loses big areas of market share.

Anyone believing that their skills are the reason why they get better wages, benefits and conditions can take a simple test to try to prove that belief.  Quit your union and take all your skills and credentials to the anti/non-union contractor and let me know what they are willing to pay you?

Ideally being both Cracker Jack hands and having high market share would be the sweet spot; however, for the last couple of decades most of our efforts and money go into selling our skills and not securing our markets. Our market development reps continually “sell” the union using Value on Display as their “strategy,” but with little understanding & education in matters such as recognition, secondary issues, credibility determinations, hiring, modularization, technology and what is happening when information such as our unions’ safety & training initiatives are then taken and used to defeat working with us. Yes, used to defeat us! There are very real and measurable legal & business consequences to using Value on Display, and does NOT work as a strategy – but rather is a tool within a broader strategy.

So it begs the question then – what is OUR strategy?

The area of highest correlation in market share loses over the last 2 decades is that the more we collaborate with the non/anti-union end-users, construction managers, general contractors and subs, the more work we lose!

The Building Trades are “Painted into a Corner” using a patch work of tools and are trying mightily, and in vain, to raise market share with them. For over 20+ years those tools have been used in every combination by capable Organizers and Market Reps only to see well over $150 million of membership dues spent with the result being a lower overall market share!

It’s not the Organizers/Agents that are the issue – it is the strategies, or more precisely the lack thereof!

Some of the Building Trades General Presidents challenge the critics of their programs, Labor Rising, to provide solutions. Below is a link to a detailed outline that provides strategic solutions.

The Labor Rising program steps up to this challenge and our program outlines exactly why the problem is not the Organizers/Market Reps, but is the current course we are pursuing.

In class we spend 1½ hours on how the combined Building Trades got into the current position. That is all it really takes –1½ hours and now 603 Building Trades Organizers/Agents so far have gotten it in a heartbeat. The remainder of the next few days in class is spent entirely on how to re-tool, so to speak. It is about precise strategies, tactics and solutions that can be used and how to get out of the painted corner and win!

So, it’s not your negotiating team that is negotiating your contract. It is the leverage of the non-union market share in partnership with failed strategies.

Our leaders are trying to protect the high end Building Trades rate knowing that if it collapses there is no longer any high water mark from which to negotiate, which will also have a direct & dire effect on prevailing wage rates.

However, with the non-union market share increasing, the CBA’s top rate is being steadily eroded by us in the Building Trades in the form of every type of concessionary provisions like long apprenticeships @ reduced rates, new classifications @ reduced rates, and specialty agreements @ reduced rates, never ending concessions on PLA’s and other specialty agreements @ reduced rates,  just to name a few. The Building Trades continually try to compete on price (because we are convinced that it is the ONLY path to increased market share) with the non-union with some offsets provided by skills.

Competing on price is primarily why the Building Trades are losing market share! Unfortunately and respectfully stated, it appears to escape our senior leadership that we can legally bring pressure on the non/anti-unions clients’, credit and social footprint to compel them to sign a CBA regardless if they want to or not. Grabbing the non/anti-union end-users & construction managers by the wallet along with their carefully crafted perceptions, 21st Century style is the way to increased market share. In many ways this is how our Founders controlled the work in their day. Wins the hearts & minds of workers on one side, and going after the ability of the contractors, along the entire spectrum of construction, to make money. Grab them by the wallets. Capitalism has to be balanced by a strong Labor Movement, which we have not been for a long time! But we have to quit using the play book we have been and currently are using. Bottom-up, top-down, Breslin, corporate campaigns, pressure tactics etc., are ALL tools that are known and can be beat by the non/anti-union end-users, construction managers and general contractors. They know our play book better than we know it ourselves.

They lawyer up and know how to consistently beat the Building Trades. The numbers overwhelming say so – case closed!

For over 2 decades we have not controlled our markets with the activism needed to advance our union and by extension “us”, and until we quit playing patty cake/collaborate with the very contractors, construction manager and end user that wants to put us either out of business and/or control us like a “company union” we will continue to lose market share.

Also do not confuse work due to an increase in the economy in your area with increases in market share, because historically it will bite us in the ass. We have lost market share after every boom of work.

We give big time money to PR firms, experts, Labor/Management, training, politicians and a host of other activities that are supposed to increase market share, and now over 2 decades later we continue to have a negative number – “net”.

Long past the time to get out of the corner, even if it means we have to get some paint on us!

“if you see a good fight – get in it”

Danny L Caliendo
Labor Rising Group


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