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By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer

Last month, December 2013, the International Union of Operating Engineers rejoined the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO. Just as the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council is the umbrella organization for construction unions in the City, so the Building and Construction Trades Department represents construction unions nationally; and just as for all but a few of our 118 years the Council has represented all construction unions here, so the Department has with few exceptions in its 106 years coordinated the joint efforts of all our Internationals.

One of those exceptions began in 2006, when the Operators and the Laborers International Union of North America withdrew from the Department and founded the National Construction Alliance with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which had left the Department some years before.

The Laborers rejoined the Department in 2008. Now, with the return of the Operators, we see continue a trend at all levels toward a reunification of our movement that will certainly make us stronger.

The Operators and the Carpenters remained a part of the Council here in San Francisco even while they stood apart at the national level. Laborers Local 261 withdrew from the Council at the end of 2005. We welcomed them back in June of last year. Hod Carriers Local 166 left the Council informally shortly after Laborers Local 261. We are in discussions with them about rejoining in the first part of this year. With their return we would again be at full strength.

Under President Robbie Hunter, the California State Building and Construction Trades Council has also welcomed back unions that had broken away. Brother Hunter began to display his skill at building accord among the Trades as Executive Secretary of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council, when he helped the Carpenters and the Building and Construction Trades Department come to an agreement on jurisdictional dispute resolution procedures in project labor agreement work in Southern California that was patterned closely on one we had here in Northern California.

Now, through Brother Hunter’s work, Operating Engineers Local 12, from Southern California, and Operating Engineers Local 3, beside whose members we in San Francisco work every day, have rejoined the State Building Trades after some years apart.

Anyone who reads Brother Hunter’s monthly column in this newspaper has seen him preach the gospel of unity. I say amen.

Everyone should understand that this unity takes work.

We are all proud of our trades, of their skills, knowledge, and traditions. No work in any industry is lacking in disagreements. In ours, we see work to which our skills, knowledge, and traditions seem suited, we see that members of another Trade are performing it, we think of the years and efforts we have invested in becoming proficient in our own Trade, and we think, If that work is not ours, our time and trouble will have been wasted. I sometimes say that our greatest strength, our high level of skill, is at the same time our greatest weakness, in that conflicts that weaken us result when we feel obliged to protect our investment in our skill. Jurisdictional disagreements have plagued us in the American building trades from our very beginnings.

Our leaders have also disagreed on how much emphasis – and so on how much of your and my dues money – should be spent on organizing, and how much on political action. This was the stated dispute that led to some of the more recent rips in the labor movement that are now being stitched shut.

The occasions for jurisdictional and policy disagreements are many. Disagreements in our movement are inevitable. No one among us can know the perfect course of action to benefit us all.

Building Trades unions have fared better in recent years than other private-sector unions. This is not to say we have fared well. Our market share is far below its historic highs.

It suits not just our opponents, but some of our ostensible friends, whether employers or politicians, to be able to play us against one another, to exploit our inevitable disagreements. If we fight against each other for a decreasing market share, and not together to increase it, our employers will claim the necessity for concessions. If we do not speak with one voice to politicians, our voices will be whispers in a din of whispers.

If, on the other hand we work to keep our disputes among ourselves, whether in local or state Building Trades councils or in one united Building and Construction Trades Department; if we then present to our opponents, our employers, and politicians a single front of tens of thousands of workers at the local level, hundreds of thousands at the state level, millions nationally – then our voice can ring out, then we can sustain the demands that regain our market share and improve our contracts, then our tables and checkbooks can feed our children’s aspirations.

Let us all applaud, then, this latest step away from division and toward unity, the return of the International Union of Operating Engineers to the Building and Construction Trades Department.

And we will hope for and work toward others.

 
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