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Long Island Contractors' Association

Newsday

OPINION: Building trades need more than just an inflatable rat

By Bill Duffy
April 1, 2010

Bill Duffy is chairman of the Public Works Alliance and president of Local 138 of the Operating Engineers.

Something has happened to the once mighty Long Island building trades - and Long Island isn't alone. This is a national problem with implications for every union family.

Today there is little of the strategic political and economic vision that makes the building trades a force to be reckoned with. Inflatable rats sitting in front of offending job sites can appear in a heartbeat, but the ability to project organized labor as a thoughtful, vigorous and progressive force has disappeared. Union members can picket a construction location with military precision, but we've lost our ability to be part of the process that allowed the development to be built in the first place.

In an era of 30 percent unemployment among the construction trades, labor needs to dramatically reinvent itself. It needs to understand how other organized professions, such as the state's teachers unions, have created enormous clout. It needs to demonstrate that its membership is at the very core of our region's middle class, responsible for driving much of the economic activity that occurs along every community's Main Street. Cripple that constituency and everyone suffers, from the Melville accountant to the Mastic 7-Eleven owner.

Labor needs to be heard in the boardrooms of local corporations with the same respect as that offered to not-for-profits seeking support, recognition and endorsement. In a recession-wracked economy, it must build relationships with the business community that mirror similar successful efforts almost 25 years ago. Labor needs to effectively address the muttered criticism that the construction trades are overpaid and underworked. In short, it needs to stop shouting and start being heard.

Perhaps the leadership that drives today's building trades has consciously abandoned the desire to be part of the difficult public affairs process that gets construction of any kind built on Long Island. In truth, it might be a reflection of current priorities and organizational skills - for it is far simpler to mount a podium and demand jobs than to offer solutions that benefit everyone.

In the wake of the massive bank bailouts, labor also needs to rethink its strategy of dealing with Washington. Consider the impact on the national debate if the building trades were to send their huge numbers of unemployed down to Wall Street and flood the nation's financial center. In sending "Main Street to Wall Street," organized labor would demand the same bailout deal as the financial community - but the difference would be that these construction union members would offer a far more substantial return on the taxpayers' investment than the paper profits and bonus awards of Wall Street.

We need to have the historic perspective of understanding why the New Deal offered up during the Great Depression worked: because it gave real jobs to the unemployed middle class and thereby jump-started the recovery.

It may take this recession, with its catastrophic impact on the construction trades, to reinvent labor relations into something more than just inflating a rat. The trade unions not only have the financial muscle of placing pensions, annuities and 401(k)s into financial institutions willing to be full partners in an economic recovery, but they also have the political weight to demand bipartisan action on issues crucial to our public infrastructure.

All of this leaves lessons for the Long Island construction trades to learn and then teach their membership. We should be full partners in getting us back on road to recovery.


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