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Construction industry is more than union vs. non-union

Nick Novak is the director of marketing and communications at ABC of Wisconsin.Nick Novak is the director of marketing and communications at ABC of Wisconsin

Nick Novak is the director of marketing and communications at ABC of Wisconsin.

Are you a union contractor or a non-union contractor?

For the partisans in this debate, it’s an important question. And for the activists, it’s the only question. It’s how they distinguish one company from another — a good company from a bad one.

Partisans and activists mostly see things in black and white. It is the idea of an opposing force that fuels their passion. However, I suspect that for many in our industry (most construction users included), the answer to this question is less significant.

That is why we at Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin promote merit-shop construction. The term “merit shop” is a way to get beyond this decades-old debate and concentrate on what construction users demand and what most of the industry (partisans and activists aside) desire.

Merit shop is about open competition and free enterprise, regardless of labor affiliation. Not only should the best contractor win a project, that contractor should be able to hire union companies or merit-shop companies — or even both. Again, it should be about the getting the highest-quality product.

In more concise phrasing, merit shop is not anti-union. We believe that employees and employers should have the right, within the boundaries of the law, to choose either individual or collective bargaining to determine wages and working conditions. This type of freedom is what drives us to believe that companies should be judged on their merits when they are competing for projects, rather than simply their labor affiliations.

Simply put, it’s about competition, but not the competition everyone thinks about today.

The real competition in our industry is not between union and non-union contractors. It’s instead a competition in which individual firms compete to meet the needs of individual construction users. In this competition, contractors and their employees should be able to choose which affiliation affords them the best opportunity to compete in a free market.

This is why we at the ABC of Wisconsin support right-to-work laws, and oppose discriminatory union-only project-labor agreements and anti-competitive price fixing (prevailing wages). And in that open competition, union and non-union firms can (and often do) work together to deliver safe, high-quality construction projects.

Our association began not as a way to divide the industry, but instead to bring the best companies and most talented workers together. The values that our founding members laid out in 1950 hold just as true today. While others may prefer to have the union/non-union divide, we strongly believe that it is not necessary.

As a way to move us past the incomplete union vs. non-union argument, I suggest we starting looking for some common ground.

Let’s encourage more people to consider technical training and a career in the trades. With more than 1,000 apprentices, the ABC of Wisconsin is doing this every day.

But, we must find even more ways to reach out to young people. We must continue our efforts to educate high school students about the skilled trades. And, we must refute the idea that a four-year college degree is the only path leading to a successful career.

Let’s ensure safety is a top priority for all construction companies, both merit shop and union-affiliated. Our safety team is regularly in the field with members updating them on OSHA standards, training them in new safety techniques and ensuring every company has the same understanding: one incident, one injury or one death is one too many. In our opinion, a perfect safety record is not too much to ask for.

Let’s have the best of the best compete to build the highest-quality projects our state has ever seen. The free-enterprise system offers us this opportunity, and if we follow through, we can be certain that every project in Wisconsin and beyond will truly be built on merit.

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