ABC’s low road employment strategy may have produced short term gains for open shop contractors and construction users (although this point is worthy of debate because efficient unionized contractors were excluded from bidding jobs), but this strategy also produced negative consequences for the industry and society. Low wages and minimal training have had a detrimental effect on individuals and communities. As a result, many industry leaders decry what they perceive as a tendency of young people to reject construction as a career choice. ABC’s low road advocacy devalued construction as an occupation. Where construction jobs once existed as an entry point to the middle class and as the backbone of local economies, it has been observed that today “Construction workers – union and non-union alike – now tend to work harder, for less money, and under harsher conditions.”34
For the industry as a whole, the second negative consequence has been chronic regional shortages of skilled workers in those areas of the country where anti-union campaigns and low road strategies have damaged the industry’s training capacity. In effect, when major industrial users complain about labor shortages, these shortages are of their own making. In 1983, former Roundtable Chair Roger Blough observed “The building trades unions over the years have bargained their way into an apparently adequate supply of funds from contractors to support the training of apprentice craftsmen, trade by trade. But open shop construction is starved for money to train its workers. In 1980, some $230 million a year was pouring into union training programs, while less than 10% of this amount was being spent to train open shop workers. . . Only a small fraction of open shop contractors train their own employees or contribute to the 30-odd association-run training programs.”35
This problem continues to challenge the industry.
In a June 2004 report by the Construction Users Round Table (CURT) entitled Confronting the Skilled Construction Workforce Shortage, CURT again expressed concern over “a growing gap between demand and supply of skilled construction labor.” The report concluded, “The open shop sector as a whole has not supported formal craft training and assessment to the extent necessary to effect real, meaningful, and lasting change.”
Acknowledging the Building Trades substantial commitment to construction education and training - one of the labor movement’s genuine success stories – the CURT report recommended that “owner companies only do business with contractors who invest in training and maintain the skills of their workforce,” and “where practical, contractors should actively support joint labor/management training programs.”36
CURT’s recommendation was based on a simple idea: that any solution to regional skilled labor shortages must be approached on an industry-wide basis, not by individual contractors. This recognition offers hope that users, contractors and unions can build upon the joint apprenticeship training model and develop a new high road strategy to finally resolve the challenge of training sufficient skilled construction labor.
The author would like to thank the Department of Labor for access to the RAPIDs database.37
In addition, both the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics provided invaluable perspective on the scale of the U.S. construction industry, which, in the last decade, exceeded $ 1 trillion in value, employed nearly 10 million workers, and engaged nearly one million employers. On reflection, this paper is less about ABC and more about the resiliency of joint labor-management initiative that has produced the largest private sector occupational training program in North America. The JATC programs have proven resilient in the face of well financed efforts to eliminate them, primarily by interests operating outside the industry. This system brings inestimable value to the US and its workforce, and has grown over many generations. It is market sensitive, has expanded with the economy, and has been maintained (and self-funded) in good times and bad. The JATC system is a strategic resource for highly skilled workers, which has enabled generations of construction workers to earn family and community sustaining wages and benefits. And it holds each generation of workers to its very high training standards. It is the author’s hope that the conclusions in this analysis will lead to a renewed commitment and cooperative spirit among all stakeholders in the industry to expand training for the next generation of construction workers in the United States.
Ehrlich, M. and Grabelsky, J. [2005 September]. Standing at a Crossroads: The Building Trades in the Twenty-First Century, Articles and Chapters, Paper 281. 4. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/articles/281
Blough, R. [1983 January]. More Construction for the Money. Summary Report of the Construction Industry Cost Effectiveness Project, 26, Retrieved from
Construction Users Roundtable. . Confronting the Skilled Construction Workforce Shortage, 6-8.
The author thanks Dan Marschall of the AFL-CIO for commenting on an earlier draft of this report.