May 16, 2020
William C. Sproule
For the Inquirer
These are unprecedented and challenging times. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues taking its toll, we mourn the loss of thousands of our fellow citizens while applauding the bravery and sacrifice of countless nurses, doctors, orderlies, EMT personnel, and other first responders — along with our neighbors stocking grocery shelves and working check-out lines in supermarkets throughout the country.
COVID-19 has changed our world, and many of our industries will never be the same — including construction. The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters (EAS) represents over forty thousand unionized men and women in the construction industry in the multi-state region of PA, NJ, VA, WV, MD, PR and DC, many of whom are currently laid off and fearing the uncertainty of what lies ahead in this new world.
In anticipation of the coronavirus taking hold, earlier this year our Northeast Carpenters Training Fund joined forces with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters International Training Center and established a COVID-19 Preparedness training component which has been praised by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and is being used in other states, including Michigan and California.
As many industries and states — including Pennsylvania — begin discussions on how best to re-open and ensure safety, organized labor in the construction industry has worked from the start with industry partners to implement concrete health and safety measures on our work sites. We require all workers to wear hardhats and masks at all times and maintain six feet of distance between each other. We limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer and prohibit any tool sharing, while also managing the flow of workers in and out of our sites by staggering shifts and requiring they arrive and leave separately. As a result, we have dramatically increased our influence in determining how job sites are run now as well as during the post-COVID-19 world.
By demanding higher health and safety standards for our members up front, we were able to define the scenario under which many essential job sites remained open. As more and more construction sites open, our on-site union representatives continue to partner with contractors and management to ensure jobs sites are safe and run according to the latest directives from the Center for Disease Control.
Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program fellow Mark Erlich said it best recently: “being a union member has been enormously beneficial in the past few weeks.” Erlich predicts the “appeal of unions will be stronger than ever going forward.”
In addition to safer, cleaner and healthier work environments, construction sites and the industry as a whole have changed. Social distancing is now the norm; enhanced use of technology is more prevalent if not common, including video-conferencing and virtual project management meetings. In the future we anticipate a shift in emphasis away from hospitality, retail and entertainment projects to more healthcare-related construction. It’s also unavoidable that projects will now take longer to complete because of the added health and safety measures.
As we move forward in uncharted waters, we must all continue to do our part for our families and neighbors. Our union has a long history of getting involved in our communities to help make a difference. That won’t change, especially now.
We continue to call for unity at all levels of government. While the clash of opposing ideas is all an important part of a healthy democracy, overzealous partisanship from any side is counterproductive and can be dangerous under our present circumstances. We need our elected leaders to set aside their partisan differences and focus on getting all of America back to work, by developing concrete timelines and consistent standards for a safe reopening.
Time is of the essence if we are to succeed in stopping this virus and getting our economy up and running again. We need united fronts in both the medical and economic arenas to get us up and running again at full steam. As Americans we are known for rising to the occasion. Defeating COVID-19 will be no different.
William C. Sproule is the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, part of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America.