Building Trade Unions in Turmoil


By Sherie Winston



Since the carpenters' union's unprecedented defection from the AFL-CIO in March, the picture has been getting fuzzier for the Federation's Building and Construction Trades Dept.


TWISTS AND TURNS High-way unit is expected to quit BCTD to boost role on big jobs.


The department's financial health is ailing, some believe its leadership is flailing, and its Heavy and Highway Division is expected to withdraw and become an independent entity within the next few months. Some observers say it is time for BCTD to rethink its mission.


Hampered for years by increasing financial stress, BCTD suffered a sharp blow when it lost the per capita dues of the carpenters' 525,000 members when they left. Other unions reportedly are only paying a portion of their per capita share, which they claim reflects what they are receiving in return from the department. The 14 building trade union presidents also dug in their heels recently, declining to approve a requested increase in the per capita dues rate.


Bob Ozinga, a top aide to BCTD President Edward C. Sullivan, says the issue "is an internal matter to be discussed by the leaders of the building trades." Ozinga refuses to comment on the department's financial situation, but he asserts that BCTD "will remain viable under its leadership."


But Ozinga promises that "some administrative changes" will be announced within the next two months. He declines to discuss specifics, but sources say the department's staff may be scaled back to cut expenses. Other organizational changes also are likely.


"It certainly means they are going to have to seriously address their financial situation," says one union source. A discussion of what the department's role and function is may also be necessary, he adds.


It also is expected that BCTD's Heavy and Highway Division will pull out. The division is instrumental in negotiating labor terms for key projects, including a $250-million toll road under construction outside of Denver. With an increase in highway and airport construction scheduled over the next few years, thanks to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, a viable organization becomes even more important.


Eight unions comprise the division, lead by the carpenters, operating engineers and the laborers. When the carpenters left the afl-cio, they had to withdraw from all BCTD activities, including the heavy and highway unit. Weeks later, the operating engineers left the division, claiming the loss of the carpenters' union "will restrict or stymie any efforts to maximize the potential of the heavy-highway operation" (enr 5/14 p. 12). With the loss of two key unions, it was only a matter of time until something drastic would happen, industry sources say.


Some argue that the heavy and highway division should never have been a part of BCTD. Over the division's 40-plus-year history, it has been in and out of the building trades. It operated as an independent entity until mid-1996 when it rejoined BCTD. But over the past few years, there has been "nothing but turmoil," says one source familiar with the division. It won't survive if it doesn't pull out of the building trades and change the way it operates procedurally, this source asserts.


Although carpenters' union President Douglas J. McCarron scores a victory if the Heavy and Highway Division leaves BCTD, sources say that action would be coincidental and "not [taken] to provide McCarron with a home." Once the division no longer is affiliated with BCTD, the carpenters could again participate. It is anticipated that the operating engineers also would rejoin.


The relationship with contractors is key for these unions to successfully operate the division, says one source. Contractors prefer the division to be independent and more flexible, says one union official.


Through a spokesman, Sullivan says that the Heavy and Highway Division "has a special and unique mission and function." BCTD needs to respect the special circumstances of the division and how that construction market differs from the commercial construction sector, the spokesman adds.

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