Throughout Kansas, Missouri, and Southern Illinois, the St. Louis – Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council works for its more than twenty thousand members. The organization’s work provides contractors with a highly trained, safe workforce.
In the first few months after Donald Trump was elected, most Americans were narrowly focused on the stories unfolding within the White House. In early 2017, as tensions in America flared between the political left and right, few people were paying attention to state politics. The Missouri Senate had passed “right-to-work” legislation by a vote of 21 to 12, which would allow union members to opt out of paying union dues and force contractors to hire non-union work, thus shrinking membership, union funds, and wages across the State.
Luckily for Missourians, Al Bond was paying attention.
In fact, he’d been preparing for years. As the Missouri Legislature began debating more and more anti-worker policies, the Carpenters directed the creation of Protect MO Families. Protect MO Families is a broad-based coalition of organizations and individuals. For years, staff of Protect MO Families worked to educate Missourians about the consequences of so-called “right-to-work” laws and the elimination of prevailing wage.
After reading the news in 2017, the executive secretary-treasurer of the St Louis – Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, rolled up his sleeves, ready to mobilize his members and the coalition across the state to fight the legislation. Opponents of “right-to-work” had only months to help garner 160,000 signatures in six out of eight congressional districts to petition for a voter referendum on right-to-work. Not only were his 22,000 union members threatened, but so were all workers across the state. “In right-to-work states, typically families make $8,700 a year less,” explains Bond.
What the Missouri Senate members did not understand is that they had picked a fight with a union that had learned from its past.
After living through a post-war golden era of high-paid, unionized construction jobs, things began to turn bad for workers in the seventies. A weakening global economy, new technologies, and the rapid expansion of contractors into larger, regional corporations weakened unions dramatically. Contractors that went state-wide had to negotiate with multiple locals for the same work. For the expanding construction contractor, union contracts began to pose many logistical complications.
Juggling twenty or more local contracts with varying benefit packages and wage levels were huge human resources disincentives.
Many of the largest contracting companies were not union-friendly and put massive pressure on governments to support laws similar to right-to-work while simultaneously funding public relations campaigns to get the public onside. It seemed like an all-out war on organized labor, which peaked with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that saw entire plants close shop and move to Mexico.
“I’ve been in the business for over thirty-six years,” recounts Bond, “I’ve watched what NAFTA has done to union jobs.” By the mid-nineties, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters – the international body that the St-Louis Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council is part – saw membership fall from 830,000 to fewer than 400,000.
Sometimes in the darkest of times, the brightest of ideas are born.
Stepping forth with a bold new vision, Douglas McCarron was elected president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. He saw three pillars of progress the union could undertake to position its members as industry leaders – simplified contractor-friendly agreements, top-tier professional training, and health and safety protections.
Under McCarron’s leadership, the union was restructured into larger regional councils responsible for negotiating contracts. Larger jurisdictions provided ease of mobility and increased flexibility for workers and contractors.
“At one time, we had nineteen collective bargaining contracts in St. Louis, now we have one,” says Bond. Under his leadership, the regional council consolidated contracts. This allows contractors to easily take their best crews to other counties and even across state lines. The union, in partnership with contractors, is responsible for the administration of the health insurance and pension plans, which otherwise would be individual contractor responsibilities. “You must bring value to the contractor and owner. That’s what we do. We bring value,” says Bond.
Going one step further, contractors maintain broad control over their workforce. Bond explains, “We have a flexible, contractor-friendly agreement. They have the right to hire and fire. We’re not here to run their business.” While the union protects employees’ rights, there is zero tolerance for poor employee performance. “If you’re not able to be productive on a job site, safe on a job site, have a good attitude on a job site, more than likely you’re going to get sent down the road.”
“We don’t protect people who don’t go to work every day and aren’t productive,” Bond clarifies. Even with the flexibility, the vast majority of union workers are not fired; they are coveted, because they are the top trained professionals in the industry.
Professional skills and safety training is a priority at the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. Members regularly attend skills-development training courses at one of the Council’s nine schools. “You earn while you learn. Not only is there no tuition or debt, you actually earn wages while in training,” says Bond.
Additionally, many members are sent to the Carpenters International Training Center (ITC) in Las Vegas, a one-million square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. In addition to hard skills for professional development, members hone their soft skills in communication, team-building and leadership. This system makes members better workers on the job site, and it’s given them a reputation as the safest, most highly trained workers in the field.
“Our members are on the campus eight hours a day, building community and learning about on-the-job best practices, safety training, how to grow market share, membership, and gain new contracts,” says Bond.
For non-unionized construction workers, moving up an income ladder is difficult when working for multiple employers, with little time or extra cash to invest in training. For many, it becomes a short-term job instead of a long-term career. Bond says the union changes this attitude. “A lot of the non-union carpenters come and go. We really look at it as a career and a profession, and we take a lot of pride in what we do every day.”
Construction is arguably one of the most dangerous jobs in America. According to the Department of Labor, twenty-one percent of all private sector workplace deaths were in construction in 2016. The union is constantly innovating new ways to care for its members and keep them on the job site.
This summer, the regional council is opening a $6-million, 20,000-square-foot healthcare facility in St. Louis. This wellness center is a cost-saver for members, contractors, and the health insurer. Members and their families will be offered an array of services ranging from vision and hearing to wellness, chiropractic, physical therapy, holistic pain management, smoking cessation, nutrition, mental health, and substance abuse counseling. Required annual and random drug testing will be taken care of at the center.
Members and their family members will receive cutting-edge care, and contractors will get healthy workers who are less likely to miss days at work. The union will be eliminating wasteful spending at every corner to provide affordable care for members. “We’re going to take the middleman out of eyeglasses,” boasts Bond. “For example, the glasses I have on my head are $500, and quite frankly, they should probably cost $200, and so we’re going to have a vision center.”
These incredible gains are why in early 2017, when everyone was watching Trump, Bond was watching the Missouri Senate put forward a bill that would break so much of what his union had built. It was like a repeat of the past, with legislators and big corporations attempting to break unions and divide working people. But unlike in the past, the regional council was not strong solely because of its own workforce, but because of the innovations and networks it had been building since the mid-nineties.
The regional council was ready to act.
The Carpenters co-chaired the state committee to repeal the right-to-work legislation. More than 310,000 signatures were collected from all eight congressional districts, doubling the required amount for a referendum.
Once the petition qualified for the ballot as Proposition A, almost a full year was spent crisscrossing the state, building coalitions, and getting working families involved in the movement. The Carpenters and allies were not just gaining the support of the working class. “It was Republicans, Democrats, people understanding that right-to-work was nothing more than a way to lower wages for everyone,” Bond reminisces.
On August seventh, the state of Missouri, a Republican stronghold, loudly declared its backing for the working families of Missouri, with over two-thirds of voters supporting it. “We had Republicans and Democrats. Wherever they sit politically came out and voted against this. We came out and won.”
When asked how the union has been able to gain allies amongst contractors, Republicans and right-leaning voters, all thought to be the traditional adversaries of the union movement, Bond explained, “It’s not an us versus them mentality, by any stretch of the imagination. It can’t be. We have to work in a collaborative, workmanlike partnership, and that’s how it works. I’m a carpenter; I represent carpenters. I’m not that so-called ‘union boss’ term that people like to throw around. I’m a carpenter that came up through the ranks, went to apprenticeship school, worked my way up, and had the opportunity to lead this organization. And I go to work for the carpenters every day. We all go to work every day. We work, and we build America. From houses to hospitals to institutions. It’s a proud trade.”