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60 Years and Counting: The Story of ABC

Anniversaries are a time to look back, to conjure up the highs and lows of the past in order to frame a better future. For Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), that means rewinding 60 years and peeking through the window of a Baltimore home, where Edward Colwill, Philip Cloyes, Edward Dickinson, Charles Knott, Charles Mullan, Ernest Shultz and C.K. Wells, Jr., met to create a new association founded on the shared belief that construction projects should be awarded based on merit to the most qualified and responsible low bidders.

Since its inception, ABC has been instrumental in reversing the makeup of the construction industry. In 1950, about 15 percent of contractors worked open shop and 85 percent were affiliated with a union; today, the numbers are reversed.

“We had great hopes for this organization, but we never thought it would expand to what it is today,” Mullan said in 1999.

ABC membership ballooned from 52 member companies in 1952 to 25,000 today, including general contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers and related firms representing a total of two million employees. Each member played—and continues to play—a crucial role in championing the merit shop movement through legislative, craft training, educational and business development efforts.

The odds were often against ABC, but the association always emerged stronger than ever—guided by an enduring philosophy of free enterprise and open competition.

Here are some highlights from the past 60 years.

The 1950s

1950: ABC is established in response to the Baltimore Building & Construction Trades Department’s efforts to limit construction to union-only companies.

1952: ABC hires its first executive vice president, John Trimmer, who coins the term “merit shop” to draw attention to the association’s mantra: Construction projects should be awarded based solely on merit, regardless of labor affiliation.

1954: Membership reaches 500 throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Washington, D.C. National Building & Construction Trades union leaders publicly express concern about the growth of ABC and declare “war” on open shop contractors.

1955: In the Stover case, ABC fights to win a secondary boycott action in a U.S. Court of Appeals that helps establish a new legal principle in the administration of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which demobilized the labor movement by limiting unions’ abilities to strike, picket and make monetary donations to federal political campaigns.

1957: ABC charters its first four chapters: Eastern Shore, Metro Washington, Chesapeake and Cumberland Valley. The association’s inaugural construction fair sets the record for the largest industrial exhibit in Maryland with more than 3,000 attendees. Additionally, the ABC Insurance Trust is established.

1958: ABC holds its first National Convention and celebrates a victory in the Selby-Battersby case, which restricted the Building Trades Council and its unions from conducting secondary boycotts against several ABC member firms. Later, ABC wins an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 1960s

1960-1962: ABC establishes its first plumbing and electrical apprenticeship programs in Baltimore, boasting one of the lowest dropout rates in the nation. Eventually, more than 200 apprentices enroll in training programs in three chapters.

1965: ABC holds its first Legislative Conference, as well as fights to retain Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows states to enact right-to-work laws.

1966: ABC launches its largest educational program to fight a Common Situs Picketing bill to legalize secondary boycotts. Because of ABC’s efforts, the bill is dropped.

Late-1960s: Membership tops 2,000, and ABC develops the Beam Club as a way to recognize members recruiting new members. In recognition of membership growth in states outside of Maryland, ABC revamps its logo.

The 1970s

1971: ABC establishes the Merit Shop Foundation (renamed the Construction Education Foundation in 1992).

1972: More than 1,000 union construction workers attack an Altemose Construction Co. jobsite in King of Prussia, Pa., with damages totaling more than $1 million. The union attack gains national media attention when CBS’s “60 Minutes” covers the story.

1973: ABC files and wins a massive unfair labor practice suit before the National Labor Relations Board against 17 AFL-CIO International Building and Construction Trades unions and their locals. In addition, ABC testifies before the U.S. Supreme Court on the Hobbs Act, which precluded federal intervention in labor disputes. To help finance legal battles against union lawlessness, the Merit Shop Defense Fund is formed.

1976: ABC National President Joe M. Rodgers coins the phrase, “Get into politics or get out of business.”

1978: ABC establishes its Political Action Committee (PAC), as well as the Construction Buyers Service.

1979: ABC has more than 15,000 members in more than 55 chapters across the country. With the support of local ABC chapters, Utah and Florida become the first states to repeal prevailing wage laws.

The 1980s

1982: Under the direction of 1980 ABC National President Ted C. Kennedy, ABC creates Wheels of Learning—four-year apprenticeship programs in 16 construction crafts approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. The association also establishes the National Open Shop Training Trust Fund and publishes the construction industry’s first manual on drug abuse and the workplace.

1983-1984: The Business Roundtable publishes a study, “More Construction for the Money,” and Herbert Northrup, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, publishes his second in-depth study of the open shop construction market, “Open Shop Construction Revisited.”

1986: ABC elects Jean Hails its first female president, as well as creates the Metal Building, Mechanical and Electrical councils.

1987: During the National Convention in Orlando, Fla., ABC hosts its first Craft Olympics competition (later renamed the National Craft Championships) to recognize outstanding apprentices.

