Unexpectedly Intriguing!
October 26, 2005

What if a labor union operated more like an entrepreneurial business, rather than as a fundraising arm of a political party or as a rent-seeking agency?

The example of a local bricklayers union based in Oklahoma may point to how labor unions might be able to successfully rebuild their thinning ranks. Taking advantage of the housing boom that has placed skilled bricklayers in short supply, Local 5 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers has capitalized on its ability to train new workers to meet the demand. The housing boom's increased demand for bricklayers has also created a competitive advantage for the bricklayers: their existing negotiated contracts with employers for pay and benefits is less expensive than what the businesses would have to pay for skilled non-union labor.

As a result, Local 5's president Ed Navarro has been able to buck the national trend toward less union membership, and has increased the local union's ranks. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) describes the bricklayers turnaround:

Since Mr. Navarro took over in 1995, Local 5 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers has expanded its membership to about 2,000 from 300. That is partly because it has taken over other, less successful locals in neighboring Arkansas and Texas. But it also reflects Mr. Navarro's strategy of focusing organization efforts on employers, not workers. "As long as the unions have something positive to offer and management has an open mind, I think there's a lot of room to grow," he says.

Time will tell if Navarro's focus on training and competitiveness will take hold in the world of organized labor. It's certainly a lesson the bosses of the AFL-CIO can afford to learn.

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