Beeman: Work together for a strong economy

Greg Beeman

Construction unions greeted the recent opening of a Genzyme Science Center in Framingham with pickets, a plane towing a sign that cited a Web site attacking the company, and an inflatable nine-foot rat. We've all seen this act before. But particularly now, in the midst of tough economic times and a potential financial meltdown, it does a disservice to Massachusetts residents and taxpayers alike.

The unions claimed Genzyme awarded construction contracts to companies that didn't offer health care benefits to employees and paid sub-par wages. One union mouthpiece called the companies "rag-bag outfits from New Hampshire that work out of the back of their station wagons." Predictably, when questioned further, he couldn't name even one such company.

Had he looked up, he might have noticed that these rag-bag outfits were partially responsible for the construction of a 180,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art science facility. Some of those non-union companies have won national awards for their work and offer more comprehensive benefits than their union counterparts - they include not just health insurance, but paid vacations and holidays, family leave and profit-sharing.

Genzyme doesn't do business with second-rate companies. They are a world-class corporation that got where they are by hiring only the best to work on their projects. The company recently began construction on a $250 million biomanufacturing facility just down the street from the Science Center that will bring more jobs to the area. The nine-foot inflatable rat was hardly the best way to thank them.

More than half the center was built with union labor, even though just 16 percent of the Massachusetts construction workforce belongs to a union. The construction unions' real complaint of is that they did not get 100 percent of the project.

Pickets carried signs that read "Local jobs for local workers," but using exclusively union labor results in exactly the opposite. Since the percentage of union workers is so small, labor invariably needs to be imported on a large union-only job.

This highly visible public approach serves to drive potential projects out of Massachusetts. To continue competing successfully against lower-cost states like North Carolina and New Hampshire for biotechnology and other projects, Massachusetts needs to flaunt its advantages, not draw owners' attention to the possibility that they might be embarrassed or strong-armed by unions and their political allies.

Congressman Ed Markey, true to the 100 percent rating he has earned from the AFL-CIO, backed out of opening ceremony, citing the unions' concerns.

Governor Patrick also bowed out. Responding to a question about union issues in a 2006 campaign debate, Patrick promised to be "open and respectful of all voices." But when push came to shove, he too toed the union line."

Construction unions are not content to compete on a level playing field, attempting instead to use political influence to corner the market. But a level playing field is all open shop contractors ask. We don't expect exclusivity, just a fair opportunity to compete. Once the bidding is done, we're happy to work side-by-side with union firms. And we do so with competitive wages, progressive benefits and outstanding quality.

It's an approach construction unions would do well to adopt. It would certainly go a long way toward persuading companies like Genzyme to continue creating construction jobs - both union and open shop - in Massachusetts.

Greg Beeman is president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts.