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Union Leader's View: Workers are in demand, want to be in unions

From the column: "Unions have long proven themselves to be one of our most effective weapons in the fight to pull more working families out of poverty."

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Jeff Koterba / Cagle Cartoons

While public polling has shown historic levels of polarization in our politics, it has revealed one area of emerging bipartisan agreement: the approval of labor unions.

As frontline essential and face-to-face workers braved unimaginable hazards to keep communities and our economy going through a deadly pandemic, record levels of Americans now support the idea of workers banding together to bargain for livable wages and safe working conditions.

It’s not just that supporting labor unions is good politics; it’s also good policy. American workers are quitting their jobs because they want family-sustaining wages, secure benefits, safe worksites, and less inequality. Employers are concerned about labor shortages and want predictable costs and a stable supply of skilled workers. The data show that labor unions are delivering.

A July report from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute highlighted these points when it compared the unionized and non-unionized segments of Minnesota’s construction industry. It found that unionized construction workers earn higher wages, are far more likely to have private health insurance or a retirement plan, face 40% fewer health and safety violations at job sites, endure substantially less wage inequality, and are far less likely to rely on government welfare programs than non-union construction workers.

Indeed, Minnesota’s construction unions are not just delivering for this generation of workers, but also for the next. Joint apprenticeship programs — funded through collective bargaining agreements and administered with employers — train 93% of the state’s skilled construction apprentices. Program participants get paid to learn a trade skill for in-demand careers and graduate debt free. Not only does union training provide a substantially more robust curriculum than most colleges, it leaves graduates earning average wages on par with other types of workers with bachelor's degrees.

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The non-union construction world has no consistent financing mechanism for its apprenticeship system. It’s all up to the discretion of employers, leading many to forego investments in training in an effort to lower project bids. This leads to less workforce stability, lower-skilled workers on job sites, costly employee workmanship and retention issues, and, yes, labor shortages.

Today, employers across many industries are learning that sustaining a stable, valued, and skilled workforce is not cost prohibitive. If anything, it is a way to control costs without compromising on the far more important imperative of delivering a quality product.

Consider that when the Midwest Economic Policy Institute analyzed more than 600 different school construction projects in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, it found no cost difference between projects completed by union and non-union firms. There are several reasons why. First, labor represents less than a quarter of the total cost of a construction project. Second, because union training tends to produce workers with higher levels of skill, their worksites feature higher levels of productivity and more efficient use of materials, equipment, fuels, and manpower that can offset additional investments in training, safety, or wages.

For years, well-funded lobbyists have tried to convince us that if we could just get rid of unions, everything would be cheaper and those savings would magically trickle down and eliminate the very real economic and health anxieties that have led millions of workers to leave their jobs or stand on picket lines.

But our real-world experience and the data tell a very different story. Unions have long proven themselves to be one of our most effective weapons in the fight to pull more working families out of poverty. In Minnesota’s construction industry, they are also attaching thousands to in-demand careers building the schools, roads, and vital infrastructure on which our economy depends. They are doing it at the same cost as the non-union alternative, with better health and safety outcomes, less inequality, and higher wages that rival other workers with bachelor's degrees.

No matter what our politics, that’s a model we should all be able to unite behind.

Barry Davies of Rosemount, Minnesota, is the business manager, financial secretary, and treasurer for Ironworkers Local 512. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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Barry Davies

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