May 2012

Exposing ABC's Big Money, Anti-Worker Agenda
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More than 200 leaders of the Associated Builders and Contractors — "one of the leading organizations representing America's business community and the merit shop construction industry," as the group describes itself — met in Phoenix last February to welcome leading Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who was given a prime speaking spot at their meeting.

"If I become president … I will curb the practice we have in this country of giving union bosses an unfair advantage in contracting," he told the aggressively anti-union crowd, bringing them to their feet. "One of the first things I will do — actually on Day One — is to end the government's favoritism towards unions in contracting on federal projects and end project labor agreements." Romney went on to endorse nearly every item in ABC's legislative platform, from a national right-to-work amendment to the elimination of Davis-Bacon wage laws and workplace safety and environmental regulations.

"The election of Mitt Romney as president is [our] top priority," said National Chairman Eric Regelin, in a statement announcing that ABC was planning to go all out to defeat President Barack Obama in November.

Energized by the 2010 midterm elections — which saw ABC allies grab more than 600 state and federal legislative seats and 11 governorships — the organization sees the 2012 elections as its chance to radically remake labor policy in the construction industry, making its vision of a low-paid and union-free work force a permanent reality across the country. Instead of supporting the high-quality joint apprenticeship training provided by the building trades, ABC would have the government throw its support to its own slipshod training.

"ABC really came alive after the GOP took power in the House and in many state capitals, doubling down on efforts to hold politicians' feet to the fire on banning PLAs and eliminating Davis-Bacon," says Political and Legislative Department International Representative Dan Gardner.

Founded in 1950 by a handful of open-shop contractors in Baltimore, ABC has evolved into one of the most influential groups in the big money, right-wing anti-union network, which includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Union Facts.

As National Labor College professor Thomas Kriger puts it in his recent study on ABC, the group is an "astro-turf political organization with a well-funded PR and lobbying machine, and a limited capacity for work force development."

While ABC has traditionally kept a lower profile on Capitol Hill than some of its ideological counterparts, the last few years has seen it ramp up its communications and political efforts, launching numerous aggressive multimedia campaigns targeting everything from PLAs to workplace safety regulations. And last September it set up the Free Enterprise Alliance, a political advocacy group committed to fighting "union bosses and federal bureaucrats."

The alliance hawks a worldview that sees the free enterprise system under constant attack by unions and legislators, describing President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal reforms — which include Social Security and minimum wage laws — as the beginning of the government's assault on "freedom."

And on ABC's "Halt the Assault" Web site, visitors can access sample letters to the editor and opinion pieces to submit to local newspapers attacking "big labor" and workplace regulations.

Local Politics

ABC's increased visibility is not only apparent online, but in numerous state capitals, where its lobbyists have become fixtures at key legislators' offices.

"Every time I was in Indianapolis to meet with elected officials, [state ABC head] J.R. Gaylor was there," says South Bend, Ind., Local 153 Business Manager Michael Compton.

Indiana has been home to some of the most heated labor battles in the last year, with the state legislature passing right-to-work legislation in February. And behind the scenes helping to make it happen was ABC's state affiliate.

"They met with legislators, held fundraisers, got in tight with GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels," says Local 153 Business and Membership Development Director Troy Warner.

ABC's other two goals — weakening the state's version of Davis-Bacon and banning PLAs on publicly funded projects — stalled before the General Assembly adjourned last March, but Warner says he expects both items to return when the legislature reconvenes this summer.

In more heavily Republican states, ABC's influence is even stronger. Last year Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter signed into law two association-sponsored bills: one that bans the use of project labor agreements on publicly funded projects and a second that bans signatory contractors from using union contributions to subsidize wages, a common practice that helps contractors submit more competitive bids.

The "Open Access to Work Act" was struck down by a federal judge in January, but that did not stop ABC's allies in the Idaho statehouse from reintroducing similar legislation in March.

The group has also successfully pushed anti-PLA ballot initiatives in numerous jurisdictions across the country, most notably in California. (See "PLAs in the Crosshairs: In Calif., D.C., the Right Pushes ABC's Agenda," the Electrical Worker, Sept. 2010)

"It is on the local and state level where ABC flexes most of its muscle," says Political and Legislative Department International Representative Bruce Burton.

ABC often gets its foot in the door by claiming to be "the voice of the construction industry," representing 80 percent of the industry. But in his analysis of the ABC, the NLC's Kriger finds these claims to be grossly exaggerated.

Looking at Bureau of Labor statistics, he writes:

"ABC's entire membership amounts to only 3 percent of all U.S. construction businesses. A state-by-state analysis of ABC's density among licensed or registered contractors shows a similar picture: in no state does the percentage of ABC's member-contractors exceed 6 percent of the total number of licensed or registered contractors in any of the states where ABC operates."

As a member of the Oregon legislature and state labor secretary, the IBEW's Gardner says he saw firsthand ABC's effort to artificially inflate its membership numbers as a way to boost its lobbying clout. "They'd go to the secretary of state's office, find registered nonunion businesses and claim them as members."

