A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Construction Craftwork as a Career, part 2 of 4

History and Hope: The Past Fifty Years

Editor’s note:  In part one of this series last week, Pat Kiley’s article Construction Craftwork as a Career began as he listed the “brutal facts” of the current state of the commercial construction craft workforce and the industry’s inability to recruit and retain the number of skilled workers needed both now and in the future.  Part one ended with his asking two questions:

Two questions arise:  How did an industry full of very smart people get into this precarious position with its most vital resource?  And, even more importantly, how do we regain control and have the workforce we will need to build all the structures Houston will require in the coming years?  Let’s take the first question and travel back about 50 years.  Let me tell a brief personal story.

I arrived in Houston in 1962.  On my second day here I played golf at the historic Memorial Park Golf Course.  I was paired with a man and his nephew, a young man fresh out of the military.  This veteran was highly jubilant because he had just been accepted into the Carpenters Union Apprenticeship Program, and his father was not even a member – his uncle was.  I learned from his non-stop chatter that his good luck was rare.  Most often you needed to be “born into the union” – your dad had to have been a craftsman if you wanted to become an apprentice.

What stands out for me to this day was his enthusiastic conviction that getting into apprenticeship school was the gateway to a great life for him and his girlfriend.  He could now get married and over time buy a house and start a family.  He could realize the American Dream.  It was very obvious that he saw construction craftwork as a great career!  And it can be again.

At that time, the craft unions stayed more true to their roots: the European Guild Systems.  Their primary mission was “preservation of the craft skills”.  Their purpose was to supply contractors with skilled, productive people who could use “the tools of their trade” and help the contractor build the job at a profit.  In exchange, they wanted their workers to be paid a decent wage and have fair work rules.  It was a winning system for both the contractors and the craft workers.

Over the next couple of decades, as the Houston market expanded, the building trades unions grew both in size and clout.  They negotiated hourly contributions for both insurance and pension programs, with the contractors’ full support.  Most other industries were offering these benefits, and these enlightened contractors wanted construction craftwork to be a competitive career option.  Houston was on the march, and these builders wanted to ensure that they had the skilled workforce necessary to keep stride with the market momentum.

By the late 60s and into the early 70s, most commercial work was done “union”, especially the larger projects, office buildings, hospitals and university buildings.  Both the general contractors and the specialty contractors operated under collectively bargained union contracts.  This large market share allowed the building trades unions to gain enormous power, and soon they started, both nationally and locally, to focus more on political issues, work preservation, restrictions on crew size and composition, and pay for non-work time than they did on productivity and the quality of their members’ work.  They were paid “show up time”, even when a job may eventually get rained out.  Their contracts contained very restrictive subcontracting clauses and jurisdictional disputes (which job tasks belonged to which craft) became commonplace.  There were work stoppages and even a few strikes.  Schedules became jeopardized and an increasing amount of management time was needed to deal with “labor matters.”

Contractors became disillusioned and frustrated.  Fortunately, a solid “open shop” or “merit shop” movement had been steadily gaining traction.  In the commercial market, it began with smaller projects, strip shopping centers, restaurants, gas stations, some warehouses and like structures.  Every new company started as open shop, and many union contractors formed a separate open shop company, a legal option, known as “double breasting.”  The non-union movement steadily gained momentum and took on larger and larger projects.  Mixed projects became common: open shop generals using some key union subs, especially with the licensed trades, electrical and mechanical; and union generals using open shop subs where they could.  These combinations remain common today.

Next week the series will continue with History and Hope: Union versus Open Shop


James Headley's picture

Great articles and insight into the present problems we face regarding the lack of skilled workers. This is not only a problem in houston, but across the country. I'm afraid we are at the point that when we have a need for a carpenter or crane operator we will get a person with a degree in psychology. The way we view work will have to change.

Nory Angel's picture

Thank you for the providing us with the history of the construction movement. I'm interested to read your thoughts on how we bring back that sense of pride and enthusiasm for careers in construction for young men and women and especially for our returning veterans!

Anonymous's picture

You need a licence to cut hair but not to build a house.
Carpenters are not concidered "key" as we cover the shotty work done over and over by the licensed trades.
May have something to do with the one Tradesman watching the twenty they pull off the street for the lowest pay.

Randy's picture

Thank you for sharing the history of construction. Now I understand when it started and what it's current state. - Randy of http://www.welchmasonryonline.com/

Add new comment