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ON THE LEVEL: At building trades council, Castanza helps unions speak with one voice

Jake Castanza (Photo courtesy of Jake Castanza)

Jake Castanza (Photo courtesy of Jake Castanza)

Jake Castanza sees his job as helping the 40,000 union construction workers in Wisconsin speak with one voice.

As head of the newly formed Wisconsin Building Trades Council, Castanza lobbies on the behalf of seven building trades councils in different regions around the state. The new umbrella group’s main responsibility, he said, is to coordinate the work of 15 building trades unions and their more than 40,000 members.

More than anything, the Wisconsin Building Trades Council helps promote policies that union groups previously had to argue for more or less independently of each other. Among them are penalties for businesses that misclassify workers and don’t provide required benefits, greater spending on infrastructure and the reinstatement of Wisconsin’s prevailing-wage laws.

“We want to build our community, we want to build our future and we want to be able to deliver innovative or inspiring projects,” Castanza said. “Our economic foundation is in having a qualified labor supply that we are proud of and want to promote.”

A native of Rockford, Illinois, Castanza was exposed to construction by his father, who was a business manager at Laborers Local 32. After taking a job fundraising at the YMCA in Rockford after college, Castanza joined Project First Rate, a union-labor-advocacy group. There he lobbied to advance infrastructure spending and the construction of the Hard Rock Casino in Rockford, among other things. In 2018, at the age of 27, Castanza mounted an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Illinois State Rep. John Cabello, a four-term Republican.

Castanza recently caught up with the Daily Reporter to discuss the group’s priorities and direction. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What’s the need for your new organization, the Wisconsin Building Trades Council? 

There was a lack of coordination among labor unions in Wisconsin. It was a multifaceted response. When Wisconsin was making their pitch to Foxconn to attract them, one of the huge questions was: How is Foxconn going to build this $1 billion development? The building trades struggled to speak in harmony, not only to Foxconn but to the lawmakers as well. 

They wanted the same thing: local workers working on this project. But they struggled in articulating that. They struggled in lobbying.  One thing they were effective in was showing Foxconn they had mechanisms to get the labor force that was required. But it came down to a lack of coalition building. One voice speaking for 40,000 is a lot stronger than 20,000 voices shouting separately into the room.

I believe, and many of the membership believes, the building trades have lost their stature in the halls of power. When you’re scattered and there’s no shepherd leading the fight, the sheep fall away  We’re here to herd everybody together and ensure that we’re speaking to those items with the voice of all 40,000 workers. 

Coming from Illinois, what did you expect to find with union labor in Wisconsin? 

It’s not perfect, but it’s fair to say Illinois’s climate is more friendly toward workers. I knew that coming to Wisconsin, Scott Walker and his corporate masters had made it a point to destroy unions in pursuit of extreme profits. When I made the decision to come to Wisconsin, I asked myself: Are you ready for something much different?

I thought I was going to be coming up to the labor apocalypse in Wisconsin. I thought it was going to be a big mess. But I very quickly realized that assumption was completely wrong. There’s a lot of structures, there are a lot of programs for union labor. 

Something I’ve noticed, however, is there isn’t any center of gravity pulling (unions) together and parlaying that into benefits and opportunities. Those are the sorts of things that we’re wanting to look at. (Wisconsin labor unions) have been rattled. We’ve had to focus on different things in an onslaught from the Walker administration that was nearly criminal. I can understated why people’s attention, their eyesight, their will — a lot of things — were affected in those years. But during that time, we did not ignore training our workers. We did not ignore investing in ourselves.

What policies are you working on as lawmakers begin to assemble the state’s next biennial budget? 

With misclassification, we’re leaving $200 million annually on the table just because we have an inability to enforce the law on these bad actors. I can’t see these things being partisan more than they are good government.

A major problem is with misclassification and wage theft in Wisconsin and has been exacerbated by COVID but more so from the repeal of prevailing wage that occurred in 2017. That’s why we have seen a major uptick in unscrupulous and out-of-town contractors and them winning more bids in Wisconsin. There are all these sorts of things that are happening as a result and a symptom of that.

I see reinstating prevailing wage as a major priority for the building trades over the next two years. In wake of the Midwest Economic Policy Institute study that was released in October of this year, we see this policy as our No. 1 item and to advocate to utilize this as a financial tool to retain the wealth of our state and its taxpayers. This is not a partisan issue. It is not a union versus non-union issue. This is a concept that allows the very best construction to be procured at the lowest cost.

That is our singular issue, and the one I would want to focus on more than anything.

What else is on your agenda heading into 2021?

Something that we don’t want to ignore is renewable energy. Pun intended — this is the golden era of solar, and it’s something we should be embracing. We want to embrace renewable because we see that as the paradigm shift. I believe local workers and local businesses should be qualified for those jobs.

Throughout the year, we’re going to want to work on these things and help power our state. 

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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