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,"
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
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
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.