How Contractor Associations Work with Labor Unions to Fill in the Gaps — and Sometimes Save the Day

Contractor News talks with industry leader Jon O’Brien about contractors working with labor unions to get back to restart the economy while promoting workers’ rights and health and safety amid the coronavirus pandemic and opioid epidemic.

Source : Keystone Contractors Association

March 1, 2021

Author : Alex Bustillos

Union representation helps workers in the construction sector in a myriad of ways, but the work of contractor associations coordinating with unionized labor gets little attention.

Because these stories often go untold, Contractor News is spotlighting Jon O’Brien, host of the Building PA Podcast, who leads the Keystone Contractors Association (KCA), a Pennsylvania non-profit that represents contractors working with labor unions in their collective bargaining in 14 contracts.

These contracts include ones with the carpenters’ union, cement masons, operating engineers, bricklayers, and more. KCA helps these groups fight for favorable policies: terms and conditions, work hours, tools, reinforcement, wages, healthcare. Every three to four years, KCA sits down with these unions to iron out a new contract.

“The unions pretty much give companies our contract and say ‘here’s the deal; sign it. Take it or leave it,’” Jon O’Brien, Executive Director at KCA, told Contractor News. “With us, we can sit down at the table and say ‘We like this, we don’t like that, we want this changed. We can negotiate back and forth between management and labor. If you’re on your own, you just sign what they give you.”

KCA also offers education, training and networking opportunities in addition to having a full-time safety expert who provides weekly “toolbox talks.” While these talks have in the past been customized for specific jobs, they have been instrumental in reducing the spread of the coronavirus, which, as we have previously reported, has hit the construction industry hard in certain areas. These short, 15-minute talks, O’Brien says, provide constant reminders of safety best practices. “We’re humans, we make mistakes,” he said.

O’Brien also runs the General Contractor’s Association of Pennsylvania (GCAP) which is a government affairs and lobbying agency that also works with unions. 

When Pennsylvania shut down all construction except for healthcare related facilities, GCAP quickly recognized the need to get workers back to work. O’Brien says he convened with labor union associates in March 2020 to put together a letter urging for just that. But upon further consideration, they began to second guess. “We didn’t even know what Covid was,” he explains. Adding, “Is this the right thing to do, to be pushing our workers out into the great unknown?”

So they put it on the back burner to wait for the “dust to settle.” Instead, they “enlisted every great safety professional in Pennsylvania.” Over the next weeks, the coalition put together a 14-page safety plan to prevent the spread of the virus including things like having workers take lunch breaks in increments so everybody isn’t gathered together, taking their breaks at once. 

GCAP and its associates then sent their plan to Pennsylvania’s Congress, telling them “when the industry does re-open, rest assured, workers will be safe.” Contractors across the state then signed on to the plan, which created the political space for legislators to push the governor to re-open the industry. In mid-April, the governor cited the General Contractors Association of Pennsylvania’s guidance in its press release announcing that the state would allow for construction projects to resume.

While the coronavirus has consumed much of the conversation, it’s not the only affliction that has severely impacted the construction industry. Under O’Brien’s leadership, KCA was recently recognized by the Wall Street Journal for joining up with the National Safety Council to “create educational materials for companies to teach workers about the dangers of prescription painkillers and drug use.”

As the Journal reported, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said late last year that the US will break its 12-month record in drug deaths with a whopping figure of 81,230. While the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated opioid addiction, construction workers are uniquely vulnerable to opioid addiction due to the frequency of workplace accidents and the use of prescription painkillers to treat them.

According to a 2017 study, construction workers are the second-most susceptible of all workers to fall victim to opioid addiction.

Jon O’Brien meets with mental health advocate and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy, to discuss opioid awareness and addiction prevention.

O’Brien tells Contractor News that he drove around Pennsylvania meeting people in the industry, “the recurring issue was opioids; the all-American kid who played sports and dated cheerleaders in high school started working in construction and he was the last person you’d think of that would have a heroin issue. And it started because he was hurt on the jobsite.”

“It was like three meetings in a row with the carpenters where I was hearing about some young, twenty-something apprentice dying of an overdose.”

So O’Brien went to the board of KCA, telling them that something had to be done. “I got connected to the National Safety Council,” he said, and began working with them to implement their educational materials into construction sites. Pretty soon, KCA started distributing opioid awareness stickers. “We told all our employers, all our contractors, don’t just give it to your guys in a paycheck. Have it in a toolbox talk or a job site meeting, and physically give it to them. Let them know what it means.”

“Addicts are everywhere in our society, and they don’t have to hide in the shadows anymore,” O’Brien said.

After O’Brien’s initial work with the National Safety Council proved successful and well-received, he reached out to more organizations to get Pennsylvania to create a “Construction Opioids Awareness Week,” to raise even more awareness around the issue. “Next thing you know, I heard Massachusetts did something similar,” he said, after the state recognized the significance of how Pennsylvania was addressing the issue properly. Illinois and other states then followed suit. “I think we’re up to 20 states now. Even the unions got in big time too.”

“Some unions made a full-hour session and brought in consultants to talk about the issue,” O’Brien said.

The work of KCA and GCAP with unions, contractors, and companies serves as an important link that connects the dots and makes sure that all parties see their interests served. As O’Brien introduces his organizations to newly elected legislators in Pennsylvania, he says, the biggest challenge is helping them to realize that “you can be pro-business and pro-union.” Political polarization, he argues, gets in the way of the industry’s success.

Category : Contractor Trades Health and Safety Labor

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