Issues number one, two and three among construction owners are “cost,” said Kent Underwood to an attentive but less than convinced audience at the MCAA Labor Relations Conference, held last Oct. 28-29 in Boca Raton, FL. Underwood, a Monsanto Co. construction manager and chairman of The Business Roundtable (BRT) Construction Committee, said that large construction users are being “driven by global competitiveness” to cut costs. What’s more, “We expect quality and safety to be delivered as well.”

Another BRT speaker, John Brinly, AMOCO’s general manager of engineering and construction, picked up the same theme. “You need quality and safety just to play. Without that we won’t let you in the door. But what’s needed to win is total cost,” he said.

Brinly allowed that even though AMOCO had just come off a second quarter earnings record, “it’s not good enough. We were around the middle of the pack among owners. We must do better.”

That remark touched off accusations of corporate greed by business managers and other representatives from United Association locals around the country. Labor personnel comprised about a third of the 175 conference attendees, higher than ever before and a sign of improving relations between MCAA and the UA.

Several attendees accused the BRT of habitually favoring the nonunion sector. Seasoned observers see more Machiavellian motives. Nonunion companies can’t deliver the manpower and expertise needed to handle all of the $50 billion of BRT building projects in any given year. They are forced to deal with union companies, but never miss a chance to use the nonunion threat to whip them into submission.

Speaking from the audience, incoming UA general president Martin Maddaloni accused the BRT of only talking to the nonunion side. He announced that he intends to start attending BRT meetings, which union representatives traditionally have avoided.

Contrarians: Another conference speaker, Peter Cockshaw, publisher of the lively Cockshaw’s Construction Labor News & Opinion newsletter, said that the BRT and others had been “bamboozled” by the Associated Builders & Contractors into nonunion favoritism.

“The name of the game is propaganda. The more you repeat something without it being refuted, the more it comes to be perceived as the truth,” said Cockshaw.

“ABC makes false and outrageous claims they can’t prove about training, about market share. Yet they get quoted by ENR and the Wall Street Journal, while the union sector does a good job without getting recognized.

“Start selling your positives — and hard,” warned Cockshaw, “because tomorrow may be too late.”

Harvard business professor D. Quinn Mills also challenged Underwood’s statement, saying that “cost, cost, cost is not the issue. Value is the issue, and that is a combination of cost, timeliness and quality.”

Look Out For Foreign Competition: Mills, however, did nod agreement with the BRT’s claim of cost pressure arising from globalization, noting that some 60 percent of American manufacturing investment is now overseas. “Today’s construction boom is little by the standards of the 1960s,” he said. “The big boom is in East Asia, where 80 percent of new construction will be in the next year.

“Because of huge construction projects in other parts of the world, I predict that great construction firms will grow up with skilled labor and contracting expertise. Just as nonunion grew in the 1960s, so will foreign competition. They will form joint ventures and alliances. Watch this, because this is your competition of the future,” said Mills.

Mills praised labor and management for making dramatic strides in cooperation. “The construction industry used to lead the world in strikes and work stoppages, and the mechanical trades led the list. Now your industry is characterized by teamwork, cooperation, the lack of strikes,” he stated.

Harmony: The pending change of the guard at the UA made for a spirit of cooperation as thick as Florida’s humidity. Underscoring his commitment to work with rather than against MCAA, Maddaloni stayed for the entire conference, attending every session and frequently giving his views from the audience. (An interview with Maddaloni appears on page 61.)

MCAA affiliates and UA locals in South Florida, New Jersey and Kansas City gave presentations on labor/management cooperative programs taking place in their areas. They came armed with samples of literature distributed by the tens of thousands in support of their efforts.

Especially poignant was a panel discussion featuring the Plumbing & Mechanical Contractors Association (PMCA) of Milwaukee & Southeast Wisconsin, along with their bargaining partners from the plumbers and pipefitters locals. “There was absolute friction between our two locals,” said PMCA executive vice president Joan Braun.

“We were at war,” is the way it was put by Walter Kraemer, business manager for Pipefitters Local 601. “We didn’t trust the other local and the contractors. And we lost sight of the customers.”

Gary Hamilton, his counterpart at Plumbers Local 75, admitted: “I gained prominence as a business agent for my victories in jurisdictional disputes and over contractors. As leaders, we set the tone for our members — and that tone was adversarial.”

So bad did the situation become, the parties hired a conflict resolution consulting firm to iron out their differences. Now they appeared on the same podium baring their souls. “We still have disputes related to jurisdiction,” said Hamilton, “but now we know how to sit down and resolve them.”

Collectively Bargained Workers Comp: Collectively bargained workers compensation is a way out of the morass, say those who have tried it. So far only 11 states allow it (CA, CT, FL, HI, KY, ME, MA, MN, MO, NY, PA), but it is a win-win situation for all.

“The legal system has broken down. It is riddled with fraud and disincentives,” said Gale Nordling, vice president and general counsel for the Cherne Contracting Corp. (Minneapolis, MN). “There have been many situations where attorneys have sold employees down the river. For instance, they get them categorized as disabled, but after the first settlement, what does the employee do?”

“Labor’s tendency is to take the worker’s side, no matter what, while the insurance company’s incentive is to deny benefits, no matter what,” echoed John Lewis, an independent attorney/consultant from Florida known as the “guru” of collectively bargained workers comp. “The current system is adversarial. It’s not about medical protection. You don’t want anyone you care about to get medical care through the workers compensation system.”

A bargaining agreement sets up panels of labor and management representatives to rule on eligibility. The panel’s decision is final, with no appeal. Advantages include: 1. Sets up an employee/employer partnership. 2. Creates “joint ownership of safety, and ties benefits to safety.” 3. Eliminates doctor shopping. 4. Promotes back to work. 5. Reduces worker comp costs. 6. Gives organized labor a marketing advantage.

“It is not easy to effect these changes,” said Lewis. “If labor and management don’t get along, don’t bother.”

Unions Against Utility Deregulation: Also speaking at the conference was Robert Georgine, President of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department. His brief presentation focused on legislative priorities and a multi-craft organizing campaign taking place in Las Vegas that the BCTD intended to use as a model for market-wide organizing.

He revealed that a new issue being looked at by the construction trade unions is utility industry deregulation. Georgine has established a General Presidents Task Force based on the premise that “uncontrolled deregulation will harm the economy.”