This column was originally published in the San Diego Transcript on Wednesday, August 29, 2018.
When you think of uniquely American holidays, you might first think about the Fourth of July. But many nations celebrate their founding or their transformation into an independent, democratic society.
If there’s an American holiday, it’s Labor Day. Is there any other nation where being rewarded for your hard work is held in higher esteem? No matter our faults as a country, we remain the “Land of Opportunity” in the eyes of the world.
Labor Day became an official federal holiday in the United States thanks to approval by Congress in 1894. The only other nation who now joins the U.S. in recognizing Labor Day is Canada, a nation with a similar philosophy and pride in the value of a day’s work. And as a Canadian immigrant, I’m proud my home country stands strong with the United States on this front. Mexico is among many nations celebrating Workers Day every year on May 1st, a similar holiday with a different history.
Americans also place a high value on our freedom, and Labor Day is the intersection where competition and freedom meet.
We relish having our skills measured and tested – as long as competition takes place on a level playing field. In business including in the construction industry, we want lawmakers at all levels to remove barriers to entry, and eliminate loopholes, set-asides, and anti-competitive legal preferences no matter who they benefit. If we believe in our business models, we have faith we will come out ahead if the rules are fair and apply to all.
Merit shops account for more than 80 percent of all construction across the country. Membership in the Associated Builders and Contractors now includes more than half of the top 400 construction companies in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic, union membership in the construction industry dropped four percent to 13.2 percent from 2002 to 2015.
What is the reason? Costs. Union labor can drive up a builder’s costs 20 percent, according to a study by economic professor David MacPherson at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. What this means to me as an employer is that the union workers must be 20 percent more productive than the merit shop workers I hire.
But in some cases, a union subcontractor offers a particular set of skills, or knows the work requirements better, or produces such good quality results that they win the contract fairly against their competition. As a contractor, I would be foolish to dismiss union subcontractors from being hired on my projects – just as the opposite should be true for contractors who refuse to consider merit shop subcontractors.
The vast majority of construction workers – nearly 87 percent – do not to belong to a labor organization. Instead, they have made the decision to apply their professional craft skills in a free-enterprise, open-competition environment. As the board chairman of the San Diego Chapter of ABC, we work daily to ensure that competition for business is open to all, both union and non-union, on an even playing field.
The United States Supreme Court supported individual freedom with its ruling in late June on the case Janus v. AFCME, which ruled that non-union workers cannot be compelled to pay union dues against their will to cover collective bargaining, as it violates their right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment.
This decision is not an attack on the worker’s right to organize. This freedom deserves equal protection. Unions are still free to organize, but cannot compel non-members to support their political activities. They must secure support through more compelling and persuasive arguments, not through coercion.
The truth is, Merit Shop contractors have much in common with our construction professionals in labor unions. We take pride in our work. We want every employee to come home safely at night to his or her family. We take enormous pleasure in pointing to a new school, hospital or hotel and saying to our kids, “I helped build that.”
ABC is in no way anti-union. Throughout American history, the labor movement can take credit for making workplaces safer and holding employers to fair standards. Unions should continue to support freedom and fairness. They should support every contractor or worker’s free choice to join a union or decline to do so.
The Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego believe the merit shop movement is a movement that celebrates the freedom of the individual worker, not just on Labor Day, but every day. It is a movement that celebrates freedom at the highest levels.
Walter Fritz is President and CEO of Nuera Group LP, and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego board of directors. For more information visit www.abcsd.org