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State of the Unions
South Jersey’s labor associations, whether they’re part of a union or not, are seeing overall growth in their support, but building membership among younger generations still needs a boost.

by Kristen Dowd

Support for labor unions has been on the rise in the United States. 

From actors and writers in Hollywood to baristas at Starbucks, high-profile labor disputes have been making the news in recent years. The influence of these stories has not been lost on Americans, with two-thirds showing union approval according to a recent Gallup poll. At 71%, this number was even higher in an American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations poll conducted late last year.

“The increased attention given to labor disputes and the support of unions in mainstream media has led to greater awareness and advocacy for workers’ rights across various industries. This means that more people are recognizing the importance of collective bargaining, fair wages and safe working conditions,” says William C. Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters (EASRCC).

“The support for unions in high-profile industries can create a sense of solidarity among workers, including those in the construction trades. Unions act as the collective voice of workers within industries and communities, allowing us to advocate for social justice, environmental sustainability and economic development.”

Unions hitting the news cycle has opened the public’s eyes to the fact that collective bargaining and a unified voice are not centered in one certain industry. 

“Unions are everywhere, and I think that was kind of hidden over the years. That’s finally starting to disappear,” says Mike Laughlin, executive at large and assistant business manager of International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) District Council 21.

“People realize there’s an opportunity here. What comes with being in a union? Typically it’s health care. Protection. The ability to earn a livable wage.”

Increasing approval amongst the public also signals that, particularly in the construction industry, unions are a marker of safety, quality and skill. 

“I think in the commercial construction industry, unions are a key component to a safe and quality construction. There are background checks. They’re trained. They’re skilled,” notes Amy Hennessey, executive director of the Employing Bricklayers Association of Delaware Valley. “So they go through a program where you know who is on your job site and you also know they have the ability to do the work safely. Not only to be safe on the job, but to safely construct the building.”

Union labor has always been a reliable career choice in the Garden State, according to Jill Schiff, chief operation officer at Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey (ACCNJ). The upcoming Construction Industry Career Day (CICD) is an excellent way to highlight what skilled labor career opportunities are available in the state.

“New Jersey’s unions have long focused on attracting young people to the trades. Each year, CICD attracts thousands of high school students, parents, unemployed, underemployed and veterans seeking career opportunities,” Schiff says. “Registration numbers for the event are the highest they have ever been—seeing support for unions nationwide could be a factor in that.”

Sproule says the EASRCC is seeing a positive trend in increased awareness of union benefits and interest in joining a union, especially among younger generations. IUPAT District Council 21 is also seeing membership growth, according to Laughlin, but due to natural attrition, numbers are dropping, too. In the painter trades, for instance, it’s projected that membership will drop 40% over the next seven years. Laughlin imagines a lot of other unions are in similar situations, which is why “recruiting as much as we possibly can” with young adults is key and why IUPAT District Council 21 has a presence at high school career fairs.

Samantha DeAlmeida Roman is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) New Jersey Chapter, where membership skews toward about 90% non-union contractors. Whether a skilled worker opts for a union shop or not, she notes that the field can be attractive because schooling is typically free. And industry education is of the utmost importance, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many skilled laborers to exit the industry. Investing in young people, veterans and individuals coming back from incarceration is how to build the industry back up.  

“Really put the time, money and effort into them so they stay with your company and grow with the industry,” DeAlmeida Roman says. She adds that the Mount Laurel-based ABC Garden State group represents about 1,300 member companies encompassing about 170,000 people. The organization offers apprenticeship training in 26 trades, safety training, networking opportunities and government advocacy. The ABC New Jersey Apprenticeship Education and Training Fund is its sister organization. “We really invest in workforce development and grow the next generation of tradespeople through that.” 

As longtime members retire, their shoes need to be filled. But it’s important to reach these future tradespeople long before they enter an apprenticeship program. IUPAT District Council 21 hired a recruitment director to focus on growth, and is ramping up high school programs exposing students to trades early. 

There’s also a need to bolster membership among groups historically underrepresented in trade organizations, such as minorities and women. Figuring out how to appeal to these populations has changed how IUPAT District Council 21 approaches recruiting. For instance, in South Jersey, often a young adult will turn 17, get their driver’s license and have access to a car. Residents in more urban areas, however, don’t always have access to cars or even have their driver’s licenses—a roadblock that “usually affects minorities,” McLaughlin says. To combat it, IUPAT District Council 21 is working to set up driver’s ed schools as a roadmap to earning a license.

“We’ve realized that is a way to increase our numbers,” McLaughlin says. “We want our union to look like the markets we work in. We need membership to reflect people who live in our cities.”

Women are harder to bring into the field, DeAlmeida Roman says, and reaching them as students is one reason she likes talking to middle schoolers. 

“I’ve heard stories of girls wanting to get into the trades and pushed more toward cosmetology school. … There needs to be a complete change in culture and open mindedness to get people to understand girls want to get into this work, too,” she says. Simulators are one of the newest ways to engage young minds, she explains, adding ABC has two heavy equipment simulators it uses. “Kids love video games. This is a great way to engage them. It’s much more exciting than handing them a piece of paper.” 

According to Hennessey, it can be difficult to find people in younger generations who want to join the commercial construction industry, where you show up to work regardless of the weather because a critical job won’t wait. Joining a union is a great way to move up what Hennessey calls the “construction chain of opportunity.” A mason can learn how to do estimating, which may bring about a job as an estimator for a subcontractor. This can teach him how to run a business, and he can then become a foreman on the job site.

“When people talk about the trades, they only think about the man on the job site. That man on the job site has a career path that is never discussed,” Hennessey says. “There’s all kinds of avenues that the unions can allow these students to follow that path and create more independence.”

According to Schiff, the things unions offer—training, fair wages, strong benefits, safe work environments and conditions, support—are not necessarily found in other career choices and occupations anymore.

“With so much to bring to the table,” she says, “unions will continue to attract, educate and train the most skilled craftworkers New Jersey has to offer, which leads to a safe and reliable workforce that New Jersey will always value.”

In South Jersey, union leaders understand there is no place for complacency in their ranks—they need to work hard to grow, to thrive and to offer the best to members.

“In this pivotal moment, unions must adapt and engage strategically to thrive. Key measures include integrating technology, emphasizing diversity and inclusion, and providing comprehensive training, competitive wages and benefits,” Sproule says. “By advocating for workers in emerging industries, engaging youth and addressing broader societal concerns, unions can redefine their role. Maintaining consistency in addressing the evolving needs of workers is imperative for sustaining a healthy and sustainable workplace for all.”

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 14, Issue 3 (February 2024).

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