- Mapping and Charting Construction Organizing Targets and Opportunities:Lessons from Wisconsin
Although U.S. construction spending is at record highs, union density in construction has actually been shrinking. From 1992 to 2003, density went from 20 to 16 percent, even though membership grew by over 200,000 due to even greater workforce growth (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004). This apparent contradiction has many construction unionists asking, "What are we doing wrong?" Although industry data suggests organizing opportunities may be significant, organizing resources are not, which inevitably leads the discussion to where and how to most effectively target organizing resources.
The innovative International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has adopted a strong organizing focus among its inside construction local unions since the late 1980s, mandating that each inside local employ a full-time organizer. These full-time organizers meet monthly on a state-wide level with regular progress meetings among the entire district. I regularly attend these meetings, and at one of them, in early 2004, we engaged in a mapping exercise to track electrical contractors and the jobs they were working on. One organizer mentioned that it was possible to get the raw data from the Wisconsin prevailing-wage survey. Later that day, we had a CD-ROM with raw survey data for inside electricians by county for the entire state of Wisconsin 2000 through 2003. Each data record showed the contractor name, the project name and location, the number of hours worked by inside electricians on that project, the hourly wage and fringe benefit scale paid, and whether the contractor was unionized or not. It was quite easy to download these data, which we saved in a comma-separated variable ("CSV") file into an Access database and an Excel spreadsheet. This, in turn, enabled us to find out how [End Page 73] many hours were reported by union and nonunion contractors on specific projects in specific counties for any period in the last four years. Prior to sharing the results of an analysis of market share by county, only one or two of the organizers present had any idea of union density in the counties in their geographic jurisdiction. When we presented them with a union density "map" for each county for each year of the four-year period (2000-2003), the effect was startling—as if somebody had thrown a firecracker into the room. Since then I have used these data in top-down and bottom-up organizing programs, but also in bargaining and job-targeting programs with the IBEW and other unions.
In this article, we first provide some background as to exactly what this database is, including a summary of how prevailing-wage laws work for those readers not very familiar with construction unions. We then demonstrate, with some concrete examples, how the database works together with mapping and charting for organizing and bargaining. Finally, we describe efforts underway in other states and other construction unions to replicate this survey method, and show how other labor educators and construction organizers can duplicate this effort in their state.
Prevailing-wage laws and survey databases—an introduction
Since the first prevailing-wage law was passed in Kansas in 1891, many, but not all, U.S. states have passed prevailing-wage or "little" Davis-Bacon laws to mirror the Federal Davis-Bacon Act, passed in 1931. Originally, forty-one states, including the District of Columbia passed such laws. Nine have since repealed them. The federal law covers public-works projects that are federally-funded, while the state laws cover projects funded by state and local governments. According to its sponsor, Davis-Bacon was "designed to protect local wage standards by preventing contractors from basing their bids on wages lower than those prevailing in the area" by requiring "the contractors, including subcontractors, to pay not less than the prevailing rate of wages for work of a similar nature" (U.S. Congress, 43). In order to determine the prevailing-wage rate, a voluntary wage and fringe benefit survey is conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor (Federal Davis-Bacon) and state labor departments (where a "little" Davis-Bacon law exists). In Wisconsin...