More than 20 years ago, when Kelly Street went to work as a heavy machinery operator, he was surprised his apprenticeship gave him the opportunity to learn a trade and get paid immediately for it.
“Most companies, they want somebody that already knows how to do it, and through the union, you can make money while you’re training,” Street said.
Now Street works for Union Pacific Railroad as a carman, inspecting and repairing freight train cars. He’s also chairman of his local union within the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen.
The paid training he got as a machinery operator — and later as a carman — isn’t uncommon in trade jobs. Unions and businesses have been known to co-sponsor training as part of workers’ negotiated benefits packages.
“I would say that the training that the unions offer is probably the best in the industry,” said Brian Dietz, vice president and regional general counsel at JE Dunn Construction.
With union-provided training, businesses get workers and workers get free education. It’s one answer to the question, “How can unions and businesses work together to drive economic growth?”
That question was submitted by a reader through the Your Voice tool as part of The Star’s Missouri Influencers Series. From now until election day in November, The Star will be taking questions from readers on an array of policy issues facing our state and posing those questions to our panel of 51 influential Missourians in politics.
When it comes to driving growth through union-management partnership, training was the name of the game.
Dietz, who is also co-chairman of the Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas City, said JE Dunn performs its own concrete work, carpentry and masonry with a union workforce. The company opts for union workers, he said, because it’s easier to find a trained, ready workforce that way.
“When a construction company works with construction unions, we’re able to get the workforce to where it needs to be with a lot more efficiency than if you were just trying to administrate that yourself,” Dietz explained.
That’s because the company may need workers with one skill set at the beginning of a job and other types of workers later on, so it’s important to have flexibility to find the workers it needs when it needs them.
That workforce issue is going to be huge in the coming years with workers retiring, said Bob Jacobi, executive director of the Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas City.
Cici Rojas, partner and president of Tico Productions and Tico Sports and an Influencer, said that workforce development is key in driving private-sector growth. Skill shortages mean higher costs, project delays and missed opportunities to attract new companies.
“Business and unions can work together to create pathways for unskilled workers to be trained to fill both construction- and technology-related jobs,” Rojas said.
James Harris, a political strategist and another Influencer, said the same, but that unions should avoid taking a “needlessly aggressive approach,” including picketing.
“The simple truth of the matter is there are valid reasons that some businesses might prefer a union workforce, such as training, while some may prefer non-union workers,” Harris said.
Gregg Keller, principal of Atlas Strategy Group and an Influencer, said businesses should work with workers, “not overpaid, special-interest union bosses.”
Woody Cozad, a lobbyist and former state GOP chairman, said he thought the balance of power between labor and management had improved over the decades.
But he wasn’t sure there was much labor and management could do together to drive growth.
Herb Johnson, a retired lobbyist who represented the Missouri AFL-CIO, said it’s unfortunate that the relationship between labor and management can be “adversarial.”
“Because, after all, we need each other,” Johnson said. “We need employment, and they need labor.”
But Dave Wilson, director of organizing for the western region of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, said seeing unions and businesses as adversarial is a “1960s way of thinking.”
“That is not how unions operate today,” Wilson said. “We understand that we have to work together if we’re going to create opportunities for carpenters and families to have a better life.”
His union, he said, provides low-interest loans to contractors to expand their businesses.
Jeremy Cady, state director for Americans for Prosperity-Missouri, said labor and management can work together if they both add value where they can.
He said businesses are “the ones that bring us technology. They’re the ones that think outside the box. They’re the ones that bring us new jobs.”
Unions have a role to play in training, he said.
Influencer Jane Dueker, a lawyer, radio host and former political adviser, said unions and management can communicate better and improve their working relationship.
“That ability to communicate has been unnecessarily frustrated by politicians pushing legislation year after year to advance politics and pit labor against management,” Dueker said.
That communication can even drive economic growth, said John Fierro, a Kansas City Public Schools board member and Influencer.
“It starts with cooperation, followed by the mutual aim of improving organizational performance and sustainability, resulting in benefits for both the employer and employees,” Fierro said.
On the issue of boosting Missouri’s gas tax to fund transportation, Missouri business interests and unions are in agreement. A phased-in 10-cent gas tax hike will be on the ballot this fall, and Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry president and CEO Dan Mehan said businesses and unions should work together.
“In the past, employers have worked side by side with unions to advocate for increased state funding for roads and bridge maintenance and repair,” Mehan said in a statement. “We have an opportunity to work together again this November to accelerate investment in our transportation system through Proposition D. The measure would provide safer roads for our citizens, while increasing the value of a critical economic asset that is our highway system. A large portion of the work would go to union laborers.”
Union supporters also argue organizing can help workers fight for better wages.
“No matter what kind of work you’re doing — from what seems like the simplest to the most technical — the people who are doing the work have to be ... fairly paid and respected for what it is they do, and if you’re going to insist on the opposite, well, then you’re not going to make a great deal of progress,” Johnson said.
Michael Barrett, Missouri State Public Defender director and an Influencer, said business should “embrace” higher wages and improved working conditions because it’s right and makes business sense.
“When workers have disposable income, they spend money,” Barrett said. “They do home repairs, buy a motorcycle, take their family out for dinner. In other words, they generate revenue for every other employer in the area.”
Mark Bryant, a lawyer and former Kansas City Council member, said unions and businesses are both interested in a company’s success.
“If businesses share the wealth, organized labor will help increase productivity, and together, they will drive economic growth,” Bryant said.
In measuring economic growth, though, Vernon Howard, a pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, said it’s important to track the progress of the working poor.
“Our position is that there are basically two economies — one for the well-to-do, and there’s another economy for the not-so-well-to-do. The problem is that the measures for economic growth do not always consider sustainability for the working poor,” Howard said. “If we don’t consider how are wages for the poorest of the poor doing in any kind of economic analysis then we are missing a whole strata of people who are vital to our economy.”
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