1988: At the National Convention in San Francisco, a demonstration by more than 5,000 union members brings major national news media coverage to the merit shop cause. Also, ABC receives the first Business Roundtable Construction Industry Safety Excellence Award, including a $50,000 grant to help the association further develop jobsite safety programs.

1989: ABC establishes the Construction Legal Rights Foundation to protect the rights of merit shop contractors, as well as the Safety Training and Evaluation Process (STEP) to help members develop safety and loss prevention programs.

The 1990s

1990: ABC creates a national Excellence in Construction awards program to honor contractors, architects and owners involved in outstanding construction projects.

1991: Eleven of the nation’s largest merit shop contractors join forces with the Construction Education Foundation to develop standardized craft training programs.

1992: The association begins publishing ABC Today, a bi-monthly newsletter covering national, chapter and member company news.

1993: ABC develops the Accredited Quality Contractor program to recognize contractors that prove their commitment to safety, employee benefits, craft training and community involvement.

1995: ABC scores victories when the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers drops job targeting programs and the Oklahoma Department of Labor takes a case to Congress after uncovering fraud and abuse in the administration of Davis-Bacon prevailing wages. Meanwhile, ABC member Town & Country Electric loses a case on union salting in the U.S. Supreme Court, which found a salt to be a legitimate employee.

1995: ABC participates in the industry’s first “Careers in Construction: Build Your Future” teleconference.

1996: ABC establishes its web presence at www.abc.org. Additionally, the Construction Education Foundation spins off into the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) and relocates to the University of Florida, Gainesville. The NCCER becomes an industry-wide training consortium of 15 construction-related associations. Internally, ABC establishes the Trimmer Education Foundation as a nonprofit organization to award scholarships and grants supporting workforce development initiatives.

1999: ABC National and its chapters earmark $2 million for the fight against project labor agreements. The association also invigorates its grassroots efforts with Educate 99, a yearlong program designed to inform ABC member company employees about merit shop construction and the legislative challenges to open competition. The initiative pays off, with Fortune magazine naming ABC one of its “Top 50” most influential organizations. Additionally, ABC approves the Southeast Texas Chapter’s “Try Tools” program as a national way to attract youth to the workforce.

The 2000s

2000: Retired General Colin Powell is the keynote speaker at ABC’s 50th anniversary celebration during its annual National Convention in Baltimore, during which ABC honors nine Leaders of the Century: Leon Altemose, Daniel Bennet, Mike Callas, A. Samuel Cook, Ted Kennedy, Charles Mullan, Herbert Northrup, Joe Rodgers and John Trimmer. Also, the ABC Cares program is developed to promote chapters’ and members’ community service initiatives.

2001: Kirk Pickerel is named ABC president and CEO, and ABC National launches its weekly e-newsletter Newsline. The Free Enterprise Alliance is founded and, upon raising $7 million in 2008, becomes the association’s largest individual program.

2003: Construction Executive, a four-color monthly industry magazine, replaces ABC Today. Five years later, the magazine goes online at www.ConstructionExec.com.

2005: President George W. Bush addresses ABC members attending the Legislative Conference; he returns for another appearance in 2007. Also, Samuel Cook’s book, Freedom in the Workplace: The Untold Story of Merit Shop Construction’s Crusade Against Compulsory Trade Unionism, is published.

ABC contributes $25,000 to the Business Roundtable’s Gulf Rebuild: Education, Advancement and Training campaign in support of construction recruitment and training efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

2007: Following intense opposition by ABC and other business groups, the U.S. Senate fails to collect enough votes for cloture on the Employee Free Choice Act/“card check” legislation. The bill is reintroduced in 2009, but advocates for free enterprise and open competition are steadfast in preventing debate in Congress. Additionally, ABC launches Construction Economic Update, a regular electronic communication analyzing employment, spending and materials news affecting the U.S. construction industry.

2008: ABC and its 79 chapters hit the 25,000 member mark and ABC PAC raises more than $2.1 million in 2007 and 2008—about $500,000 more than in any previous election cycle. In recognition of the green building boom, ABC launches a pilot Green Contractor Certification program to document members’ efforts to develop a sustainable workplace on and off the jobsite.

2009: In light of dramatic changes in the economy, ABC begins tracking members’ backlog by region, industry sector and company revenue with its national Construction Backlog Indicator. Also, to help member companies continue to maximize the opportunities associated with an increasingly diverse workforce, ABC publishes an Employer Guide for Diversity and Inclusion. New online offerings include www.GreenConstructionAtWork.comwww.TheTruthAboutEFCA.com, www.TheTruthAboutPLAs.comwww.ConstructionJobNetwork.com, www.Twitter.com/ABCNational and www.Twitter.com/ConstructionMag.

Compiled by Construction Executive staff. 

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