Since as early as 7 AM, for the past week, representatives from the Boston Building Trades Council of the Metropolitan District (or Metro BCTC) have been gathering near Tufts University campus coffee shop, Brown and Brew, and Powder House Square in order to protest the school’s lack of commitment to using unionized labor on their construction projects.
“The building trades unions are protesting Tufts’ labor policies,” Chelsea Feuchs, the Hospital and Higher Education Campaign Coordinator for the Metro BCTC said in a phone interview, “when it comes to construction projects, [Tufts] doesn’t use unionized labor consistently and that’s a problem because it means workers aren’t getting family supporting wages, health benefits or pension benefits. What I would like to see. . . is a solid commitment to a protected, well-trained workforce [who are] unionized.”
And asking for this policy is not unheard of in higher education. Several Boston-area schools, including Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Boston, have made such commitments, often in the form of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) which are agreements that require union labor on all or a specific set of development projects.
On the other hand, Kim Thurler, a university spokesperson, in an emailed statement when asked about the protests, explained, “Tufts University is committed to hiring contractors that can deliver high quality services that adhere to all applicable safety standards and [which] also meet our budget and schedule needs.”
She adds that the Turner Construction Company, which was contracted to build the new science and engineering complex on campus, employed only union workers for all trades working on the project, with the exception of the electricians. The statement emphasizes that this decision to use non-unionized or “open-shop” electricians was “not taken lightly” but ultimately allowed the project to stay on budget, saving Tufts “28% on this multimillion dollar subcontract.”
Thurler further contends the concern that Tufts hires without commitment to unionized subcontractors, by explaining that the Central Energy Plant, a new construction which will reduce emissions by 12%, “is employing 100% union construction trades,” as well as all the Boston campus projects.
How it works
For readers unfamiliar with how university construction projects are contracted, here’s some context.
When a school like Tufts decides it wants to build a new dorm, science lab or repair the Memorial Steps, the Operations Division, headed by Linda Snyder, in Tufts case, makes a request for bids from a minimum of three contracting companies. These companies appraise the designs, plans and materials needed and give the university a quote on the cost of the project. The bid which appeals most to the university is selected and signed. These contractors then hire over a dozen types of tradespeople: plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and so forth — depending on what is needed for the job.
Depending on the contractor and the policies of the end-user (in this case Tufts), all or some or none of these subcontractors could be unionized.
Unionized workers are guaranteed to receive what’s called a “family-supporting” wage, healthcare benefits, a pension plan and all complete at least four to five years of hands-on training at their trade, according to Metro BCTC representative, Chelsea Feuchs. They are known in the industry for being efficient and highly-skilled.
Non-unionized contractors, on the other hand, offer none of these guarantees. However, this is not to say non-unionized workers are universally underpaid, without benefits and without training, just that it is not guaranteed as it is with unionized labor.
The recent protests have not come without prior negotiation attempts. As one Metro BCTC representative, who declined to speak publicly, explained, the Council has reached out to university officials on six separate occasions offering ways to “help protect every working family” without a cost increase but administrators have routinely refused.
And, as, Chelsea Feuchs, a Metro BCTC representative illustrates, the construction projects referenced in spokesperson Thurler’s statement is an incomplete look at the projects currently underway at Tufts.
Of the fourteen projects described in this construction update from the university, ten rely on a majority non-unionized workforce, with only a small number of subcontractors represented by a union, according to Metro BCTC representatives with first-hand knowledge of the projects. The four which employ a majority union-represented workforce were the engineering complex, power plant and the Boston campus projects which Tufts spokesperson, Thurler, referenced.
These construction projects, will, however, repair and renovate over half a dozen dorm spaces and labs, create a new state-of-the-art research center and completely supplant a 60-year-old energy plant with a more efficient facility, among other major improvements to facilities across Tufts’ campuses.
The Dollars and Cents
So does all this non-unionized labor even save Tufts money? The short answer is yes.
Using non-unionized labor costs less in wages and can avoid costly strikes or disputes. In 2010, according to the Service Employees International Union website, the average wage of a unionized worker nation-wide was $917 per week — for a non-unionized worker it was $200 less at $717. Also, because the union workers form a collective under a contract, “if a dispute occurs between a company and the labor union,” George Root, a labor reporter for Small Business Chronicle writes, “the company may have to endure the cost and bad publicity of a strike.” In a non-union labor situation, the company can directly address employee concerns which saves the hiring company time and money.
But according to Metro BCTC representatives, cost savings can, in higher education contexts, be insignificant because labor itself is typically only a small percentage of a total project’s cost. In fact, for a fifty or a hundred million dollar project, according to union representatives, savings may only be in the couple of millions. And this fact is corroborated by another report in BrickUnderground.com, a real estate blog, where co-op and condo attorney, Robert Braverman of Braverman Greenspun, explains that “in order to get the same quality of employee,” cost differentials will most often be small.
The post further explains how the “main cost driver” of any savings is primarily a benefits package, including insurance and pension options. This means any savings Tufts is seeing from contractors which are employing non-unionized labor could be coming at the expense of workers’ benefits.
And there’s another cost to the university and its students, according to Chelsea Feuchs, besides the financial consideration and that cost is safety. “Unionized workers go through rigorous apprenticeship programs so they are the best trained workers in the industry,” Feuchs said in an interview, “they are producing the safest product [which] is important for the students who will go into those buildings to learn. You need to be able to be safe in a space that’s well functioning.”
And another benefit, Feuchs explained is unionized labor is local. She described a phenomenon in the industry called “fly-by-night contractors” which are contractors that can be based in other parts of the country and “once the project is done,” Feuchs outlined, “they go home, taking those earnings somewhere else.”
“We have tried so many times to start a healthy positive relationship with the Tufts administration,” Feuchs said in answer to why Metro BCTC is now protesting, “and there are only so many times that you can extend that olive branch without getting any sort of commitment to protect working people.”
She adds that “it’s important that Tufts and universities across the state really care about and protect their workers” which includes janitors and adjunct professors, as well as tradespeople.
“We see our role as protecting every working family in this region on every campus,” Brian Doherty, the General Agent for the Boston Metro Buildings Trade Council said in an interview, “we want to help universities have a positive impact on their communities.”
Administrators on the other hand, said in their statement, “We recognize the right of those who disagree with our practices to express their views as long as they adhere to labor union guidelines and do not interfere with project activities, public access or safety.”
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