Chicago Tribune


By Merrill Goozner and Stephen Franklin

June 9, 1991

Last week`s weather couldn`t have been better. The sun shone and the air was dry. Finally, good construction weather after a long, rainy spring. Good for golfers, perhaps. But as far as construction managers were concerned, there might as well have been a blizzard.

Fifteen thousand members of the Construction and General Laborers District Council of Chicago and Vicinity walked off the job a week ago, bringing work to a standstill on all but a few construction sites in the area.

Federal mediators were still trying to bring the two sides back to the bargaining table as the weekend began. But even if a quick settlement were reached, last week`s exercise in labor-management futility created far more losers than winners.

The union struck after rejecting the construction firms` final offer of a 90-cents-an-hour raise in pay and benefits, about a third of which would have ended up in their paychecks.

On the surface, the strike by the laborers-unskilled and semiskilled workers on construction sites-is about money. Their union leaders were demanding $1.25 and indicating they would settle for slightly less.

But the workers on the picket lines wanted something besides an extra quarter or so in their paychecks. "They always say you could get a laborer easy," said 34-year-old Guy Sutton as he paraded in the sunshine outside the shut-down Sheraton Hotel and Towers project at Cityfront Center. "They say you are a dime a dozen. But it isn`t so.

"We don`t get any respect," he said.

That simple complaint best sums up how seemingly picayune differences managed to shut down most construction work in Cook, Du Page and Lake counties last week. From Sears, Roebuck and Co.`s new merchandising headquarters in Hoffman Estates to the resurfacing of Lake Shore Drive, idle machines and forlorn road barriers littered a people-less construction landscape.

A strike of one week`s duration has already reached the stage where workers will not benefit financially from the settlement, at least not in the first year. Even if they get the additional 35-cents-per-hour more that they`re demanding, the average construction laborer, who gets about 1,500 hours work per year, will receive only $525 more this year from the additional raise.

At their current wage of $17.25 an hour, a 40-hour workweek is worth $690, though many laborers work substantially more hours in good weather. "Workers don`t pull out slide rules and do a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether or not to go on strike," said Greg Leroy, research director for the Midwest Center for Labor Research. "It`s usually about something else."

And for the laborers, that something else has to do with parity with the other construction trades. For the worker on the picket line, that translates into respect. "If they can give the others theirs, why can`t they give us our recognition," said James Hildreth, a 62-year-old laborer at Cityfront Center. A year ago, the skilled building trades signed five-year accords with affiliates of the Mid-America Regional Bargaining Association (MARBA), the construction industry management group. Most of the agreements called for wage increases of $1 an hour in each year of the pact, which is split between their pension and health and welfare funds and wages.

However, several of the unions signed more lucrative accords after short walkouts, proving that militancy has its benefits.

The 3,000-member Bricklayers District Council, after a two-week strike, signed a contract calling for raises of $3.65 over three years. The Ironworkers District Council and its 1,500 members signed a similar pact after a one-week strike.

Neither of those walkouts had the effect of the laborers strike. Virtually every construction site has some unskilled workers, and all unionized craftsmen honor picket lines at their respective sites.

Management`s hard line on the seemingly minor difference between the two sides can be traced to fears that an overly generous settlement with laborers might come back to haunt them in 1995 when they sit down to bargain with the skilled tradesmen.

Those workers-most of whom go through multiyear apprenticeship programs-could try to "whipsaw" contractors by pointing to the narrowing gap (in percentage terms) between themselves and the "unskilled" laborers. "I`m afraid this could cause an extreme escalation in wage rates," said Glenn Burgeson, chairman of MARBA and president of Albin Carlson & Co. "To give the laborers any more than we gave the carpenters and the others would be way out of line."

Another possible motivation for the union`s leaders may be next December`s negotiations with the City of Chicago. Ernest Kumerow, president of the Laborers District Council, also is president of Laborers Local 1001, which represents 5,400 streets and sanitation workers. Traditionally, city laborers signed contracts calling for the same pay level as construction laborers. However, city workers aren`t part of the laborers union pension and health-care funds. They get the same benefits as other public employees.

So if construction laborers allocate two-thirds of their raise to benefits and only 30 cents into their checks, city laborers will get only a 30-cent-an-hour raise next year while other city tradesmen will be getting much larger increases. "It`s an issue that may be causing political problems for Kumerow," said one observer.

Several labor-management cooperative arrangements also are at stake in the walkout. A year ago, several building trades signed innovative side- accords, including an employee substance abuse program.

Some building trades also signed a so-called "competition" clause, which allows a contractor and the union to deviate from the standard contract if the firm is bidding against a non-union contractor on a major project. Another side-accord created a 30-day cooling off period at the conclusion of the current agreement.

The unions that went on strike last year refused to sign those clauses.

Pressure is mounting on both sides to settle the dispute. The other building trades hate seeing this good weather go to waste, while contractors are under pressure from commercial builders who are watching the interest meter run on their borrowed funds.

The laborers union attempted to ameliorate the hardships on its union brethren by offering so-called "me-too" agreements to contractors that wanted to continue working. Under a me-too agreement, the firm agrees to retroactively pay whatever wage is contained in the final agreement.

According to industry officials, the me-too agreements had a new clause that called for placing their contracts under a section of labor law normally reserved for industrial unions. In basic industry, a company`s managers have a continuing obligation to bargain with the union until their workers vote the union out.

Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company.

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