President's Corner


August 2020 Stability Through the Storm

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President’s Corner

Brothers and Sisters,

Typically, this written Semi-Annual Report comes after a presentation at the General Membership, but as you know, these times are anything but typical. Despite the unprecedented challenges we have faced collectively and as individuals, I am pleased to report that the state of our union is remarkably strong.

This spring, as our economy shut down over the course of not even weeks, but days, I could not have ventured a guess and where we would be sitting in August. The officers’ focus at that time was to do whatever we could to ensure that members would have to ability to continue working as long as it could be done safely. Seeing the impact on businesses that closed down entirely was terrifying, and we were determined to do what was in our power to ensure that our membership would not be sitting on the sidelines for the construction season.

In the early days, the officers and I worked hard to have our work included in the scope of “essential work” throughout our jurisdiction, and I believe achieving that set us up to survive the early uncertainty. Being shut down at the outset would have made a return very difficult to achieve, and would have devastated members’ personal financial situations along with the benefit funds and the union’s operations.

Even with everything that the economy has endured, we are currently only about seven percent down on man-hours from last year, which I should add was a very strong year. April –the first month of the fiscal year – was particularly weak as developers and projects apprehensively slowed down as they waited for signs of what was to come. In the months since, man-hours have bounced back and brought us closer to levels from last year.

This situation is far better than it could have been, and truly, what I feared at times that it might have been. With that said, we all need to recognize that it can change. Public health and the state of the economy both impact our ability to work at these levels, and both can change quickly. We are, however, in a much stronger position than we were leading into the Great Recession, when so much of our work was tied to residential and we didn’t have solid capital funding in Illinois or Indiana.

Commercial construction is expected to slow later this year and into next year, and the tower cranes that have crowded the skies over Chicago are likely to thin out as well. What we can count on that we couldn’t before is a lot of infrastructure work, both in Illinois and Indiana.

For the past few years, the union and the Fight Back Fund committed to intensive political and public education efforts to push for meaningful investment in infrastructure. The need has been clear to everyone who drives on the roads or under our bridges, yet the will to invest in the necessary repairs was largely absent until we spoke out loudly about the repercussions of further neglect.

As a result of our efforts, Indiana and Illinois both passed long-term capital funding plans that are backed by a doubling of the fuel tax that funds construction projects. These plans weren’t the band-aids that have so often been settled for, but truly meaningful investments with no expiration. In Illinois, we were also a leading force in amending the state constitution to prohibit diversions of transportation funding for other purposes. Both states have increased the amount of work that is on the streets today, but also what is being planned for bid and engineering in the next few years.

The early phase of the pandemic saw fuel tax and toll revenues decline by nearly half as most workers stopped commuting to their offices and almost all other incidental travel. While this hasn’t impacted Department of Transportation or tollway budgets for this year, it may potentially have an impact next year, though I can say as a Director of the Illinois Tollway that toll revenue has bounced back over the past few months, much like our man-hours have.

A key component of our collective resilience over the coming months and years will be our commitment to training for the industries that are busy. Much as we re-tooled our training program in 2009 to get basement diggers skilled up for paving work, we will be putting a focus on helping workers in struggling industries like the steel mills adapt their skills to find work in the parts of the economy that are stronger.

The gathering size limits that have closed the interior of our Training Center and limited daily field training to around 45 members present a challenge in this effort, but our push to diversify members’ training is nothing new, so if anything, it will tell us whether we’ve been successful in building a broad skill set for our members. Looking across the membership of today compared to 10 or 20 years ago, though, I can say without reservation that our members are skilled across a far wider range of equipment and industries than at any time in our union’s history.

On the benefit side, I am pleased to report that our Pension Fund was certified as remaining in the Green Zone. During the markets’ free fall in early March, just before the end of our Fiscal Year, we were prepared for a return to the Yellow Zone, and simply hoping not to plunge into the Red Zone, so this is truly great news.

We delayed the benefit improvement voted upon last September until April 1, 2021 in order to give our Fund some room to absorb the blow from March. While that move prompted some upset calls from members, the majority of the membership understood that it was being made to protect the future strength of the Pension Fund, and it has proven to be the right move to make. We were certified at 81.7 percent funded, and had we implemented the benefit improvement this year, we would have been below 80 percent.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank each and every member who voiced their support for our efforts to protect the Pension Fund. As I’ve said in the past, I will never play politics with your pensions, and even if the right move isn’t popular, I will always place the security of your retirement over any kind of popularity contest. We’ve come too far over the past decade to start playing fast and loose now, and the benefit enhancement is set to go into effect on April 1 of next year.

While we still do not have a timeline on starting up union meetings yet – due to bans on gatherings of larger than 50 people in Illinois and 250 in Indiana – we have started to schedule some smaller versions of classes like Know Your Union, COMET and Labor History so that we can work through the necessary safety measures and be prepared for the much-awaited day that we open the doors and fill the halls once again.

More importantly than anything else, I ask you to remain vigilant about your safety and that of your families. If we’ve learned anything over the past month or so, it is that this virus is not gone, and if we start to get careless, it will remind us that it’s here. We’ve fared better than most of us could have hoped so far, and I want to see us continue that trend without any avoidable backslides. We’ve only had a small handful of members infected with COVID-19 and that is a testament to your dedication to protecting yourselves and your Brother and Sister members. You’re an inspiration. Keep up the great work.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.