By TIM ROWDEN
In an unwarranted slap in the face to local building trades unions, and a risky move that could make worksites less safe, the St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 Oct. 2 to change the county’s procurement regulations to no longer require bidders for certain contracts to either participate in or maintain apprenticeship programs approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Missouri’s union apprenticeship training programs turn out the most productive, safest, most qualified workers in the state, but they are caught in the crosshairs of the ongoing squabble between certain members of the County Council and County Executive Steve Stenger.
The bill gutting the apprenticeship requirement was introduced by Republican Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger (District 3) and supported by fellow Republicans Mark Harder (District 7) and Ernie Trakas (District 6), as well as Democrats Sam Page (District 2) and Hazel Erby (District 1).
Democrats Pat Dolan (District 5) and Rochelle Walton Gray (District 4) voted against it.
Dolan, is a 41-year member and president of Sprinkler Fitters Local 268 and apprentice coordinator for the Missouri AFL-CIO.
As apprentice coordinator, he helps recruit minorities and women into the building trades, particularly through the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council’s Building Union Diversity (BUD) program.
“Apprenticeship programs — union and nonunion — have made tremendous efforts in enhancing the opportunities for minorities and women to get into the trades and stay in the trades,” Dolan said. “I don’t know if that’s overlooked or just misunderstood, but it’s one of the best pathways for minorities and women to get into a good-paying career.”
Despite Dolan’s efforts, the bill passed and now goes to Stenger for review. Stenger could veto the bill, but the council has enough votes to override him.
BUILDING UNION DIVERSITY
Critics of the requirements contend it makes it harder for women- and minority-owned businesses to compete for county work. But that criticism doesn’t recognize the serious efforts local building trades unions have made, particularly in recent years, to be more inclusive.
Recognizing the need to be more inclusive and get more minorities and women into the building trades, the BUD program was launched in 2014 in a partnership with the Building & Construction Trades Council, the Eastern Missouri Laborers District Council and the St. Louis-Kansas City Regional Carpenters, with funding from the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE) and the Missouri Division of Workforce Development.
Local unions open their training centers for the pre-apprentices during the five- to eight-week program to give them basic training and a feel for each of the trades. United Way and Metro also help, providing participants with transportation and assistance with other needs that may be preventing them from getting or keeping a job.
From the program’s inception 2014 through July 1, 2018:
• 147 people have entered the program.
• 128 completed the five- to eight-week pre-apprenticeship.
• 111 (87 percent) were hired with union contractors.
Of those completing the program:
• 81 percent have been minorities.
• 19 percent have been women.
• Seven percent have been veterans.
NO LONGER BUILDING TRADES OF THE 1960S
While acknowledging that building trades apprenticeship programs have not always been inclusive many years ago, John Stiffler, executive secretary-treasurers of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council said they have been working hard to correct that, including going to high schools to reach out to young men and women, trying to recruit participants for the BUD program and for construction of the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility in St. Louis.
“More than ever, the Building Trades are extremely proactive in trying to recruit minorities, people of color and women into the trades,” Stiffler said, “but nobody outside of the building trades world seems to give us any credit for it. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop, we’re going to keep going forward, but the people on the County Council seem to think we’re still the old building trades of the 1960s.
“I’d get it if we weren’t doing anything and we were all just being lazy old white guys,” Stiffler said. “But we’re all steering the boat in the right direction, and nobody seems to give us any credit for that. It’s frustrating.”
St. Louis Labor Council President Pat White said the bill appeared to be based more on politics and the settling of old disputes than a true assessment of the progress building trades unions have made in increasing the diversity of their ranks and the honest efforts that are being made to make them even better. (See related table.)
In addition to the BUD program, White said, “A lot of the trades have hired or brought on outreach folks. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re not going to stop doing that, but cutting us off at the knees isn’t going to get it done.
U.S. Department of Labor standards for apprenticeship programs ensure workers are properly trained to provide safe and quality construction, White said.
“Removing the requirement that training programs meet those standards will hurt our unions, our contractors and our minority union members,” he said.
IMPACT ON WORKPLACE SAFETY
“In my opinion, they’re going to make it a more unsafe work environment out there,” White said, citing as an example the June 4 accident in which two workers on a job site on Washington Ave. in St. Louis when fell to their deaths in an elevator shaft.
“If you look at the two gentlemen that lost their lives on that project, they were non-union folks. The union guys walked off that job because of how unsafe it was,” White said. “The apprenticeship program teaches safety, they teach the right thing to do if somebody is trying to make you work unsafely.
“Missouri is an at-will employment state,” White said. “So if you don’t have a protective bargaining agreement protecting you and the guy tells you get in that unsafe elevator shaft, you have to make a choice. You get in there and make your money so you go home and feed your kids, or you can go home and probably lose your job because you think it’s unsafe. I think they’ve made it a more unsafe environment.”