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Merit shop training has earned its place in construction industry

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For more than four decades, merit shop training has offered an alternative construction industry education model. From the first programs developed by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), this “different” structure and uniformity proved effective and is now used nationwide.

Called “Contren,” the program is based at the University of Florida in Gainesville and recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor as a valid construction training approach. Contren is used in prisons, on Native American reservations and in nearly every state as an apprenticeship program curriculum.

From the beginning, merit shop training has been considered a threat by construction unions, which did not want to lose control of government- recognized instruction. Facing a decade’s long decline in union membership, unions want to protect their programs from competitive approaches.

Labor prefers to limit the recognition of construction industry apprenticeship to those they run. In Washington, ABC and other merit shop groups were forced to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to get that state’s regulatory apparatus -- dominated by union members and friends -- to recognize merit shop training. Washington requires contractors to employ state-recognized apprentices on public work, as does California. If recognition were limited to union programs, the work would be preserved for union workers.

California’s merit shop supporters faced a similar effort. By opposing regulatory approval of ABC’s training, unions could keep merit shop firms from working on state and local publicly funded construction work. Representing merit shop supporters, ABC went to court in the 1980s to win recognition for training concepts that had been welcomed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, rather than accepting the idea that there is more than one way to train a construction worker, big labor continues to oppose recognition of merit shop programs. The annual fight persists at the California Apprenticeship Council (CAC), the state agency that reviews and recognizes apprenticeship training programs.

A compliant state Legislature has also tried to impose constraints. One is called a “needs” test: If the union can show it has a training program for a particular trade in a given area, it asks the CAC to reject any new program. The idea is so lopsided and repugnant that the U.S. Department of Labor has “decertified” California -- meaning this state no longer has the authority to approve apprenticeship programs for federal public work.

Unsatisfied and undeterred, the unions pursue their efforts to constrain training opportunities. Last year, union leaders sought to limit public construction in the city of San Diego to contractors who offered union training. The idea is so ludicrous that even an organized, labor-supportive city council saw through this effort to restrict construction education to dues- paying union members.

Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), sometimes called Project Stabilization Agreements (PSAs), are another battle ground. San Diego Unified School District has signed such a restrictive deal with the unions. As a result, since California law requires contractors to employ apprentices on school construction, merit shop training programs offered by ABC, Associated General Contractors, the Western Electrical Contractors Association and the Black Contractors Association can’t be utilized. The school district’s agreement with labor says only apprentices enrolled in a union-sponsored program are allowed to work on PSA-covered projects. All of these “rejected” training programs are recognized by California’s apprenticeship council as viable and valid.

As is the case with the other programs mentioned here, ABC’s apprenticeship program is under direct and constant supervision by state regulators. A California official attends training committee meetings and disciplinary sessions. Specific reviews and evaluations are frequently conducted to be sure the training is being done fairly, effectively and with positive results. Reporting on one such review, the state analyst proclaimed the ABC program to be “exemplary.”

Despite that, San Diego Unified School District will not let graduates from the district’s schools work as apprentices on the repair and expansion of those same classrooms unless they quit ABC’s program. The union’s fear is palpable.

This work is funded by the district’s taxpayers, many of whom are parents of this next generation of skilled and trained craft workers. Demanding they pay dues to a union program in order to work as apprentices, on these and any other PSA-covered project, is repugnant. It is a particularly heinous form of protectionism.

The union effort to pre-empt use of merit shop apprentices continues in California’s legislature this year. A new measure that was just introduced would exclude merit shop apprentices from working on any solar or charging station, such as for hybrid cars, among other kinds of electrical work funded by the California Energy Commission. The bill, almost certainly drafted by a lobbyist for union electricians, is favoritism at its worst and another example of union efforts to stop merit shop training.

Merit shop instruction has proved itself. It turns out well-trained, highly skilled crafts people. It has earned its place in the industry.

Hawkins is the retired president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego chapter.

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