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Solidarity: Now more than ever

"Solidarity. For those of us in the construction business," said Mike Shaw, president of El Cajon-based Perry & Shaw and president-elect of the Engineering & General Contractors Association (EGCA), "we think of unions when we think of solidarity. The strength of the trade unions has always come from their understanding of the need to work united, despite minor differences or internal agendas, to create a stronger entity to deal with management. The strength of the whole is greater than the sum of the strength of the individuals."

Shaw has worked in the construction industry for more than 30 years. "The learning experience has been varied," he said. "I have a college degree in engineering that started things off, I have worked on a variety of projects at all levels of management, I have had the good fortune to work with individuals who mentored me and I have learned first hand what it takes to build a business from the ground up, having been an business owner for 12 years."

Perry & Shaw is one of the region's premier grading contractor firms with roughly 100 pieces of "yellow iron" and a large payroll. "The work is hard, the hours long, sometimes the pay is good and sometimes not, but in the end there is a satisfaction that comes from building things."

Shaw said a good contractor plans well, because it takes good planning to deal with the impact of the ups and downs of economic cycles have on the industry. It takes good planning to deal with the ebb and flow of tax laws that can be supportive or detrimental to the industry, and we all deal with the difficulties in being competitive in a very competitive industry.

But Shaw is alarmed that the construction industry is faced with a new phenomenon when dealing with government these days.

"Government has become punitive," Shaw said. "Today, to those individuals who run government, business is a bad thing and there is a need to punish. They have plenty of good reasons and excuses for doing this. If you ask, the answer is always a good one, always the public good. But any intelligent analysis leads to conclusions such as a need for more revenue, quiet agendas of staff and, most prominently, the need for political payoffs to outside, well-funded political groups."

"The reasons expressed by government are good and valid. But the execution stinks," Shaw opined.

For Shaw, the recent trouble started in the mid- to late-'90s when the issue of water quality as it relates to construction projects became a big issue. But this 20-year veteran of the industry believes that more recently the water quality issues have become compounded with the new air quality regulations he calls necessary but, when carried to an extreme, "punitive."

"Now besides the water quality issues that will make it impractical to build during the 'rainy season,' we have four new air quality regulations: PERP (Portable Equipment Emissions Regulation), the new Off Road In-Use Diesel regulation, a new On Road In-Use Diesel regulation and now new regulations that will result from AB32 Greenhouse Gas."

While Shaw and his industry association, EGCA, view clean air and clean water as vitally important for health and quality of life, they see the rapid compounding of one stiff regulation upon another as threatening the very survival of the construction industry and the tens of thousands of jobs produced annually.

"Solidarity," Shaws reminds his peers. "The nature of a contractor is to be independent and self sufficient. Many contractors feel there is no need to be a member of an association like EGCA. Typically being a member of an association might be for social reasons, for continuing education, union negotiating or apprenticeship training. Today, there is a bigger need, a better reason to be a member of an industry association: There must be solidarity in our industry.

The key to this is the small business owner, said Shaw.

"If medium and large business takes a 'problem' to a politician or bureaucrat, they might appear to listen and 'feel our pain,' but the truth is that they believe it's just a complaint about not being able to make our businesses more profitable. But when a small business complains, elected officials really listen, because it is political suicide to take action that puts down small business. And in the end, it is these small businesses that will have the highest failure rate from aggressive government action. The medium and large companies have a better chance of having the resources necessary to survive. The small contractors must become a part of our industry organizations and we must all stand together."

Shaw says this is the key for the construction industry to survive and to thrive.

"We must become as effective as our opponents at influencing government. What this really means is that we must help elect politicians that will allow our industry to prosper by providing control over the out of control staff and bureaucrats. Our very survival is at stake. We must be able to influence the political process to be able to moderate these punitive actions taken by the politicians and the bureaucrats. We must be able to provide influence by giving support to candidates who support building the needed infrastructure and better controlling the governments 'need' to regulate."

Shaw believes this influence goes beyond simply providing monetary support to the politicians. "We also have to be able to mobilize the vote, as our opponents do. We must be able to inform and energize our employees and the businesses that we support, even to the point of walking precincts and manning phone banks. If I have learned anything in this process in recent years, it is that we must influence the process on the front end, not the back end. To believe that we can stop this runaway train of punitive government action by means of litigation is to bury our head in the sand and simply wait for them to come along and cut it off -- and they are sharpening their knives."

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