Trades Seek Higher Profile

February 25, 2007
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An interesting piece of West Michigan’s large-project construction boom is the inclusion of a group somewhat overlooked in the regional market: the West Michigan Building Trades.

Nearly every signature project in downtown Grand Rapids’ decade-long revitalization has involved some degree of organized labor, even those with benefactors publicly opposed to their existence — DeVos Place, Van Andel Arena, David D. Hunting YMCA, Van Andel Institute, Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center at Spectrum Health and Lacks Cancer Center at Saint Mary’s, among others. A significant portion of the work to date on the JW Marriott hotel, the Michigan Street Development and Metro Health Village in Wyoming was done by union contractors.

And all those tower cranes dotting the Rapids skyline? That’s the Operating Engineers Local 324.

“Our profile is kind of nonexistent, and that’s our fault,” said Bruce Hawley, president of the West Michigan Building Trades and business manager of the Ironworkers Local 340 in Grand Rapids. “The union is really just a group of workers, and we haven’t been very good at promoting ourselves. We need to figure out ways to do that.”

Partly because specialty contractors and subcontractors do not have the visibility of general contractors or construction managers on a job site, the trades have gone unnoticed by construction outsiders, something its leadership is hoping to change in the coming year.

“We don’t get as much publicity as some of the other parts of the industry; we’re misrepresented more than anything else,” said Tom Stark, business agent of the Carpenters Local 100 in Coopersville. “There is a misconception of what we really stand for. We’re battling history in some respects, and we need to get our message out there.”

To the industry, the trades should embody skilled construction, Hawley said, with workers completing a training program similar in length and intensity to a four-year degree. To the community, the trades should represent family values, Stark added, as workers receive a living wage, health care and pension benefits, a far from universal standard in today’s temporary-worker-dominated construction field.

“We are nothing like the autoworkers,” said Doug Adams, business agent of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 in Coopersville. “The union won’t protect your work. We do not (go by) seniority; in every craft it’s your skill and ability that will keep you working.”

An 18-month, $125,000 grant from the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service should help in that respect. Administered through the West Michigan Construction Alliance, the grant is intended to provide skill training for workers and contractors, but more importantly, improve customer relationships and establish a marketing initiative within the region’s organized construction industry.

“We are definitely trying to reinvent ourselves,” said Adams.

The alliance contractors hope that the expansive training programs will help them improve efficiency, innovate and communicate their message of quality construction services, union and non-union, said Ed Haynor, alliance executive director.

With any luck, it will also help them raise their market share in West Michigan, Hawley said, as a number of upcoming large projects are opportunities for the trades. Some, including power plants and casinos, have committed to fully union projects. Also, he believes that ongoing demographic changes will favor organized labor, which still represents 18.3 percent of construction workers.

“I think people are getting tired of working through temp agencies and getting their jobs outsourced,” Hawley said. “How can you raise a family on $10 an hour? The pendulum is swinging back.”

Although there is no reliable data on the subject, it is commonly believed that non-union “merit shops” account for an estimated 75 percent to 85 percent of West Michigan construction. Most of these are members of the Associated Builders and Contractors, the non-union employer organization.

“Our members work hard to maintain the market share they already have, and the unions work to get share away from us,” said John Doherty, president and CEO of the West Michigan chapter.

With its free-enterprise philosophy dovetailing the prevailing political sentiment of West Michigan, ABC has a tight grip on the local market; the local chapter is the 10th largest of 80 chapters nationwide. Without the union’s added benefits package and administrative costs, ABC contractors nearly always have a price advantage.

When a union shop wins a bid, price is not necessarily the deciding factor. Political affiliations can play a part. A large portion of Metro Health’s stakeholders are labor organizations, so the health care provider instructed its contractor for Metro Health Village, Christman Co., to create opportunity for union contractors. Grand Rapids condominium tower Icon On Bond was funded through union pension funds, so that project is naturally 100 percent union labor. On state-funded projects, prevailing wage laws slide the bids to meet the union wage.

But more often, union contractors are simply the best choice.

“When you get into projects of this scope and scale where you’re looking for rather large and very qualified subcontractors — sometimes from throughout the country, you’re going to be looking at some union trades,” said Michael VanGessel, president of Rockford Construction, the general contractor on the JW Marriott hotel. “Those will be a blend of the most competitive and qualified union and merit shop subcontractors.”

That was the case at the hotel, which selected Granger Construction Co. to raise its concrete tower and Andy J. Egan Co. as its mechanical contractor — both union shops — among many other trades and merit shops.

“On the complex, high-end jobs, I think the unions afford more expertise,” said Jim Conner, regional manager for Granger in West Michigan. “West Michigan is very busy with big jobs right now, and only the union subcontractors have that kind of experience. Let’s face it, there just haven’t been that many brand new hospitals or $80 million water plants consistently built in Grand Rapids.”

By their nature, the trades can pull experience from throughout the state or country. They are also able to mobilize massive numbers of skilled workers for projects that few solo firms could on their own. The reconstruction of Consumers Energy’s J.H. Campbell Generating Complex in Port Sheldon currently has 1,000 tradesmen on site, pulling ironworkers, boilermakers and other crafts from across the state. Also, Hawley noted, the more dangerous or specialized the occupation, the more likely it is to be a union-dominated craft — such as ironworkers, crane operators, boilermakers or mechanical contractors.

Jack Buchanan, president of Blue Bridge Ventures, consistently uses union contractors on his projects, and has leveraged the skilled labor for cost savings.

“We tend to hire people that are not necessarily the cheapest, but we find that we don’t pay more for (using) skilled labor,” he said. “If they’re better trained and more skilled, they’ll get it done faster, and it ends up costing less than you think.”

In using the skilled labor, Buchanan has found that a two-month project can be completed in six weeks or less, a two-year build in 14 to 16 months. By shortening construction time, he is able to cut the carrying costs and other expenses, easily paying for the extra investment in construction services. 

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