The construction of the new state Holyoke Veterans Home includes a goal to use apprentices for 20 percent of the work hours. This $482 million, union-only project is still in the early stages with just over 14,000 work hours logged.
The number of apprentice hours so far: 855 or 5.96 percent, well below the goal, according to a report by the general contractor provided to state construction officials. This number is striking in light of the push by union activists to mandate apprentices on private construction in Worcester.
Unionists told the Worcester City Council that apprentices need more opportunity to work on construction projects. Yet, there is abundant opportunity in Holyoke, and the goal is unmet.
The Worcester City Council wisely avoided union pressure to pass a measure mandating apprentices on private projects. Rather, it unanimously passed an ordinance setting a 15 percent apprentice work-hour goal on private development that seeks city tax breaks – one or two projects per year.
By setting an aspirational goal, the Council sidestepped the union call for an apprenticeship mandate ordinance, which would violate the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, a matter previously litigated in Boston federal court.
Most apprenticeship programs in Massachusetts are run by merit shop contractors. This fact might surprise the casual observer who assumes unions have cornered apprenticeships.
It might also be a surprise to learn most construction workers choose to work for merit shops rather than join organized labor. In Massachusetts, only about 16 percent of construction workers belonged to unions in 2022, according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database at unionstats.com.
At the Merit Construction Alliance of Massachusetts, Inc., we value apprenticeships and training. We agree with creating opportunities for apprentices. However, we disagree on the nature of the problem and the right fix.
Municipal goals will fall short in creating meaningful opportunity because they cannot address the real problem, which requires a statewide solution.
There is no evidence showing a lack of work for apprentices. There is a shortage of construction labor in the nation, with estimates putting the number of vacancies over 500,000. Is a lack of apprentices the reason unions are falling short in Holyoke?
For merit shops, the real problem is the state’s artificial limit on the available apprenticeship seats. Currently, arcane, unjustifiable rules tie the number of apprentices to the number of journeymen – workers who have completed an apprenticeship program.
So-called jobsite ratios require a certain number of journeymen for every apprentice. Ratios are set by the state based on union collective bargaining agreements. For example, the Bricklayer’s Local 3 contract sets the ratio at one apprentice for every five journeymen.
“We have located no study, authoritative or otherwise, which supports these ratios,” reported the American College of Construction Lawyers Journal in 2020. In other words, the ratios are arbitrary.
The Commonwealth can create more apprenticeship opportunities by setting ratios that are reasonable, safe and in line with industry standards. The state could set ratios of one-to-one or one-to-two while maintaining the quality of training and safety.
Despite calling for more opportunity for apprentices, union lobbyists have resisted ratio reform on Beacon Hill, and legislation filed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker to change the ratios fizzled.
To understand why, consider the possibility that the goal of union activists is to use public policy and laws to disadvantage their merit shop competitors and more apprentices represent more competition for the union journeymen.