Charles Krugel, a management-side labor attorney in Chicago, has been spending a lot more time lately resolving conflicts between his contractor clients and the labor unions that represent their workers.
“In the past, union work was 10% or 15% of my practice,” Krugel told Construction Dive. “Right now, it’s 50% and growing.”
Welcome to a construction labor lawyer’s life during what’s become known as “Striketober.”
This fall, workers in a wide range of industries have walked off the job, from Kaiser Permanente hospitals in California to John Deere factories in Illinois, Iowa and Kansas, to cereal workers at Kellogg’s plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Even Hollywood seemed headed for the exits, until a last-minute plot twist averted a strike of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Construction got in on the action, too, when more than 2,000 union carpenters in the Seattle region picketed their projects beginning last month, pressing for better wages, benefits and parking allowances to combat the soaring cost of living and working in the area. The strike was resolved in October after nearly three weeks, when workers agreed to a deal — the fifth one offered by the Associated General Contractors of Washington State — by a margin of 54% to 46%.
The impact of that strike wasn’t as bad as it could have been for contractors trying to keep projects on schedule, as project labor agreements that contained no-strike clauses kept 10,000 union carpenters on the job in the region during the dispute.
More construction strikes ahead?
But the broader trend of American workers demanding higher wages and better working conditions almost two years into the chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic raises the question: Could more strikes be ahead for construction, too?
For Krugel, the answer is yes.
“You’ve got a lot of uncertainty with all the different factors facing construction today, from labor shortages to materials,” Krugel said. “It gives labor unions a leg up on contractors, so you’re bound to see more labor action, either in the form of picketing or striking of construction sites.”
With the confluence of construction’s already pervasive labor shortage running smack into supply chain snarls that have driven up costs while stymieing material availability and project schedules, contractors are already backed into a corner.
Add to that high vaccine hesitancy among construction workers as government and owner vaccine mandates go into effect nationally, and experts say organizations such as labor unions that can deliver a qualified, sustainable workforce to jobsites in this environment very much have the upper hand.
“What we’re facing now gives unions leverage at the bargaining table, whether they strike or not,” said Mark Erlich, a fellow in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and former executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. “It at least will help them get better agreements.”
Krugel, citing the stark contrast between former President Donald Trump’s pro-business agenda and President Joe Biden’s open affinity for unions, puts it another way:
“If labor is going to increase its numbers and prove it’s still relevant in the 21st century, it’s going to be now or never,” he said.
No new strikes — yet
None of this is to say the wide-ranging strikes in other industries are inevitable in construction. For one, construction workers and the sector in general have not been impacted as drastically as other businesses.
“For a lot of sectors, the pandemic really disrupted the normal course of work and created a context in which labor activity is more likely,” Erlich said.
But while some cities, such as Boston and New York City, initially shut down jobsites, many projects were back on the job within months, if not weeks of the start of the outbreak. That means that workers who wanted to work could, with union workers continuing to enjoy the benefits of multi-year contract agreements that were previously negotiated and already in effect.
For those reasons, Erlich doesn’t anticipate more strikes in construction in the current environment.
“I don’t actually think you’re going to see a big uptick in strike activity in the construction sector, because surprisingly, COVID was not as disruptive in construction,” Erlich said. “By last fall, the industry was pretty much back, almost without a hitch.”
Will they, or won’t they?
So far, unions are staying mum on the possibility of more strikes happening in construction. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which has more than 500,000 members in the construction and wood-products industries nationwide, declined to comment for this article. The AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 labor unions that represents 12.5 million workers, didn’t respond to requests for its perspective on the topic.
But AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler told the Washington Post that recent strikes could lead to more labor action.
“The strikes are sending a signal, no doubt about it, that employers ignore workers at their peril,” Shuler said, according to the Post. “I think this wave of strikes is actually going to inspire more workers to stand up and speak out and put that line in the sand and say, ‘We deserve better.'”
Contractor groups, meanwhile, are hoping union organizers will take a longer view of the impacts that strikes or other labor actions could have on their members’ overall economic prospects down the road.
“We are certainly hopeful that the building trades will continue to treat signatory contractors as their partners and think about their mutual best interests in the long run,” said Denise Gold, associate general counsel at the Associated General Contractors of America.
Ben Brubeck, vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors, said widespread strikes in construction have been decreasing in recent decades. He cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that found just seven major work stoppages — defined as 1,000 workers or more — in the construction industry in the last 10 years. Given that history, he said any new strikes in the sector would likely be limited.
“I don’t know whether all these strikes in other industries are going to create an issue for the construction industry, but if they do, I would imagine it’s only going to happen in a small segment,” Brubeck said.
Construction unions holding on
Gold pointed out that union labor generally makes up around 30% of the commercial construction workforce, a ratio that’s been in decline for years. If more strikes happen, she posited, that could farther harm unions’ opportunities going forward.
“Let’s keep in mind the majority of construction in the commercial construction industry is done non-union,” Gold said. “I think it would further harm the union sector, and give them increased challenges in competing with their open shop competitors. Even in markets that have traditionally been strong union, their market share has been going down.”
The 30% union share in commercial construction is higher than unions’ share of all construction workers — residential, nonresidential and mining and extraction workers — which the BLS pegs at just 12.7% in 2020. But that number was actually up from 12.6% in 2019, a marginal gain that at the very least indicates unions have been able to hold their ground during the pandemic.
And according to the AGC’s 2021 Workforce Survey, union companies haven’t experienced the same challenges non-union shops have had in finding new workers. Among firms with craft job openings, for example, 93% of open shop contractors said they were having a hard time filling positions, while just 62% of union shops cited the same difficulties.
At ABC, Brubeck also pointed to unions’ overall declining market share over the past several decades in the construction industry as a reason for unions not to strike. However, he also acknowledged how current conditions could play to their advantage.
“There are lots of headwinds in construction that we’re concerned about,” Brubeck said. “Do unions leverage this into strikes? I guess it depends on the issue they’re worried about.”