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‘Worker shortage’ has not reached most Central Illinois unions

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BLOOMINGTON — Michael Irvin had steadily added some events to his dry erase board this summer, but lately he has had to start erasing more and more.

Irvin is a business agent for the International Alliance of Theatre and Stage Employees Local 193, which provides labor for stage setups and teardowns at concerts, theater shows, conferences and other staged events across Central Illinois.

While there may be plenty of job openings in industries such as retail and hospitality, causing some businesses to offer unique incentives to return to work, the majority of union jobs have remained steady. But Irvin’s industry has been one of the odd ones out.

He said the Delta variant of COVID-19 has cost his union work just as it began to supply labor again after a long hiatus throughout the pandemic, when the virus shut down large gatherings like concerts for more than a year.

“There is no other union that has been affected by this pandemic as badly as we have,” Irvin said. “We were the first one to shut down and we are the last ones coming back to work. As far as I know, most every union is already back to work.”

That’s the case for Ron Paul, business manager for Bloomington-based Laborers Local 362 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America Midwest Region.

Paul said their trade workers have been on the job since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, they’ve been adding more members lately, with about 50 new workers in the past two years, an increase from the typical five to 10 new people in that time frame, he said.

Paul characterized the present as a “building boom,” crediting electric vehicle startup Rivian as “a huge reason” for more work.

“Right now is a good time because there’s just so much work,” Paul said. “We’re not taking guys in and having them wait three weeks, six weeks before we can find them a job. Right now, we’re sending guys to work before we even get our list. We have jobs waiting for them.”

Decatur Building and Construction Trades Council President Josh Sapp, who also is the business manager for Decatur-based IBEW Local 146, echoed Paul’s remarks, describing a “pretty fierce competition” for journey-level craft people like plumbers or wiremen.

“That skill level work is pretty good across Illinois,” Sapp said. “Normally when work is slow, we borrow from each other’s localities to help man the work, but right now the work is good enough that there’s just a surplus of that type of work.”

While private sector unions have experienced a building boom, Adam Heenan, vice president of the Bloomington-Normal Trades and Labor Assembly, said the increased work is not uniform. Some employers continue to not hire union work, he said.

Several instances where union workers were not hired led to informational pickets at a couple of Bloomington-Normal sites.

Heenan said the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association Local 18 picketed a construction site near the Dollar Tree and Hy-Vee on Veterans Parkway in Bloomington. 

The other pickets were stage workers from IATSE Local 193 before two summer concerts at the Corn Crib. The informational pickets aimed to open a dialogue about a contract with leadership from the Corn Crib, The Castle Theatre and NTL Productions.

Using untrained workers for stage setups and teardowns is a risk “starting from the truck to the whole setup,” Irvin said.

Union leaders agreed that the U.S. is not facing a worker shortage, but rather that wages have not kept up with inflation and that some employers have not offered adequate benefits or safety measures.

Sapp said Decatur’s union has seen an increase of non-union workers interested in joining unions throughout the pandemic. A driving reason for that, he said, is because union jobs are more likely to have health insurance and more workplace safety rules.

Heenan added: “When we think about this wage crisis, our emphasis is really to say, look, we have a number of people willing to do the work, but they are not willing to do the work in unsafe conditions and they’re not willing to do the work when they can’t afford to put food on the table for their family or a roof over their heads.”

Contact Kade Heather at 309-820-3256. Follow him on Twitter: @kadeheather


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