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Started by GREGORYABUTLER, February 20, 2011, 09:16:42 am

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There's been a tremendous amount of controversy about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's labor policies. While he's rightfully criticized for his massive attacks on civil service unions, there is one labor related act where the governor was actually right - for the wrong reasons.

That would be the cancellation of the Milwaukee to Madison High Speed Rail project.

That railroad construction project actually wouldn't create a whole lot of jobs at all, relative to the huge amount of money to be spent on the project ($ 810 million dollars, for 80 miles of railroad track from Milwaukee to Madison).

Technically speaking, the heavy and highway construction sector is highly automated and has been for many years, so they can build roads with as little labor as possible.

It's not like those old newsreels from the depression era, with a couple hundred laborers with picks and shovels digging out a right of way - think a half dozen big earth moving machines, each driven by only one operating engineer, with only one laborer to direct each machine. Heavy and highway construction was automated way back in the 1950's when President Eisenhower ordered the construction of the Interstate and Defense Highway System, and the sector remans the most automated branch of the construction business.

On a job like this, the contractor would probably do the job with two crews - one starting out in Milwaukee, the other in Madison.

Laborwise, each crew would look something like this:

Senior Management/Administrative: 4 superintendents, 6 engineers, 2 surveyors, 1 secretary

Carpenters: 1 Carpenter foreman, 1 Carpenters Union working shop steward, 2 journeylevel carpenters, 1 apprentice

Operating Engineers: 12 operating engineers, 1 "master mechanic" (non working Operating Engineers Union shop steward), 1 "oiler" (apprentice operating engineer)

Cement Masons: 1 Cement Mason foreman, 1 apprentice

Ironworkers: 1 Ironworker foreman, 1 Ironworkers Union working shop steward, 8 journeylevel ironworkers, 2 apprentices

Electricians: 1 Electrician superintendent, 1 electrician foreman, 8 journeylevel electricians, 2 apprentices, 1 "expiditer" (Electricians Union-represented electrical equipment truck driver)

Laborers: 1 labor foreman, 1 Laborers Union working shop steward, 25 journeylevel laborers, 5 laborer apprentices, 2 "flag girls" (yes, that sexist term is the actual job title - they are women laborers who direct traffic around construction sites, paid at the lowest Laborers Union pay scale, 1st year laborer apprentice)

Since we're talking about two crews here, the total number of jobs is 186, for a job that would probably take about 4 years, off and on (jobs like this are always stop-start operations, with frequent pauses for bad weather and materials delivery. If we add in the labor needed to build the passenger terminals at either end (about 100 workers on jobs that would probably last about a year each) we're talking about only 300 jobs.

All that for a "train to nowhere" a passenger rail service route covering a short route already adequately served by bus service in two metropolitan areas where virtually the entire adult population have drivers licenses and own cars.

That's not even getting into the racial and gender politics of who gets those jobs.

The great bulk of those 300 workers (like 98%) will be men. Construction contractors in this country have a strong bias against having women on their jobsites.

In part this comes from a medieval "ideology of craftsmanship" worldview which holds that only men are supposed to do skilled trades work and the very idea of having a qualified woman doing skilled construction work goes against the natural patriarchal order of the universe (the more skilled and qualified the woman is, the more it defies that phalocentric natural order of things).

Also, there's a money issue - if you have an all male crew, especially if they are working outside, a contractor can get away with not bothering to rent portable toilets (a considerable cost savings over the life of a long job).

Male construction workers have been socialized - by both contractors and the unions - to think that it's unmasculine to complain about bad working conditions, so men on an outdoor jobsite without toilets will simply relive themselves in the bushes or behind a truck.

Women workers, on the other hand, will complain, they will leave the site to drive to a gas station or a fast food joint with a restroom (if they do that on the contractor's time that costs money since they are still on the clock), they will complain to the union and they will sue.

So generally contractors avoid hiring women if they can possibly help it.

On a job like this, typically the only women would be the secretaries in the contractor's jobsite trailer and the "flag girls" directing traffic.

Racewise, the crew starting out in Milwaukee would hire a handful of Blacks, Latinos and Hmongs from the union, maybe a half dozen at most. They might just hire two Black women to be "flag girls" and have the rest of the crew be all White men, if they thought they could get away with that. The crew running out of Madison would only hire White men out of the union hall, with two White women as "flag girls". On both ends of the right of way, only about 1/3rd of the crew would come out of the hiring hall - the rest would be "company men" - union workers hired solely at the employer's discression. Typically, all of them would be White men.

Politically, the bottom line is, the reason the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party support these boondoggle "jobs programs" is to create jobs for White male suburban "Tea Party Democrats"

As I've shown above at length, the bulk of these jobs would go to White males who are longtime members of construction unions. This is a group of people who are probably frequent voters (unions aggressively mobilize their members to vote in every election), are probably nominally registered Democrats, but who often vote Republican for reasons that, basically, are racial in nature.

These jobs programs are subsidies for what Hillary Clinton once called "hardworking Americans" - married White suburban males who are married with full time homemaker wives.

That's why they are acceptable, no matter how wasteful they are, as opposed to jobs programs that benefit "the underclass". That is, urban Black and Latino workers, in particular, urban Black and Latina women (who shouldn't be working anyway - they should be married and dependent on their husbands, like "decent" women are supposed to).

So yeah, there's a whole racist and reactionary subtext to these construction jobs programs, which is why I oppose them, even though I myself am a member of a construction union (Carpenters local # 157, Manhattan & Bronx, New York).

If we're going to use that $ 810 million for construction jobs at all, it should be to build housing for the inner city poor and impoverished rural communities (in Wisconsin's case, that would mean building public housing in the Black, Latino and Hmong ghettoes of Milwaukee, and on the Indian Reservations in the northern part of the state.

Better yet, don't use those funds for construction at all - spend that money to hire teachers, school aides, paraprofessionals, school librarians and day care center workers in inner city Milwaukee and on the reservations in the north. That would provide jobs for the most underserved group of unemployed workers (women of color) and provide badly needed services, and the possibility of a future, for poor children of color.

However, those funds should definitely not be wasted on providing a few labor aristocratic jobs building a rail line that nobody needs.

Governor Walker opposed this program for his own reasons (basically because the jobs in question are unionized) - but that doesn't mean that we as labor activists should support this project.