October 2015

Helping Apprenticeships through Local Politics

Sunny St. Petersburg, Florida, sits on a peninsula straddling Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Known for its world-class beaches and art museums, St. Pete can boast some of the highest training standards in its construction workforce as well. Thanks to the hard work of Local 397 (Tampa, Fla.) and the West Central Florida Building Trades Council, the city has passed a law to foster and strengthen successful apprenticeship programs such as ours. Under the new law, public construction projects costing more than $2 million must employ apprentices belonging to programs that meet the high standards of the building trades as no less than 10 percent of their labor force.

Florida isn’t exactly a union-friendly state. Right to work is the law of the land, driving down wages and safety standards. There is no state prevailing wage law, allowing fly-by-night companies to undercut responsible contractors. Former governor (and current Republican presidential candidate) Jeb Bush eliminated the state Department of Labor while he was in office. Current Governor Rick Scott nixed funding for a high speed rail project that would have provided badly needed construction jobs during the Great Recession. The state legislature has even nullified local ordinances, such as paid sick leave, that protect low wage workers.

Local 397’s accomplishment proves that progress is possible, even in this anti-union environment. They made this law a goal early, and formed a plan to get it passed. They worked with the local building trades council to amplify their voice. The St. Pete City Council was solidly anti-union at the beginning of the campaign, and the mayor was not labor-friendly. Slowly, election by election, labor managed to flip city council seats and build a pro-union majority. Once they finally got a friendly mayor into office, the path was clear for the bill to become law. The plan took time and effort to succeed, but will benefit ironworkers in the Tampa Bay area for a long time to come.

What comes next? It’s tempting to sit back and revel in a victory, but that would be a mistake. Letting success make us complacent has backfired on organized labor before. Local 397 is keeping up their momentum to get this bill passed in neighboring Tampa and the Hillsborough School District. This would be a huge deal: Tampa is the center of Florida’s second largest metropolitan area and was recently so anti-union, the city advertised its union-free facilities on the convention center website. Now the political climate is friendlier and Local 397 is making progress. Business Manager Jack Jarrell recently appeared on Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s local television show to pitch the bill and publicize the apprenticeship program.

This local law isn’t a fluke. Local 402 (West Palm Beach, Fla.) has passed similar legislation over the past decade and a half in Palm Beach County, Florida, the Port of Palm Beach, and several neighboring municipalities. The laws provide incentives for contractors to employ apprentices and penalties for contractors that fail to do so. This has translated to a big increase in man-hours for the local. Take this to heart: unions can succeed in politics, and that success can be duplicated. Iron Worker locals of any size can impact the political process with the right combination of organization, skill and determination.

When talking about politics, it’s easy to throw up your hands and say, “What’s the point?” if you live in an anti-union state. Apathy is easier than action. If you give up, though, you’ll miss out on opportunities to put union ironworkers to work. Bills that benefit workers can fly under the radar of national anti-union groups if they are passed on the local level. Building coalitions with friendly community groups shows that our policies help more than just organized labor. Find the right office, choose a reachable goal, and keep working until you achieve it. Setbacks and defeats are inevitable, so use them as learning opportunities to adjust your strategy. Keep at it, and you can achieve victory even in the most hostile environment.

Watch Local 397 on Mayor Buckhorn’s show at http://bit.ly/1PeXxMh.