August 2015

Understanding Market Share

Our members’ needs are simple — safe jobs, adequate wages, health care and retirement security. The answers to obtaining those needs are a bit more complex. We have areas where our collective bargaining agreements live up to the goals stated above. Many areas do not.

Today governments increasingly pass laws aiming to erode our bargaining power; unions of convenience, right to work laws, repealing prevailing wage laws, lack of enforcement, and on and on.

Every time an area loses market share to the open shop, we see the balance of power tilt out of our favor. No matter who you are, your local’s largest membership totals are probably in the past. Our International’s highest membership was in the 1980s. Our recent high was 2008. It is true the recent 2008 depression in the construction industry cost us jobs and members. Many members left the industry for other opportunities to feed their families. Other members opted for earlier than expected retirement and a mass amount of baby boomers are heading for natural retirements. Many apprenticeships scaled back on new recruits. Now many locals are reporting work is increasing and union halls everywhere are reporting full employment. It sounds like great news, but it really isn’t. We are fully employed, but with less journeymen than before. If we don’t increase our workforce equal to and above our previous levels, the open shop will eat our proverbial lunch. Industry analysts and studies predict reinforcing ironworkers and structural welders are and will continue to be at a shortage.

Our apprenticeship programs do an outstanding job of training entry-level members and progressively building their skills. They do an equally great job training journeymen for new industry certifications. When an apprentice is taken in, it takes three to four years to develop their talents. Many who sign up do not graduate resulting in a loss of training dollars spent on someone who leaves the union, but maybe not the industry. As we become more employed so do the open shops. Meanwhile, depending on which market study you review, we are outnumbered by as much as 90 percent in some areas. When there are more of them than us, which contractors do you think get awarded the work we traditionally do?

I like to use the analogy that unionized ironworkers are similar to the elite military units. The problem is there are an overwhelming number of soldiers fighting a war for market share who are working in the open shop at our expense on behalf of their employers. If you talk to organized members, most of them were not anti-union, they just never knew how to get into our organization because of too many restrictive methods designed to keep current members happy and local leaders elected. Organizing in conjunction with our apprenticeship is the only solution. Top down and bottom up must be part of each local’s strategy to gain market share for our fair employers so they can grow their business and we can grow with them. Convincing open shop workers and employers is not easy. I for one am not willing to say our best days are behind us, and neither should you. At our last convention, the delegates voted to fund organizing at greater levels than ever before. The International has implemented a strategy to coordinate organizing in every district council. Staffing and resources are taking shape, however, many local unions (both rank and file and leaders) are not seeing the big picture.

Local unions must take COMET training to have a better understanding of the need to organize. Things may be fine in your area, but that won’t last since even traditional areas of great strength face open shop competition like never before.

Help grow our union and seize the robust work available today. We cannot wait three or four years and we cannot miss this opportunity to give workers the dignity they deserve for the hard work they do.