Thursday, December 16, 2004

St. Louis business leaders and builders seem to be worried by the construction shutdown at St. John's two worksites. Union construction workers stopped work yesterday to honor the St. John's nurses walkout. The construction shutdown is actually illegal according to federal law and rarely occurs. Alberici and McCarthy construction companies gave their workers a day pass, but expect them back to work today.
The local construction industry has cited strong labor-management relations as a way to lure new businesses to the St. Louis area. A construction work stoppage at St. John's could undercut that message, [Leonard Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors] said.

"It gives the region a black eye when we're looking at the positives of bringing work here and bringing jobs here," he said.

One of the major issues in the St. John's nurses strike is the hospital's insistence that it be an "open shop". In other words, that employees be allowed to opt-out of joining the union. The non-union workers are still required to pay a fee to the union for the collective bargaining services they provide because their wages are higher because of the efforts of the union.

The problem with the open-shop requirement is the union's fear it could drive the union out of the hospital. Indeed, a number of nurses crossed the picket line to continue working alongside the temp nurses brought it to fill vacancies.

The history and current status of unions in St. Louis is a tumultuous one. Unions are trying to find their way in an economy with high turnover and a loss of traditional strongholds. The unions sometimes still play a controversial role in many situations here in St. Louis, and as a result have lost some support and even earned some negative images. Yet the contributions of unions to the present standard of living for workers is undeniable and there is still an effort to drive unions out of business, whether through legal means or through intimidation.

Unions have their own problems, as do businesses. The most important part in this current conversation is that everyone keep perspective. People want to work on their own terms, businesses usually want people to work on their terms. Everything else is a matter of negotiation.
But [Kevin Kuntz, McCarthy's senior vice president of operations] was relatively confident that construction would resume today at the hospital in Creve Coeur.

"We've been talking to the unions," he said. "We're getting positive feedback."

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