Decades of Cooperation Net Huge New Construction Contract

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Construction unions and contractors in the Huntington, Ashland and Ironton areas are marking almost four decades of cooperation and a huge, new five-year contract. The construction trades in the tri-state region have not had a work stoppage since the mid-1970s. So Jim Cerra, executive director of the Tri-State Contractors’ Association, said it is no surprise they could lock in a big five-year agreement.

Cerra pointed out that, in spite of what people hear, the parties realized a long time ago that they could make more money by staying union and cooperating.

“You hear all this garbage about unions and union contractors – you know, ‘They’re not competitive.’ Well, virtually all of the union contractors that we represent have stayed in business. They haven’t dropped out or gone non-union,” he said.

Part of what has worked well over the years is a rigorous drug-testing and safety-training system that has been written into the past and current contracts. About 13 percent of construction workers nationwide fail random drug tests.

However, said Steve Burton with the Tri-State Building and Construction Trades Council, their rate comes in below one-quarter of that. He says that’s drawn praise from Governor Tomblin and helped make their work sites safer.

“There’s just too many ways to get hurt,” Burton said. “It has made us a lot more productive and the accidents has went down tremendously.”

According to Cerra, union workers may cost more, but their high level of training makes a difference.

“The one that’s skilled and makes 30 bucks an hour, they just go in there and do it,” Cerra said. “It may take three or four of the 10-dollar-an-hours to perform the same job.”

Other unions and companies may have conflicts, but Burton said in this case a long-standing, positive relationship helps everyone – in part, because it means predictability.

“The contractor feels very comfortable that when they call the union hall, they’ll get a person they know can perform that work, and perform it in a safe and efficient manner,” he said.

The massive new contract covers more than 20 union locals and about 50 contractors, and can apply to tens of thousands of workers at a time. It runs through May, 2018.

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