Union Boss Calls for Reform: Says Union Labor is Costly and Unproductive

3 June 12, 2010  State & Local Construction

Comments from a St. Louis area union boss in an article in the Illinois Business Journal supports the premise that anti-competitive project labor agreements (PLAs) saddle construction owners and contractors with poor productivity and archaic union work rules that needlessly inflate the cost of construction (“Lack of productivity puts St. Louis in backseat for economic development“).  Note: Here is an easy to read PDF of the article.

TheTruthAboutPLAs.com readers may remember that we explained the merit shop cost advantage here with conclusions from studies conducted by independent and union organizations.


Now a leader of organized leader is echoing similar concerns about union productivity and is calling for reform:

St. Louis’ economic development efforts are being hamstrung by its abnormally high cost of construction, according to Terry Nelson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Carpenters District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity.

This has made the St. Louis region “fly-over” country for site selectors, he says.

Nelson says it costs 28 percent more to construct a building in St. Louis than it does to erect the exact same building in Chicago. The reason? Lack of productivity of the St. Louis building trades workforce.

Nelson’s concern that union workers aren’t producing for contractors is a common gripe the merit shop community has heard from customers and contractors for decades – and it is one of the reasons why merit shop market share has steadily increased and more than 85 percent of the U.S. private construction workforce chooses not to belong to a union.

“The guy in Chicago, believe it or not, he worked 7 ½ hours today while the guy in St. Louis only worked 4 ½,” Nelson said. “Where did that other 3 ½ hours go? When my carpenters walk on the job, their cost to the contractor is $1.03 a minute. That’s their wages, their benefits, the workmen’s compensation and yada, yada, yada and all the stuff that goes with that. You just think for a minute, if you’ve got 10 guys on the job, that’s $10 a minute. They all leave 10 minutes early, there went $100 out the door.”

Nelson explains how inefficient union work rules are a reason for higher costs and lower union productivity:

Nelson says one of the problems is that some unions refuse to do anything that is not specifically their work so that some workers end up sitting around and watching while others need help. This type of inflexibility costs time and money, he adds.

Nelson is proposing that the workers start the day at the work station prepared to go to work immediately – not simply at the job site, which has been past practice. Under his proposal, the workers would stay at the work station until 10 minutes to lunch time; take 10 minutes to wash; 30 minutes for lunch; and go back to work until 20 minutes before quitting time, taking 20 minutes to pick up their tools and clean up.

“That’s the way they do it in open shop,”Nelson said, “and that’s our competition.”

“Keep it in mind that union workers have only 11 percent of the construction work in this country today and the open shop workers have 89 percent of the work. Now who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong? My God, we have slipped, slipped, slipped, slipped, slipped. The thing that kills unions is our arrogance and our attitude. Like we are God’s gift to everybody. Like without us the world comes to and end. Whoever believes that BS is nuts. But we buy into that stuff. I haven’t bought into it. I’m on the other side of the street. But again, I’m not the most loved guy in a labor meeting; that’s just the way it is. I keep going back to Business 101,” Nelson added, “to what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense.”

We agree that these simple reforms make sense. But that would challenge the status quo Big Labor has attempted to protect for decades. Instead of reforming their product and meeting the demands of customers and the market, some labor unions focus resources on attacking competitors’ market share through the political process (via government-mandated PLAs and other anti-competitive schemes) and aggressive organizing and elaborate corporate campaigns (against nonunion contractors and construction owners).

TheTruthAboutPLAs readers may remember Mr. Nelson from this Domestic Dispute in Big Labor’s House when the boss of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) didn’t appreciate Nelson challenging Big Labor’s status quo.

You have to take your hat off to a man who isn’t afraid to take an honest look at Big Labor’s problems and come up with an effective plan to make its product more efficient and competitive.

Mr. Nelson, kudos for taking a stand and having the courage to address a problem that has been plaguing Big Labor for years. If  these simple steps were executed, owners and merit shop contractors might be more inclined to utilize union labor.

