Q&A with Al Bond Jr., Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council
IBJ: How is the overall health of the construction industry in Metro St. Louis?
Bond: It’s good. We’re finishing up a couple of big jobs right now: BJC in St. Louis and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon. We have quite a few multifamily residential jobs going on. And, we have some big jobs coming up like the Centene project in Clayton.
IBJ: Multifamily has been a strong market for a quite a few years. When will that market get saturated?
Bond: I think multifamily has been strong because the millennials are waiting to get married. They are not committing to a home. They are not committing long term with an employer. They are driving the demand for apartments.
IBJ: So, how’s single-family residential building doing?
Bond: Home building is not where we would like it to be, but it is sustaining and getting better.
IBJ: Manpower shortage seems to be a common problem these days. How is it with the Carpenter’s Union?
Bond: We went through that seven-year depression and we lost two generations of apprentices. And then we had many of our journeyman carpenters take early retirement because there were no jobs out there. We are recruiting. There are opportunities for careers in carpentry.
The average age of our apprentices is 28 years old and many of them have bachelor’s degrees and debt. The work is good. We are looking for carpenters, apprentices and journeymen to come back in and we will train them for free. Same with all the unions. You get paid as you learn. I’ve raised four kids as a carpenter. The members of the carpenters union are able to purchase a home, raise their children and send them to school. We are your neighbors, many of whom help out in their communities on various volunteer projects. It’s an honorable trade. All of the building trades are. The biggest loss of skilled carpenters was from the seven-year depression. I call it a depression because it was. Also, baby boomers are retiring. I probably sign 100 to 120 pension applications a month but our membership is not going down. We’re bringing apprentices in as fast as the journeymen retire.
There is a need for skilled tradespeople. There are only a few vocational schools left and high schools are not encouraging young people to enter into a skilled trade. We need to be able to communicate to parents and teachers that becoming a carpenter or an electrician or a pipefitter or an ironworker is a good way to go. There are benefits. There is full-family health insurance, a great pension, free training. It’s a great opportunity. The biggest reason there is a national skill shortage of skilled tradespeople is because more and more states have become Right to Work states and Prevailing Wage laws have been repealed, which has led to unions going out of business. Therefore, training skilled workers has stopped.
IBJ: What’s the status of union efforts to overturn the Right to Work legislation that was passed in Missouri?
Bond: Right to Work was passed in Missouri, by both the House and Senate with big majorities and Gov. Greitens signed it into law around the second week in February. We responded. We got 310,000 registered voter signatures on a petition for a referendum so the people of Missouri will decide if freeloaders can go without paying their fair share. The governor and the Republicans in the legislature think that people should be able to become carpenters and get representation, work under a collective bargain agreement, get a pension, get health and welfare, get free training but shouldn’t have to pay union dues. That’s government overreach and it’s ridiculous. If you’re a contractor and I’m a carpenter, we collectively reach an agreement and we work by it; it is none of Eric Greitens’ or the Legislature’s business. It is all political as far as I’m concerned. The governor is going to do what the right wing millionaires and billionaires tell him to do.
IBJ: Was the petition to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot?
Bond: No. It’s just a simple repeal of right to work. We talked about going the constitutional amendment route but decided it was difficult to get done. This is a simple repeal. Let the people decide what’s fair. Missouri has eight congressional districts and you have to get a certain number of signatures on your petition in six of the eight. We got signatures in all eight districts. Once people understand what right to work means, nine out of 10 say, “Man, I wouldn’t support that.” That’s freeloading at its best. Everyone should pay their fair share if they are going to be part of an organization that benefits them and their families.
IBJ: What’s on the horizon?
Bond: We’ve been increasing our man-hours the last few years. I think we will be very close to 25 million by the end of this year. We think 2018 will be a good year if the economy keeps going in the right direction. If there is a tax reform bill, that will be positive for the economy.
Infrastructure is something that the United States needs. We are really hopeful Congress will pass an infrastructure bill. When people are working, when we are rebuilding our roads and bridges and allowing commerce to move efficiently, that’s always good for the economy. That’s a win, win, win all the way around.