Political Appeal of Bashing American Unions May Have Peaked

October 2015 – I was pleased, but not surprised, to read recently a Bureau of  National Affairs news report that the relentless union-bashing we have seen for many years from right-wing politicians seems to be fading as an effective political tactic. Recent signs suggest renewed support for labor, the story said, noting the quick collapse of the presidential campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who had made destroying unions his signature issue.

California Governor Jerry Brown, in sharp contrast to Walker, has worked with industry and in our case, construction unions, to strengthen apprenticeship, recognizing the streamlined, highly skilled workforce, is a benefit to the state’s infrastructure and economy.

The story cites a renewed awareness of the importance of unions in establishing balance in our economy, and a deepening desire among middle class workers for advocates to protect their interests against a growing income inequality that only benefits the super-wealthy at working people’s expense. Unions are increasingly recognized as the best advocate for those workers’ interests, the story observes.

We the combined Building Trades of California represent in excess of 350,000 workers, who work for private contractors, meeting the needs of commercial, industrial and public infrastructure. The work of our members and the infrastructure that we build is one of the greatest multipliers for economic growth in any economy. We put blue collar workers into the middle class, in numbers unmatched by any other industry in this state.

I have commented often on the tremendous positive difference the Building Trades’ apprenticeship programs have made in the lives of tens of thousands of young people, who have learned the skills and abilities to make them valuable contributors to the economy of California and a better quality of life. That value continues to grow.

One major reason for the rekindled appreciation of unions is the great value of apprenticeships which have been established in a partnership between contractor employers and construction unions to meet the construction industry’s needs. Here in California, we have continued the important work on behalf of apprenticeships throughout 2015, and we are getting better and better at it. We are using political advocacy for changes in the law to make our apprenticeships more and more effective, and public outreach to benefit as many young new workers as possible.

That’s a good thing, because the need has never been greater. California is experiencing a healthy economic expansion, and there is rising demand throughout the state for the type of skilled and trained Building Trades workers that we produce. Even as that demand continues to expand, this need is multiplied by the fact that the existing work force continues to age and retire in ever growing numbers and needs to be replenished.

According to the Department of Industrial Relations, there are now 45,000 apprentices in state-approved construction programs in California, and 97 percent of those–roughly 43,500—are in joint labor-management Building Trades union programs. They are working on job sites, earning paychecks as they learn skills over a four to five year apprenticeship at no cost to the apprentice, training which would cost $200,000 or more on the open market. When these new workers finish their apprenticeships, they will be the skilled and trained work force that meets the needs of California’s residents and drives its economy. They will build our infrastructure and other valuable projects for decades to come.

We want to do more. This year we have written, advocated for, and passed legislation to make our Building Trades apprenticeships even more valuable and necessary. One of our bills in the Legislature in 2015 streamlined the conditions for justifying new apprenticeships, in order to protect the viability and effectiveness of existing programs that supply and graduate apprentices. We have also crafted measures to expand the requirements for using a skilled and trained workforce, from state-approved apprenticeship programs, for different types of school construction.

The California Building Trades has been a leader in self-funding, developing and providing apprenticeships since its inception 114 years ago. It is our system for passing skills from one generation to the next. Most apprentices work 40-hour weeks, earning a paycheck, interwoven with thousands of hours of classroom instruction for three to five years. Upon completion, the journeyman can earn excellent wages and benefits, including a health plan and a pension, allowing a blue-collar worker to buy a home, support a family, and eventually, after a lifetime of labor, retire with dignity.

Union Building Trades apprenticeships are a proven pathway to success. Today’s foremen, superintendents and even company owners started as apprentices, where they learned the work ethic and the high-tech skills required for modern construction.

Apprenticeships are a great bargain for California, providing our young people with valuable job skills, self-funded by the individual trades. Those workers, in turn, become the streamlined highly skilled work force that delivers the highest quality of construction work, building lasting projects that benefit all of us for decades and beyond.

Building Trades apprenticeship programs provide the best model to keep the construction industry efficient and effective, providing high-quality jobs to the benefit of the industry, the workers, and all the people of California.

We have made that abundantly clear to our elected officials this year, and as that Bureau of National Affairs story accurately indicates, they and the people they represent are gaining a deep understanding of the immense value our unions and apprenticeship programs provide.