Earl Kanatzar doesn't need a Labor Day vacation to reflect on the challenges that his labor union faces in Lawrence. A simple drive through almost any of the community's new subdivisions will suffice.
Kanatzar, executive secretary/ treasurer for the carpenters union serving Lawrence and Topeka, estimates that at least nine of every 10 new homes in Lawrence are built without union labor a fact that he says leads to depressed construction wages and homes that largely are built by underskilled workers.
But Kanatzar and his union brethren hope to change that.
"The housing market is something that we have definitely lost, but we would like to get some of it back," he said. "I would love to get back 50 percent of that market over time, but the goal is probably closer to 25 percent of the residential market in Lawrence.
"If we could do that, it would be a real victory for us. It's going to take some time, but we're committed to it."
Such commitment comes as the percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent, the lowest in six decades, according to the Labor Department. Across the country, unions including the carpenters are working to reverse the trend.
Kanatzar said that his union's national headquarters, and its aggressive new president, had committed 50 percent of the organization's entire budget to organizing non-union carpenters across the country.
But in Lawrence, non-union contractors express skepticism about the union's chances of cracking into the ultra-competitive home building market.
Builders argue that home buyers should be rooting against the effort, as an anticipated hike in wages would be expected to increase the already-pricey cost of housing.
"If unions really come into this town, everybody might as well get up and look at their sons and daughters and say you're not going to be able to live here when you grow up," said J. Stewart, of Terravest Construction. "We're already eliminating the ability of first-time home buyers to live here, and this would only make it worse."
A rebuilding effort
Union membership for Lawrence Carpenters Union 2279 is on the rise, which has Kanatzar optimistic even among a sea of doubters.
The carpenter's union has experienced an estimated 50 percent to 60 percent jump in membership since the mid 1990s. The bad news, Kanatzar said, is that even with those growth rates, local membership numbers remain low.
The carpenters union has an estimated 130 members in Lawrence, which represents only a handful of the estimated 1,000 carpenters working in Lawrence, Kanatzar said.
"I don't think we are doing as well as we should be doing because I don't think we are doing our job as a union to promote ourself," Kanatzar said. "I don't think workers realize the benefits, like the difference in pay and fringe benefits the union offers.
"It's no secret that our numbers took a hit in the 1980s, but now we're definitely in the recruiting mode. Actually, we're really still in a rebuilding mode, but our numbers are on the increase."
The wage issue has been the leading recruitment tool the union has used to boost its membership. A journeyman carpenter in the union now earns a starting wage of $17.70 an hour, plus receives a benefit package of health insurance and a pension plan that is estimated to be worth another $4.25 an hour.
A non-union carpenter, meanwhile, earns between $7 and $15 an hour in Lawrence, according to the Lawrence Home Builders Assn.
"A lot of people in the building trades aren't looking for a career," Kanatzar said. "They're just looking for a job, but they don't recognize what they can really get out of it careerwise, if they join the union. That's what we're trying to make sure they know."
A price to pay
But as appealing as those type of wages may sound to construction workers, some in the Lawrence home building industry say home buyers should be wary.
"My opinion is that organized labor would definitely drive the cost of housing up in Lawrence," said Tim Stultz, president of Highland Construction and the home builders association. "If we had to pay that salary, it would be significantly more than what we are paying, and those costs get passed along to the buyer."
Stultz said he did not know exactly how much increased wages would add to the price of a new home. Others have estimated that it would be 10 percent to 15 percent.
The chances of labor unions grabbing a significant portion of the Lawrence housing market is slim, said Lee Queen, an association board member.
"I can't see labor unions having much luck in a market that is this tight," said Queen, vice president for Edmondson Construction. "This is no slam against unions, but I don't think union people would be willing to put in the 11- or 12-hour days like we do. When we have union people work on some of our commercial jobs, they work their eight hours and take their breaks.
"You can't do that in the residential housing market and be successful because it is just too competitive, pricewise."
A quality investment
But Jack Hope, who is one of Lawrence's few union-based home builders, said the extra price was worth it if it helped ensure that he would have high-quality craftsmen for the future.
"Anymore in construction you are facing a dwindling supply of people who are really skilled," said Hope, of Jack Hope Design-Build Inc. "We thought the best method to attract the best people would be to give them a good financial package. The union provides that for us."
Hope, who went to a union work force five years ago, said his company was able to compete well in the Lawrence market.
He just accepts that he can't have a business strategy that relies on being the lowest bidder to win jobs.
"A lot of times people are much more concerned about quality than additional cost, as long as you don't price yourself out of the market entirely, and the union doesn't do that to us," Hope said.
But convincing businesses that union wages can fit into a business plan is one of the toughest challenges that union leaders face, said Dwayne Peaslee, chair of the Lawrence Building Trades Council.
"The perception is that if you hire union you are paying more money, but at the end of the job we feel like our people have more training, get the job done quicker and do a better job, which means fewer call-backs," Peaslee said.
Non-union builders don't buy it.
"Absolutely not," said Stewart, asked whether union work was of higher quality. "Unions talk a lot about their training programs, but really what they do is push politically for more needless licenses and laws that force mom-and-pop businesses to become union."
Back at Hope's shop, though, he said there was evidence that the rank-and-file workers were beginning to see things differently.
"I think the union works," Hope said. "All I know is I get people every week calling me to join my crew. I'm not sure that's a problem a lot of other companies are having."