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3 Responses to Union Boss Calls for Reform: Says Union Labor is Costly and Unproductive

Duane W. Moore June 12, 2010 at 4:16 pm

It does not suprise me that the ABC and Terry Nelson are in bed together when it comes to PLA’s. The ABC believes that cutting working peoples wages and benefits is the best way to save cost. They do not tell the public that they are padding ther pockets at the expense of the tax payer.

Terry Nelson is doing the same thing. Instead of organizing carpenters, he would rather take advantage of Section 8(f) of the NLRB, and undercut established unions to sign unscrupulous contarctors to benefit his coffers and not the working people he is suppose to represent. Belonging to a union that Terry Nelson or Doug McCarron heads, is like being a chicken in a coop that the fox is guarding.

BenBrubeck June 15, 2010 at 11:36 am

Check this article out:

Electrical workers to rally against splinter union
By Steve Giegerich
Tuesday, Jun. 15 2010
An alliance of St. Louis-area trade organizations has scheduled a late
afternoon rally in Forest Park today to launch what organizers are calling a
“national public campaign” aimed at stopping a splinter electrical workers
union in its tracks.

The rally serves as formal notice that a “summit” in early May failed to clear
the air in a feud that has split two of the area’s major trade groups.

“It’s fair to say (the meeting) didn’t go anywhere that was useful,” said
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers spokesman Jim Spellane, the
national headquarters representative sent from Washington to St. Louis to help
organize today’s rally.

Mediated by the national presidents of their respective unions, the May 3
meeting brought Terry Nelson, executive director of the Carpenters’ District
Council of Greater St. Louis together with Stephen Schoemehl, business manager
of Local 1 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

At issue was the carpenters’ decision, in 2008, to challenge the local
dominance of Local 1 by forming the renegade Associated Electrical Contractors
Local 57.

Nelson accuses the nation’s oldest electrical union of driving away potential
building projects by escalating the price of construction across the region.

As an example, he alleged that Local 1 insists that only its members are
qualified to perform mundane tasks, such as plugging electrical cords into

In late May, Local 1 members approved a pact that will reduce salary and
benefits by nearly 8.5 percent in 2011.

The tension sparked by the formation of Local 57 played out under the radar
screen during the first year of the new union’s existence.

The spat spilled into public view this spring with acts of vandalism to
property owned by contractors affiliated with Associated Electrical Contractors
and leaks of threatening messages directed at Nelson from Local 1 officials.

In the messages, Schoemehl and others noted that the U.S. Department of Labor
had ordered Local 57 to take “corrective action” to resolve problems in its
apprentice training program.

The disclosure of the rift prompted the St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor
Tribune to break with a long-standing tradition of not involving itself in
“disagreements between unions.”

In a front-page editorial on April 29, the newspaper urged “cooler heads to
prevail” in an effort to bring harmony to a situation that “threatens the very
existence of our highly skilled unionized construction workforce.”

The 5 p.m. rally today at the World’s Fair Pavilion is seen as evidence that
the schism has, instead, widened.

“I think they are using Terry Nelson as a whipping boy,” Nelson said Monday.
“When I trip and fall, I’m not going to blame anyone but me. If it makes them
feel better and if this helps them to become more successful, then more power
to them.”

Spellane said the rally will address a larger issue than what has been
characterized as a personality conflict between Schoemehl and Nelson.

“This goes way beyond that,” he explained. “It’s one thing to compete with
nonunion competition. That’s one of the realities of our situation. But when
another trade gets involved, as Local 57 has, it’s beyond the pale.”

Spellane said St. Louis will be the staging ground for the national campaign
opposing the Associated Electrical Contractors.

Local radio spots and billboards will begin drawing attention to the IBEW’s
grievances today. A day later, the campaign will expand to handbilling at
construction sites across the country.

Rally speakers will emphasize what Spellane characterized as the positive
relationship shared by electrical workers and union carpenters in other

The exception, he said, is St. Louis — the home of what Spellane believes is
the only break-off electrical workers union in the nation.

BenBrubeck June 21, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Check out comments from the publisher of the Labor Tribune on this dispute:


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