Wars of Attrition: Vietnam, the Business Roundtable, and the Decline of Construction Unions
Wars of Attrition: Vietnam, the Business Roundtable, and the Decline of Construction Unions, Fanpihua Press, (2d Rev. Ed. 2000)
459 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2013
Date Written: 2000
The decline of the once quasi-monopolistic construction unions during the last quarter of the twentieth century was not unique: in the steel, automobile, rubber, clothing, and other industries unions also experienced severe decreases in membership. But unlike industrial unions, the building trades were not victims of cheap imports from an inexorably globalizing economy: high-wage union pipefitters building petrochemical and power plants in Texas did not lose their jobs to low-paid construction workers in or from China. Instead, their jobs were taken by compatriots, some of them until recently union brothers, employed by cut-rate antiunion construction firms — some of which had been union firms in good standing. Indeed, some nonunion contractors were subsidiaries of long-time respectable union contractors.
Unlike their counterparts in manufacturing industries, where employment plummeted in tandem with unionization, construction workers significantly increased in number. Moreover, whereas the world market did not begin intimidating U.S. industrial workers until the latter half of the 1970s, construction unions became subject to economic and political attacks a decade earlier, during the Vietnam War. This asynchronous development was curious because competitive pressure on the construction industry was largely derivative. Since the primary source of these attacks was large industrial owner-customers, which complained that exploding construction wages were driving new plant construction costs to levels at which the products produced in them were becoming less competitive, manufacturing corporations, remarkably, did not focus on their own employees, but turned instead to construction workers, whose wages represented only a small share of the costs of manufactured products. And finally, much more so than their industrial colleagues, construction workers were attacked by a complex coalition of employers, the state, industrial customers, and the media, intent on breaking unions’ control of the supply of skilled building tradesmen.
Against the background of the depletion of the industrial reserve army during the Vietnam War, this book explains how the complex interaction between the invisible hand of the labor market and the visible hands of large industrial customers, the Federal Government, and construction employer organizations inflicted a series of defeats on the building trades unions — the most entrenched segment of the labor movement in the United States — culminating in the vast expansion of the “union-free” sector of the construction industry.
Keywords: construction industry, construction unions, Building and Construction Trades Department, Business Roundtable, Construction Users Anti-Inflation Roundtable, National Constructors Association, Associated Builders and Contractors, Vietnam War, open shop, Nixon administration, racism, Bechtel Corp
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