Employer union-busting is as old as workers forming unions. Techniques and strategies change, but the impulse of bosses to prevent workers from acting together seems primordial. At best, employer resistance can be dampened and contained, as the high rate of unionization and triumphant social democratic politics have accomplished for decades in western Europe.
In American labor history, the Associated Builders and Contractors — well-known in the building trades as just ABC but little-known elsewhere — played a key role in unleashing the anti-union juggernaut of the past half century. And a new report by Thomas J. Kriger, a labor studies professor at the National Labor College, provides an informative look at just what ABC is and does.
Founded in 1950 by seven anti-union contractors in Baltimore, ABC came to political prominence in the late 1960s. It was a time of tight labor markets, war-induced inflation, and successful union demands for higher wages. Many big businesses that had prospered with unions were beginning to decide that they could escape a tightening profit squeeze by avoiding unions or fleeing the country.
As Kriger recounts, the CEOs of a group of big industrial companies, led by Roger Blough of U.S. Steel, formed the Construction Users Anti-Inflation Roundtable (CUAIR), which later became the Business Roundtable, a key group in the defeat of labor law reform in the late-1970s. CUAIR thought construction workers’ wages were driving up industrial plant costs and were inspiring industrial workers to demand more pay.
CUAIR approached ABC as part of its plan to promote “open shop,” that is, non-union, contractors. That, in turn, lead some big unionized firms to begin non-union extensions, a practice known as “double-breasting.” Two other anti-union groups merged in 1972 with CUAIR to form the Business Roundtable, which fought the Hoover-era Davis-Bacon Act, which required federal contractors to pay the local prevailing wage, often set by unions.
ABC’s influence grew, and it came to identify itself as the “voice” of the industry. But Kriger found from ABC’s own published records that in none of the 46 states where it operates does ABC have anything near 6 percent of all general contractors and sub-contractors. Overall, ABC can count only about 1 percent of licensed construction contractors as members (and some members, such as restaurants and car dealers, are listed as “construction-related” but perform no construction work).
“ABC is a small-trade association” that is more astroturf than grass-roots, Kriger says, but it also has “a well financed public relations machine” with a strong right-wing ideological tilt, compared to other construction industry trade groups. With a budget of around $20 million a year and a PAC that contributes about $1.5 million each election cycle, ABC is a moderate-sized political player. In recent years it has worked closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and attacked project labor agreements (which generally recognize unions and their standards on big projects with limits on the right to strike) and the Employee Free Choice Act.
ABC did not succeed in eliminating unions on big private and public projects, but it has contributed to the steep decline in the unionization rate in the building trades. In 1973, 40 percent of private construction workers were in unions; in 2011, only 14 percent.
ABC’s effort to replace the comprehensive craft training provided by the union with its own schools has not been nearly as successful, Kriger says. Few workers enrolled, and the ABC-affiliated schools’ strategy wrongly assumed that the industry could thrive with mostly lower-skilled, lower-paid workers. What’s more, the quality of the schools was so low that in 2004 the FBI and the Education Department inspector general effectively shut down ABC-related Decker College, a for-profit business.
By now, Kriger writes, ABC has helped contribute to a skills shortage and the degradation of wages, career opportunities and, obviously, the power of workers acting together. They could not have succeeded without bigger, powerful allies, but even if they were small and not representative, their influence spread the anti-union message broadly, well beyond their original battle with the building trades.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.