A State of the Unions address

Drive-thru:

  • The Brotherhood of Carpenters has broken with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York to form its own agreement with Hudson Yards developer Related Cos.
  • Union membership peaked in 1954 and has trended downward ever since; however, younger people see unions in a more positive light than earlier generations.
  • If unions want to maintain relevance into the 21st century, they must prove their value to their customers: the workers.

Carpenters Union General President Douglas McCarron proclaimed, “[The] old approach limit[s] advancement opportunities and create[s] inherent inefficiencies for us and our contractors.”

With that, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters broke with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York (BCTC) and made its own agreement with New York’s Hudson Yards developer, Related Cos.

Breaking down the story

The BCTC is a mega-union that represents a large number of trade unions within Greater New York. As such, it has substantial bargaining power it brings to bear on contract negotiations with developers, including the project labor agreement (PLA) that closed the shop at Related in return for cost reductions during the first phase of Hudson Yards.

When the next phase of the project opened for bid, Related determined that not only had the PLA increased costs, but also other promises made by BCTC were broken. Therefore, Related said it would not agree to a PLA with BCTC for the next phase. Instead, it proposed keeping an open shop and hiring both union and non-union labor as a cost-reduction and efficiency measure.

While the BCTC held out for a closed shop and encouraged trade unions to protest Related, the carpenters union decided the approach was not the way to increase market share in today’s construction industry. Instead, the Brotherhood of Carpenters broke ranks, negotiating a deal directly with Related Cos.

Will other unions under the BCTC umbrella do the same? If so, the Building Trades’ bargaining power is likely to shrink considerably.

Part of a larger trend

Labor union membership in the U.S. peaked at over 34 percent of the workforce in 1954. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 20.1 percent of wage and salaried, non-governmental workers were in unions back in 1983. By 2017, that percentage was slashed in half.

The decline of unions after the 1970s can be traced to economic pressures brought by competition introduced through deregulation, industrial restructuring, and abundant foreign goods. Regulated markets vanished and with them, much of the structure onto which unions clung.

In the beginning, unions were the only way workers had enough power to fight back against the corporations.

As minorities and women flooded into the workplace throughout the 1960s and 1970s, unions committed to diversity and gender equality. However, they largely blocked women and minorities from union leadership. And so unions withered further.

Some feel that labor unions have outlived their usefulness, demanding increasingly convoluted work rules and expensive benefits even when pickings are lean. In the beginning, unions were the only way workers had enough power to fight back against the corporations. Have they taken a good thing too far?

Unions gaining higher approval Post-Recession, but with caveats

According to Pew Research, views on labor unions are more favorable now than they were a decade ago. In 2011, unions had a favorable rating of 41 percent. In 2018, the positive share is 55 percent, just slightly lower than 2017 (60 percent).

On the other hand, business corporations are also enjoying a bump in their ratings. About half of those polled viewed corporations favorably in 2018, compared to only a third in 2011.

In 2011, unions had a favorable rating of 41 percent. In 2018, the positive share is 55 percent Click To Tweet

Some attitudes are shaped by political partisanship. Seventy percent of Democrats approve of unions, compared to 40 percent of Republicans. Republicans are more favorable to corporations by 65 percent, while 46 percent of Democrats share that view.

Age factors into shifting views toward unions. Perhaps surprisingly, nearly 70 percent of young adults aged 18 to 29 see unions in a favorable light. Workers younger than 30 are on the fence about corporations, with a 50/50 approval to disapproval rate.

Moreover, educational attainment also makes a difference. A majority of postgraduates approve of unions while approximately half approve of corporations. Those with lower educational levels express closer-to-equal views of both unions and corporations.

What will the future bring?

Nobody can predict the future, especially when everything seems to be in turmoil. There appears to be less appetite for vigorous labor organizing today than in the early twentieth century. Some employers are implementing programs to retain top talent in a tight labor environment. Others still bend to investor wishes for more substantial, immediate profits.

For now, open shops seem to be gaining in popularity for cost-effectiveness. If unions want to regain relevance, they will have to show more value to their customers: the workers.

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