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ON THE LEVEL; Through tough time for unions, Schmitt never lost sight of benefits of collective bargaining

With his father the president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, John Schmitt grew up with an almost inevitable appreciation of the benefits of unions.

What wasn’t a foregone conclusion was that he himself would eventually rise to the top of one of the biggest Wisconsin labor organizations. Schmitt said last week that he will be stepping down as president and business manager of the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council at the end of September.

The announcement came after Schmitt spent nearly 12 years at the top of the statewide organization, which represents five locals throughout Wisconsin, and 48 years in total with the Laborers. About his decision to retire now, Schmitt said he never thought he would work forever.

“I’m 66 years old,” he said. “I think it’s time to let some of the younger generation do what I did. I want to spend more time with my family – I have 8 grandchildren – and travel with my wife.”

Speaking of the younger generation, Schmitt said he’s confident the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council will remain in good hands when he steps down. His successor, already approved by the union’s board, will be Kent Miller, the current assistant business manager.

“The laborers are not going to miss a step with him coming in,” Schmitt said. “He’s very knowledgeable and works hard.”

Schmitt recently sat down with The Daily Reporter to talk about his career and his thoughts on recent union victories and setbacks and the general state of the construction industry. (This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

The Daily Reporter: One of the first jobs you had after joining the Laborers was at Miller Brewing. How did that lead to your eventual career in the union?

Schmitt: Miller was very advanced at the time with its labor-management steering committee. And I eventually worked for the union steering committee with the labor-management stuff. I went on a few trips to different areas of the country to learn more about labor-management issues and then became a union steward for the laborers. Later I became a business rep of Laborers Local 113, in 1997, and then became business manager in 2000. I stayed business manager for 10 years and then was appointed president/business manager of the Wisconsin Laborers in 2010.

TDR: What did you like about working for the union?

Schmitt: I enjoyed trying to help people. As a union official, your job is to help the members so they can get fair wages and benefits. Also, I had four children and I had great health benefits. I never had to worry if any of them got sick.

TDR: Beyond negotiating on the behalf of members, what do you think the union’s mission is now?

Schmitt: Now it’s all about recruitment, recruitment, recruitment. Especially because of the infrastructure bill, we have a lot of work coming in. And it’s not just highway work. We also have solar and wind. So what we’ve done is we’ve started recruiting in places where we haven’t done much of that before. We are trying to get into the community and talk to different groups of people. We are trying to talk at highs schools, not just to the kids but also the administrators, the teachers and parents, to tell them this is an option that’s out there.

TDR: Recent years have been portrayed as being tough on unions not only in Wisconsin but also throughout the entire U.S. Do you think that’s a fair perception?

Schmitt: Well, I started at the Wisconsin Laborers in 2010, and that was a tough time almost right away with Act 10. And then later, you had right-to-work and then the elimination of state prevailing wages.
Now, I have to say, with right-to-work, we have not lost a single member. All our members pay their union dues. People want to pay because they know they are getting all the benefit and fair wages, and the training aspect is there too.

TDR: What about with prevailing wage?

Schmitt: That was the thing that hurt, because our contractors have since lost work to out-of-state contractors who are coming in and taking jobs away. They are taking that money home with them to Tennessee or Alabama and none of it stays in the community. Some of these contractors don’t pay any taxes in this state. So we lose all of that. I can see in the long run it’s only going to get worse if it stays this way.

TDR: Did the elimination of state prevailing wages complicate your collective-bargaining negotiations with contractors?

Schmitt: I always supported state prevailing wages because they leveled the playing field. When contractors knew what the prevailing rate was going to be for the following year, they could budget for that rate. But even now, our contracts still usually run for about three years.

Collective bargaining is a great thing, because you are sitting across the table from the management side and you can find ways to benefit both them and your association members. My people know that the more work the contractors get, the more work my members get. So it’s good for both of us.


About Dan Shaw, [email protected]

Dan Shaw is the associate editor at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 414-225-1807.

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