By Sherie Winston
It was a poignant farewell for Robert A. Georgine, retiring after 26 years as president of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Dept. In his final speech at the BCTD's annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C. April 3-5, the labor chief praised the 15 construction unions for recent growth and progress in organizing and training. But he warned unionists not to become complacent. Union leaders must "change whatever it is that needs changing, even if it means changing the configuration of the unions," he says.
This is not the first time that Georgine has suggested that some of the construction unions should merge. He claims that some smaller unions could accomplish more as the building sector grows if they join ranks with larger organizations.
It "makes sense," says Georgine, who retires April 15. Acknowledging that any consolidation poses a turf battle, Georgine declines to say which unions he thinks should merge.
His successor, Edward C. Sullivan, general president of the International Union of Elevator Constructors since February 1998, admits it is a "touchy subject" and not an issue he wants to direct.
But Sullivan may be forced to take tough positions in his administration. The building trades are going through a transition, and the future of many of its programs is uncertain. "There are a lot of sharks out there and if he is not politically savvy, he'll be shark bait," says one observer.
The construction unions also must take a stand against the growing use of temporary labor agencies in the industry, warns Georgine. They are supplying contractors with more than 200,000 construction workers on a daily basis. This trend is "a tremendous threat to collective bargaining in our industry," asserts Georgine. He believes that the unions should organize the temporary workers and sign up the contractors who hire the workers.
"This is a spector that is haunting the industry," says Jeff Grabelsky, BCTD's director of organizing. There is a growing trend in all industries to use temps. Most are clerical workers, but the second-largest group is industrial and construction workers, representing $15 billion worth of work on an annual basis, he says. "This is the fastest-growing sector of temporary employment," he claims.
A survey of 750 BCTD district councils found that 65% consider temporary agencies a threat. And it identified 400 construction firms that use temps.
According to Grabelsky, the agencies "dispatch workers in virtually every trade" and operate like nonunion hiring halls. They complete benefit and workers' compensation insurance paperwork and perform other administrative functions. They even supply daily pay checks for workers that the agency will cash for a small administrative fee.
While many of the temporary labor agencies specialize in day laborers, there is increasing demand for carpenters and mechanical crafts, says Grabelsky. "It is a problem," says Martin J. Maddaloni, president of the plumbers' and pipefitters' union. "We can't afford to do nothing," Grabelsky asserts. The BCTD used the meeting to launch its multi-craft campaign to stop the temp firms, primarily through focused organizing efforts and educational programs. The unions also plan to seek legislation to rein in the temp firms, which they claim are largely unregulated.