Builders demand larger role for nonunion labor

Sidewalk superintendents have been in their glory this winter as major construction projects rise in several US cities despite the worsening recession.

But many contractors and certain influential politicians don't share the enthusiasm. What bothers them is that the work is being done almost exclusively by union-shop contractors, who are bound to pay high wages.

This is particularly galling to the 16,000-member Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a group dedicated to open- or ''merit shop'' operations. The ABC claims its member firms employ nearly 1 million workers nationally and that, since its founding in the 1950s, it has cornered about 60 percent of all US commercial and industrial construction.

Most of that work, however, has been outside the major cities. The group has been slow to gain a foothold in downtown sections.

The ABC argues that construction projects ought to be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder, regardless of labor affiliation. Not surprisingly, the building trades unions vehemently disagree. The Washington-based contractors' group announced plans in late January for an ''aggressive'' campaign to ''move into areas from which we have been essentially excluded.'' ABC president John Fielder, an electrical contractor from Costa Mesa, Calif., said he was ''convinced that construction users want us more than ever'' because of the rising cost of union labor.

According to one study, the differences between union and nonunion hourly wage rates for eight categories of work on construction projects in Massachusetts last October ranged from $1.60 for carpenters to $8.10 for plumbers. In every case, the nonunion wages were lower.

The ABC campaign is targeting seven cities: Boston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Miami, Dallas, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Officials of the group admit it is not yet ready to challenge union-shop contractors in such heavily unionized cities as New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Skeptics in some of the targeted cities, notably Los Angeles and Boston, say they doubt that merit-shop contractors are ready to compete there either. They say the ABC firms don't have a large enough pool of skilled workers to complete major downtown projects.

Nevertheless, the announcement sent tremors through the building trades unions. The ABC's New England unit held its annual ''merit shop trade fair'' in Boston earlier this month, bringing in US Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah as guest speaker. The occasion was greeted with an organized demonstration by thousands of jeering union construction workers. Many of them took time off from lunch breaks at nearby job sites.

While Senator Hatch, chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources and a former union construction tradesman, was inside telling the contractors' luncheon meeting ''I admire you; you people are bringing competition back into the construction field,'' the demonstrators standing outside were hearing speeches by local union leaders lambasting his votes in Congress on labor and social issues.

The meeting here was billed as one of the opening salvos in the ABC campaign because it was held in a downtown hotel and exposition center practically flanked on both sides by major construction projects. Previously the session was held in outlying suburbs.

A spokesman for the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department says, ''Of course, we never take any effort against organized labor lightly.'' But he characterized ABC's challenge as ''a desperate gasp of a dying organization.'' Almost always, the spokesman said, ''the so-called competition is an import of out-of-town, shoddy workmanship - and often strike-breakers.''

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