I have a confession to make: Out of necessity, I’ve floated between union and nonunion companies. My excuse is, “I have a bad habit of wanting to feed my family.” Union diehards find this frustrating, but the reality is sometimes you do what you have to do. But because I’ve rotated between the two so frequently, I’ve developed a solid appreciation for both worlds.
When it comes to the subject of union versus nonunion, the topic of wages rises to the top. There’s no doubt union wages are considerably higher. Some studies show union construction workers earn 20%-30% more, or $380 more per week, than nonunion tradesmen do. And the topic of benefits follows like dust behind a dozer blade. Yes, you’ll find reputable nonunion contractors providing insurance, although even fewer have a retirement package for their folks out in the field. But with union work, such generous benefits are a given. And then, with a union-led workforce you have the advantage of structured training. Most construction unions have three- to four-year apprenticeship programs to enhance workers’ skills.
On the other hand, there are pointless caste divisions on a union jobsite. Finishers aren’t allowed to (then refuse to) jump in and help grade concrete when it piles up on the screed board. Laborers aren’t allowed to handle finishing tools. Carpenters are supposedly the only ones who are allowed to frame up formwork. Only the operators are allowed to run equipment. And which one of us hasn’t been sick to our stomach watching a useless “hall rat” sit on his tool-bucket all day?
In a nonunion outfit, everyone has to jump in and you experience a sense of teamwork when superficial hierarchies don’t exist. I’m thankful my dad taught me, no matter what, I’m never too good to push a wheelbarrow or a broom.
Are unions still useful?
Though our work can’t be shipped overseas (unlike the textile, high tech, or manufacturing industries) collective bargaining still influences the vitality of concrete work. But the question in many minds remains: Have unions outlived their usefulness? Less than 12% of all Americans belong to some type of union, and some unions are cutting their pensions just to stay afloat. Unions generally have raised costs so high, they have left a bad taste in the mouth of the populace. And as Dick Wehrli learned with his Naperville Ready Mix company, once you sign an agreement with the union, it’s nearly impossible to dissolve it.
I deeply respect both sides of the divide. By working for union contractors I’ve learned more about concrete, had better equipment and tools, received better wages and benefits, and I’m more proficient because of quality mentors who took their time to teach me everything they could. Yet my union background also makes me more marketable when only nonunion work is available, and it allows me to thrive in nonunion companies who appreciate my skills and who strive for quality work as well.
There is no such thing as job security with any contractor if it runs low on work or is between projects. It pays to stay flexible and have dual-citizenship in both worlds. We might all fare better if we put our union-nonunion divisions aside for the good of the whole, make more room for both, and embrace mutual cooperation.