The Apprenticeship Gap

Even as the organization beefs up its spin machine and lobbying efforts, there is one area where ABC's investments continue to lag far behind that of its union competition: training.

Despite its claims to represent the majority of construction contractors, from 2002 to 2011, ABC training programs enrolled only 22,260 apprentices — compared to more than 420,000 for the building trades.

Even in states with low union density rates, like Texas and Florida, building trades' apprenticeship enrollments far outstrip ABC's.

The building trades also boasts a higher graduation rate, with nearly 10 percent more apprentices graduating from union programs compared to ABC's.

The group's low enrollment correlates to the relatively small resources ABC devotes to training — only $28 million compared to the building trades' $750 million.

The reason, according to Kriger, is that ABC's low-wage, low-benefits labor model has meant there is little interest by member contractors in investing in any kind of extensive apprenticeship program. "Open shop contractors, with their focus on lower costs, have typically pursued a short-term, low-cost approach to training," he writes. "They have little incentive to develop long term training programs, especially if workers seek better pay and benefits once they are trained."

And ABC's slipshod training drives down both the quality and speed of its contractors' work.

"With guys coming out of an open-shop operation, the foreman has to keep a close eye on them at all times to make sure the job is done right, adding unnecessary man-hours. With IBEW workers, all you need to do is to give them a blueprint and let them at it," says Compton.

ABC's attempts to legitimize its own craft training program have so far fallen short. In 1995, ABC set up the National Center for Construction Education and Research, providing open-shop contractors with training programs and material.

The problem is that the center — unlike most universities and apprenticeship programs — has no third-party accreditor, meaning it isn't recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as a recognized institution of higher learning.

All which leaves students enrolled in ABC's for-profit education programs vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous forces, like the former students at Decker College in Louisville, Ky. The school shuttered its doors in 2005 after being accused by the FBI and the Department of Education of providing shoddy training and engaging in shady education practices, including grade inflation and providing test answers to students. (See "For Profit Decker College Left Workers Jobless and Broke on Path to Ruin," IBEW Journal, January-February 2006.)

Headed by ABC Executive Vice President and former NCCER President Dan Bennet, the for-profit vocational school had deep ABC ties. And despite Decker's students being on the hook for thousands of dollars in debt, a local ABC chapter walked away with more than $300,000 in profit because of the school's $22,000 a year tuition.

ABC Exposed

Much of the anti-worker legislation passed in 2011 was directed at public employees, but increased ABC influence over the Republican Party could very well mean that construction workers will see their rights next on the chopping block if the party increases its numbers on Capitol Hill and in legislatures across the country this November.

Workers are already feeling the pinch of ABC's successful pursuit of its agenda.

"Where construction jobs once existed as an entry point to the middle class and as the backbone of local economies, it has been observed that today's construction workers — union and nonunion alike — now tend to work harder, for less money, and under harsher conditions," writes Kriger.

ABC's growing influence also threatens one of the most successful job training programs in the country — union apprenticeships — which observers fear could create a skills shortage in the near future if the open shop movement continues to grow at the expense of the building trades. The Construction Users Round Table admitted as much when it issued a report saying "the open shop sector as a whole has not supported formal craft training and assessment to the extent necessary to affect real, meaningful and lasting change."

Local 153's Compton says the growing number of under-trained workers undermines quality construction in the state, with many big employers choosing to stick with union contractors because they say they can't afford to pay for sub-par work.

He points to Local 153's long-term relationship with the University of Notre Dame, which continues to use union labor for its maintenance and construction needs because of the high skills possessed by IBEW members.

"ABC for too long has misrepresented itself as an advocate for the construction industry," says International President Edwin D. Hill. "The truth is it is a political action operation, whose goal is to drag safety standards, wages, training and benefits back to the 19th century. Every member needs to be an educated voter because it's our jobs and our futures that are at stake if ABC gets its way."

The anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors is gearing up to get its allies into office in 2012 — from the White House on down — to push its low-road agenda on the construction industry.

What ABC Wants

From city councils to the White House, the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors sees 2012 as its chance to make its agenda the law of the land. ABC's wish list includes:

Eliminate Davis-Bacon/Prevailing Wage Laws: ABC wants to eliminate the federal Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors on federal construction projects to
pay their workers no less than the prevailing wage rates in the local area. It also looks to weaken and/or eliminate state-level prevailing wage laws.

Roll Back Safety and Other On-the-Job Protections: Under the guise of regulatory reform, ABC has been lobbying Congress to roll back a whole series of workplace protections instituted by the Obama administration, from an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule designed to help reduce the number of workplace musculoskeletal injuries to a National Labor Relations Board rule requiring employers to inform their employees of their rights under labor law.

Ban Project Labor Agreements: ABC backs federal legislation which would overturn President Obama's 2009 executive order requiring the use of project labor agreements on federal projects. The group also supports PLA bans on the local and state level as well.

Repeal the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act: ABC has denounced the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides women with more legal channels through which to pursue equal pay for equal work.

Ban Market Recovery Funds:
ABC supports banning signatory contractors from using union contributions to subsidize wages,
a common practice that helps contractors submit more competitive bids.