Union programs are the last bastion of craftsmanship.

Edward Sullivan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Dept. of the AFL-CIO, used maximum bluster a couple of months ago in calling on the U.S. Labor Dept. to investigate and remedy flaws in the apprenticeship programs of the nonunion Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

Based on a six-month study by the BCTD, Sullivan charged that ABC programs overall produce twice as many dropouts as graduations, and some local programs produce stupefying ratios of cancellations to graduations.

“Apprenticeship programs allow sponsors to employ apprentices at lower rates of pay than fullytrained workers, but only in exchange for providing substantive training,” said Sullivan. “Any misuse of the apprenticeship system undermines the industry's future, and potentially defrauds construction workers.”

ABC's response, by the organization's president and CEO M. Kirk Pickerel, went as follows:

“The labor unions have once again issued a politically motivated and misleading attack on ABC's apprenticeship programs, due, we believe, to their anger about the U.S. Department of Labor's efforts to effectively address the bias that many state apprenticeship councils, such as the California apprenticeship council, have had favoring union-only apprenticeship training.”

He is correct, of course, in attributing political motives to Sullivan. ABC and the BCTD are ideological combatants on opposite sides of virtually every labor-related political issue. Both Washington-based organizations employ armies of lawyers, lobbyists and PR agents to push their pet causes. A lazy writer would say they fight like cats and dogs, except we've all seen plenty of households where cats and dogs get along fine. A better simile would be the trench warfare of World War I.

I'll be fair by reporting both points of view, but it's hard for me to be neutral in this war of words because of a glaring omission on ABC's part. They fail to provide any indication that the BCTD data is inaccurate.

Whatever Sullivan's motives, the research detailed on the BCTD Web site is filled with specifics pertaining to ABC apprenticeship enrollments and cancellations. Although Pickerel characterized the charges as “misleading,” neither he nor anyone else at ABC has bothered to challenge the numbers. Except for a four-paragraph press release from which I extracted Pickerel's quote above, they have kept publicly silent about the BCTD study.

ABC blames political bias in the Labor Dept. for hampering accreditation of nonunion apprenticeship programs. They've been leveling this charge for decades. Yet, it's hard to fathom how bias could be sustained for so long under both Republican and Democratic, labor-friendly and not-so-friendly administrations, without some empirical basis.

Virtually everyone in the construction industry not totally blinded by antipathy towards organized labor concedes that union apprenticeship training is the best around. Except for a few pockets of excellence here and there, nonunion training programs fall way short of the standards set by the UA and other BCTD unions.

Reason No. 1

Two basic reasons exist for the disparity. One is that collective bargaining agreements have proven an effective mechanism for funding and administering trade apprenticeship programs.

Although both sides like to take credit, neither labor nor management really pays for apprenticeship training. It gets funded through cents-per-manhour contributions specified in collective bargaining agreements. These expenses are built into the cost of construction so that, ultimately, construction owners are the ones that pay for sustaining the construction trades.

Training funds ratchet up and down in phase with the construction economy, but the system assures a steady influx of capital earmarked for the facilities, equipment and instructors needed to produce top-notch craft training. Labor and management jointly govern these programs, and signatory contractors have equal opportunity to employ trained workers.

Big labor no less than big business has had its share of scandals. But unlike pension money and other income streams, rarely has there been hanky-panky associated with craft union training funds. This owes in large measure to joint administration by labor and management representatives. In labor negotiations, management and labor may scratch and claw over wages, benefits and work rules, but they typically come to quick agreement on how much to allocate to training.

Nonunion apprenticeship suffers from lack of a comparable system. Their programs depend on voluntary contributions by contractors, who are apt to pull back when money gets tight. Instead of a hiring hall system, individual companies tend to go their own way in training apprentices and hiring trade workers. So companies have little incentive to contribute funds and expertise to a group training effort that may benefit competitors.

Reason No. 2

The second reason for union superiority in apprenticeship training is they are committed to craftsmanship in virtually a spiritual way. No matter how one feels about the politics of organized labor, it's hard to be cynical about the excellence one sees when visiting union training facilities and speaking with instructors.

Twice I've had the privilege to visit the UA's annual “Train the Trainers” week in Ann Arbor, Mich., where apprenticeship instructors become certified only after paying their own way and giving up their own time over a five-year period.

Mingle with them and you don't hear any talk of wages and labor politics. Their tongues wag about state-of-art technology, and the best ways of teaching the tricks of their trade to a new generation of pipe trades workers.

Nonunion opponents often sneer that union workers are “over-trained” for the day-to-day jobs they are assigned to do. And there is some truth to that. Much of construction consists of routine tasks that do not require four or five years of apprenticeship to learn.

It's a fair complaint, yet the same could be said of any professional field. For instance, it doesn't take a lot of training to diagnose and treat many common ailments. Mothers without any medical education have been doing it throughout human history. But physicians must be trained to deal with more than the mundane. We expect doctors to have a thorough knowledge of medical science, because you can't predict when the need will arise to draw from that expertise. This is the union training philosophy in a nutshell.

The opposite tack is one that devalues labor. It looks at the pipe trades and other construction work as a series of discrete tasks, only a few of which require advanced training. To this mind-set, you only need a few fully trained experts to perform the truly difficult tasks and supervise lower paid workers who handle the grunt work.

This is the ABC philosophy in a nutshell. There is considerable economic logic to it, but it's part of the reason why they have trouble hanging on to apprentices. Apprentices too often get turned into production workers before they've had a chance to acquire a broad array of trade skills that would expand their career and income opportunity.

My support for the union side in this debate is pragmatic rather than ideological. Organized labor exhibits much behavior that turns off the American public, which is why unions now represent less than 10 percent of the U.S. labor force. Most labor unions exist solely for the purpose of power politics. But the construction trade unions justify their existence beyond collective bargaining.

Unlike most other unions, the UA and other construction trade unions give something back to the industry and the companies that employ them. They are keeping the skilled trades afloat while most of the world drowns in a sea of cheap labor. Whatever their foibles, they are construction's last bastion of craftsmanship.