The Devaluation of the Skilled Worker


Eighteen years ago, I became the first woman to enter the apprenticeship program of the Bricklayers & Allied Craftsmen Local No. 1 of Maryland. I was thrilled to have the privilege of continuing a revered and ancient craft.

Last year, the members of my union did me the honor of electing me president of our local. It is a victory that I have had little chance to savor; for it came at a time when demand and respect for our talents and skills are in severe decline.

The durability and benefits of masonry are unquestionable. The greatest wonders of the ancient world attest to it. Masonry is unsurpassed when it comes to fire safety. Masonry lines the superheated furnaces and ovens used in the production of steel or glass. And, in the long run, masonry is more cost effective, because it rarely needs to be replaced.

Paralleling the degradation of the masonry trade is the degradation of the mason. In 1970 members of my union could support a family on one income. Bricklayer, tile-setter or stone mason were careers to aspire to. Because the majority of masonry work was union labor, most of us had the added benefits of pensions, health coverage and safer working conditions.

Yet in 1990, at the end of the longest economic boom in post-war history, union masons in Baltimore found ourselves making 19.3 percent less in real wages (adjusted for inflation) than we made in 1970.

The unions for many years set the standards by which building-trades workers earned their livings. Unfortunately, the Reagan and Bush administrations, while praising Poland's Solidarity union and encouraging the Soviet coal miners' union, have supported legislation and court decisions which have weakened unions in this country. The decline of unions affects all workers and contributes to the unbridled accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and the further impoverishment of the many.

Unemployment is rampant in the construction industry today. Two recent Sun articles pointed out that the recession has helped the stadium and Commerce Place projects come in under budget because subcontractors are willing to work for less. But the articles failed to mention how the profits were divided and at whose expense the savings were made.

The human cost of cut-throat competition has been high. In Baltimore today, non-union bricklayers work for approximately half the local prevailing rate for wages and benefits. (Prevailing wage rates are determined by the State of Maryland.) They are often less skilled, having been denied the advantage of participating in state-approved apprenticeship programs. Few have health insurance, and pensions are unheard of for these workers.

Unscrupulous non-union contractors are taking advantage of the influx of a desperate new wave of immigration, primarily from Mexico and Central America. In the Baltimore area most of these workers are documented, but many cannot speak English and do not know their rights.

Like the Italian, Irish and Eastern European immigrants that arrived on our shores previously, these workers are at the mercy of their employers. Their availability is used against local workers to drive our standard of living down even further.

This devaluation of workers in the masonry industry -- in all the building trades, in fact -- is driving many of the best and brightest among us from the trade. It is not enough that we work in the most dangerous industry in the country; that we must endure the extremes of hot and cold; that we get no paid vacations or paid holidays; and that we average only nine months of work a year in a healthy economy.

Now we are told that we are only worth half of what we were 20 years ago. Increasingly, we are being forced to work, if we can find jobs, at a wage that inspires no pride and encourages no productivity.

It is important that these devastating trends be reversed. The Baltimore City Council has already helped by passing legislation requiring licensing of heavy equipment operators. Future legislation requiring competency-based testing and licensing for all construction-trades workers should also be adopted at both the local and state levels. We also need stricter licensing requirements for contractors.

And lastly, state and local lawmakers can assist by extending the current prevailing-wage requirements on public construction to private commercial construction.

Barbara Moore is president of the Bricklayers & Allied Craftsmen Local No. 1.

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