The question is not about your affiliation, but what you do with it.

During the lunch break at a state PHCC convention, I sat with five contractors. Only three of them knew me, but the other two had been reading my articles. Of the five, two of them were signatory union contractors, one was double-breasted and the other two were open shop. They were discussing my philosophies and me before I joined them at their table.

"We need you to settle our argument," was the first comment I heard as I approached. "Are you pro union or pro shop? You seem to be straddling the fence. One statement will be very positive and your next will be totally negative, regardless of which one you are writing about. Whose side are you on?"

"Why don't you ask Tony which side he is on," I answered, pointing a finger across the table. "His company is double breasted like ours."

"We don't take sides," Tony laughed as he remarked. "There is good and bad in both and we believe what Paul preached, 'give them the options.' We have customers who prefer union and customers who don't, likewise with our employees. Why should we try to make them do something they don't want to do?"

Although Tony answered their question, I had to add, "There are still a couple of more pros that I always strive for that really sum up my attitude and philosophy."

Meet The Pros

Top of this list is my personal dedication, or obsession, in using the word "pro" to designate "professional." You must earn and maintain that true professional image as a contractor, supervisor and especially a craftsman. You have probably seen some first class, quality performances and either said or at least thought, "There is a real pro." You have also witnessed some tacky work situations that warranted something like, "Jerk."

Calling yourself a pro in this great construction industry has absolutely no value or meaning. It's when you do all the right things that make others call you a "pro" that you truly are one!

  • Paul Ridilla is also very pro profit! Being the ninth out of 13 children, whose father struggled as a contractor to feed the family during the Depression and World War II, I'm very aware that profit is not a dirty word. My dad's profit was our only income. We could not afford inefficiency or waste.

  • I am definitely for high wages. First-class wages will attract and keep first-class employees, allowing you to demand first-class performance.

  • You can add pro flextime to that list. There are many work schedules that will satisfy your employees, "make a good life, not just a living" and still fulfill your work needs. Three- or four-day weekends and varied work hour shifts will attract and keep good employees motivated.

  • Last on this list, but equally important, is pro after-hours training and precertification of jobsite skills. Our antiquated and dinosaur approach of on-the-job training tells your customer that your employees do not possess the knowledge or the skills to perform their work. We do not practice on our customers' premises!

Getting back to settling that lunch table argument, you can see why I straddle the fence with union and open shop contractors.

Let me state that I am for any well-run construction firm that maintains a professional image, makes a profit, pays their employees well, offers flexible work schedules and pre-trains all of their jobsite employees.

America probably has an equal amount of professionals working union as well as open shop, but their affiliation doesn't really affect my opinion.

Pros & Cons

We can look at some of the pros and cons with both scenarios, but you need to remember that any system is only as good as the people involved.

The biggest advantage of being open shop is the absence of craft jurisdiction, which permits a craftsman to perform any work that exists on any jobsite.

This is especially critical on smaller projects, maintenance, remodeling and repair work. It also eliminates the inconvenience of laying off and replacing employees as the work phases change.

Union contractors, on the other hand, can call their local and get the craftsmen they need for any duration. This is also beneficial for the union craftsmen who return to the hall when they are laid off rather than going out on the street to find another job.

Even though there is much confusion about fair wages, we have as many union contractors as there are open shops that reward good performance. The open shop contractors have the option of paying each employee a merit, or earned, wage based on his individual productivity. When this is monitored, measured and documented by their jobsite foreman, those employees accept the fact that they are personally controlling their own wages.

With a collective bargaining agreement, it is an unfair labor practice to bargain wages individually with any union card-carrying member. The decent, successful union contractors subsequently reward their productive employees with more overtime and fewer layoffs. They can also use their foreman's rate to reward a dedicated company man.

There are many skilled craftsmen who prefer the security of belonging to a union and feel their dues are justified for the negotiated work rules, wages and benefits. The mere fact that only 15 percent to 20 percent of our industry is union would indicate that a much larger majority do not agree.

The Training Imperative

In the '40s, '50s and '60s, most of the union craftsmen served a four-year apprenticeship and spent a reasonable amount of time craft training. The majority of our open shop contractors did very little, if any, training.

Since the '70s, the better-organized open shop contractors have been using formal apprenticeship as well as after-hour, in-company training. Most of this was established through membership in their trade associations. Now, critical craft training is accessible to both sides, but only decent contractors are using it.

Today's skilled craft shortage is unfortunately flooding our larger projects with totally unskilled, temporary manpower. This is a brutal injustice to a jobsite foreman, your customer and especially a worker. You can see why I am for training regardless of any affiliation.

Although some of our customers constantly prefer, and will even demand, that their projects be built union or open shop, we have amajority who leave that decision up to the contractor. We also have many repetitive builders who will change due to poor quality workmanship, cost overruns and failure to meet critical schedules and deadlines.

"I think most of you can understand why Paul has an open mind about this union versus open shop situation," Tony said as we finished ourlunch. "Good management is critical, not the affiliation! I've seen competitors change because they couldn't run a good union shop, but found out later that they couldn't run an open shop any better."

I told my lunch group exactly what I tell all of my clients. They should consider all of their options with a written list labeled "what will it cost if Ido it" and "what will it cost if I don't." You are in a very competitive, profit-orientated business that will not survive without profit.

Several union locals have diligently embarked on various Market Recovery programs. They have effectively joined forces with their remaining signatory contractors rather than treat them as the enemy. Some locals are also recruiting skilled craftsmen from open shop contractors in their districts.

Some of this recruiting involves "salting" by placing union members on that open shop contractor's payroll, but the majority simply involve offering more attractive wages and benefit packages. In addition to gaining more union craftsmen, you can see how that cripples those open shop companies.

The entire pro union or pro open shop situation is so complex that you dare not give a simple yes or no answer. Check out and consider all of the details and possibilities before making your decision. Call me if you have trouble deciding. But once you make that commitment, do it right! That is what makes it the right decision.