No-strike contract breaks ground in L.A. construction industry

Call it a strike, lockout, slowdown, walk-off, sick-out, sit-down, stand-in, picket, boycott, or sympathy strike - neither side of the picket line really wants the work to stop.

In the construction industry, where union jobs have been badly eroded by nonunion competition, some labor contracts are being written with this notion in mind.

The latest such case is for California Plaza, a massive development project in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. The developers and 36 unions involved agreed that only union workers would be employed on the project and, in turn, there would be no work stoppages.

This kind of accord has been struck before on industrial contruction projects - which often are very complex and demand continuity of work - as well as on government-related construction, like airports.

But for a privately financed commercial development, at least in southern California, this kind of cooperation is new. It is what many hope will be a precedent-setting agreement.

Already a similar contract is being considered at another major Los Angeles development, Citicorp Plaza.

The largest redevelopment undertaking on the West coast, the $1.2 billion California Plaza is expected to mean some 14,000 jobs over the next decade.

''The essence of the agreement,'' says Jim Wood, associate director of Committee on Political Education at the AFL-CIO's regional headquarters in Los Angeles, ''is that work stoppages will not be a factor in the relationship'' between the contractor and workers.

''It moves all the disputes off the worksite and onto a neutral location,'' he says.

''Nobody gave anything up,'' stresses William Hatch, western regional manager for Metropolitan Structures, the managing general partner of the California Plaza developers. ''It represents a recognition on the part of the union and the developer that they have common interests.''

Unions, like the contractors who hire them, have to compete with their economic rivals. For the union worker, the rival is the nonunion worker, who has steadily gained a greater share of the work in the last decade.

''At one time,'' notes Audrey Freedman, an economist at the Conference Board in New York, ''Los Angeles was tight as a drum.'' That is, union labor dominated the construction industry.

During the 1970s, Robert Georgine, national president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, singled out the Los Angeles area as a target for union organizing efforts.

The union share of jobs slipped nonetheless.

On southern California commercial buildings, union members held 74 percent of the jobs in 1977 and 54 percent in 1981, according to a survey by the Construction Industry Research Board.

Bob Gasperow, executive director of the Construction Labor Research Council in Washington, D.C., has seen a national tendency in the last couple of years toward union concessions in construction contracts.

In adopting more cooperative stances toward employers ''unions are doing what they have to do, not what they want to do,'' he says.

''We're under the same pressure here as nationwide to cut construction costs, '' says the AFL-CIO's Mr. Wood.

But he says he sees the trade unions responding aggressively to hold their own.

For example, a nonunion industrial contractor from Texas, Brown & Root, has made its first foray into southern California at a Texaco project.

''We're pushing Texaco not to use them,'' he says, recalling an earlier success at pressuring the Inter-Mountain Power Project in Utah (for which Los Angeles is a customer) from using Brown and Root.

The California Plaza contract, says Wood, is not just an attempt to gaurantee union jobs, since ''one way or another'' the project would have been union anyway. Rather, he says, ''It's an attempt on both our part and BHA (Bunker Hill Associates, the developer) to have a productive, on-schedule project.

''We believe when it's done, people will say that this is the way to build projects,'' he says.

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