Honoring contractors’ competitive drive

Job seekers were flooded with positive labor market signals in 2018, wage spikes, widespread openings, workforce development initiatives, and employer training commitments from President Trump’s Pledge to America’s Workers among them. The Associated General Contractors of America and Associated Builders & Contractors peg construction labor pool growth at more than 4 percent last year. Challenges members of both groups continually cite in finding qualified workers suggest another construction season friendly to tradesmen who want hours and know a good time for wage premiums when they see it.

Happy workers and market-driven compensation gains spell another flat or off year for union organizers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 14.7 million wage and salary workers who were members of unions in 2018 accounted for 10.5 percent of the U.S. workforce, down 0.2 percent year-over-year. The figure underscores a sustained membership rate decline since 1983, the first year for which comparable worker data are available. BLS calculated a rank-and-file of 17.7 million workers 36 years ago, or 20.1 percent of the wage and salary workforce.

BLS data on organized labor’s dwindling fortunes surfaced just as nonunion contractors J.D. Eckman Inc. and Allan Myers LP prevailed in a Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania challenge to a project labor agreement (PLA) mandate the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation applied to the second phase of a Markley Street/U.S. 202 rebuilding project in Montgomery County (note this month’s Government Affairs report, page 8). Unencumbered by a PLA mandate and thereby free to assign labor it knew could execute a construction plan, J.D. Eckman underbid the closest union contractor by more than $500,000 in the first phase, completing work well ahead of schedule. In the second phase, PennDOT tied J.D. Eckman, Allan Myers and other prospective bidders to a PLA favoring crews from 11 Building and Construction Council of Philadelphia and Vicinity or United Steel Workers locals.

“The PLA introduced ‘uncertainty in bidding the job’ for prequalified nonunion contractors,” observed Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt in a ruling for petitioners representing J.D. Eckman and Allan Myers. “Notwithstanding (its) lip service to the principle of competitive bidding, the PLA does not place nonunion contractors on ‘an equal footing’ with union contractors.”

Although different from Markley Street contract skills requirements, a demonstration in one of the hottest areas of low rise building envelopes speaks to the latitude contractors deserve in competitive bidding (note “Eldorado-backed study reveals labor savings potential in veneer substrates,” page 22). Teaming with Boral America’s Eldorado Stone business and modified mortar supplier Laticrete International, PermaBoard cement board developer National Gypsum Co. enlisted Home Innovation Research Labs to test exterior finishing labor, material and substrate metrics. Using Group Timing Technique sampling and widely accepted manufactured stone installation standards, lab staff compared masonry and carpentry crew man-hour requirements on 275-sq.-ft. exterior wall sections with Eldorado Stone veneer on mortar and lath versus Laticrete mortar on PermaBoard. The carpentry crew bested its masonry counterpart by 3.5 man-hours on the test with the latter substrate.

The Home Innovation Research findings spell new flexibility for builders eyeing manufactured stone veneer for their next custom or tract project. They also reinforce a guiding principle for departments of transportation or other public agencies serving as taxpayer fiduciaries on all construction endeavors: When operating on a level playing field with crews of their choosing, competent builders and contractors nail economy, efficiency and performance.