Construction is a massive industry in New Jersey, and the New Jersey chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. (ABC-NJ) is an influential group with two main goals: to support building contractors throughout the state, and to provide consumers with a resource that allows them to find safe, reputable, licensed contractors.
The national organization of the ABC seeks to enhance member's competitive advantage, enrich the lives of its members, and promote a "merit shop" construction philosophy, where free enterprise and open competition are encouraged. The ABC believes that construction jobs should be awarded on merit, regardless of labor affiliation.
On the state level, the ABC-NJ's goal is to provide "innovative programs and superior services" while at the same time assisting members to deliver quality construction and to safeguard the public image of the industry.
"All of our members hold to the highest standards of safety and engage their employees in OSHA-safety-training programs," says Richard J. Lerman, the president of ABC-NJ. "Our members total more than 130,000 workers in New Jersey alone, and they're responsible for more than $4 billion in commercial construction. The commercial construction contracts in the state for the past couple of years totaled $12.7 billion."
The group's involvement doesn't limit itself to commercial projects, of course, says Lerman. "Because our members are both general and sub-contractors, they all do commercial building work, but they often work on projects which eventually become either condominiums or homes [in associations]. Often they may be called in to do the heating and air conditioning, or the electrical or mechanical contracting, as well as in both the initial building stages or later on, to update old or inadequate systems."
The State of the Unions
While ABC-NJ's goals may seem fairly straightforward and unassailable, the group doesn't operate entirely without conflict. Most of the opposing opinion comes from the state's labor and trade unions, which for the most part don't seem to be fans of the organization. Lerman, however, contends that ABC-NJ is not anti-union—rather he says the group supports the individual's decision to join a union, or for a company to hire union or non-union workers.
"We 100 percent support every American's right to choose to join a union, or not to join one—it should be their choice," Lerman says. And according to ABC-NJ, they support Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which gives people the right to join or not join a union.
It seems pretty certain that ABC-NJ will continue to speak out about issues affecting the construction industry.
"One of the key things about our organization is that over the years (and we've been around since 1966), there have been many, many misunderstandings about who we are and what we're about," Lerman says. "Fortunately, this year we've managed to better articulate and promote exactly that."
The New Jersey Cooperator recently sat down with Lerman for a one-on-one conversation about ABC-NJ's mission, message, and membership.
Tell us a little about the New Jersey chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors Inc.
"ABC-New Jersey is the only organization [that represents] the merit shop construction industry in the state. Our main focus is fighting for the rights of individuals and companies to enjoy the free enterprise system."
Can union members be in your organization?
"We don't bar them. We do have some members who have union affiliation or who work exclusively with union companies. People have always said we're discriminatory, but the fact of the matter is the majority of commercial construction in our state—more than 80 percent of it—is done by what we prefer to call 'merit shops,' as opposed to 'non-union.'
"The other thing is we are the leading construction job creator in the state. We have dramatically grown in terms of the number of employees, and [our members] have created more jobs than almost any entity in the state."
Where are your headquarters?
"Our headquarters are in Cranbury, but we continuously hold meetings throughout the state, most often in Mt. Laurel and Metro Park. That's because we represent the entire state and we don't want to disenfranchise our members—most people don't realize how big New Jersey is."
What is the advantage for contractors to be ABC-NJ members?
"Well, there are a number of advantages. The first is we include them in our Membership Director and Buyer's Guide, which goes to over 3,000 construction buyers in the state. We also list all of our members on the website so that [general contractors] and others who wish to engage them can find them. We of course track all the legislative and regulatory information for them and work hard to protect them against negative legislation and regulation and support the positive.
"We also go out of our way to support and guide members in safety issues and in protecting the workers with these jobs that we've worked so hard to grow. The manufacturing sector has lost so many jobs—not just in our state but in most states over the years—that the construction industry is one of the few left where jobs are available at the level that people can build healthy careers for the future. The future of manufacturing in this country for jobs at that level isn't a pretty picture right now. Having come out of the technology industry some years ago, I don't envision that turning around. I don't think we can ever compete with a five-dollar-a-day or two-dollar-a-day wage for high-quality labor."
No one can build houses and buildings overseas and bring them here.
"Right—It's not a transferable job. Funny enough, sometime ago they came up with this idea of modular buildings and housings and fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your point of view—it didn't catch on. Those could have been manufactured anywhere, but they weren't something that the public or businesses took to."
How do people who hire contractors come in contact with you?
"Any number of ways, either through learning about us through various publications or on our website. They come to us from all over; we very often get calls from companies all over the country who may be doing construction work here in New Jersey and are seeking a subcontractor or in some cases are looking for a general contractor to assist them in creating their building."
What's the difference between a general contractor and subcontractor?
"Think of the general contractor as the person in charge of the project who pulls together all the needs you may have—the electricians, the carpenters and heating and air conditioning. The general contractor hires all those factors, what we call subcontractors, or specialty contractors. They in effect manage the project along with the architect."
Does your group only represent people who work on larger projects?
"No, we have some members who are two- and three-guy shops and others who have hundreds. They work on huge projects and tiny ones."
If somebody needs a contractor and sees one listed with your organization, is that a seal of approval? Does it tell them the contractor is a good one?
"It tells them they're a serious organization and pretty much adhere to all laws."
Have you ever had to—for lack of a better term—censure someone in the organization?
"Well, in regards to something like the Wage and Benefit Protection Program, if people are doing public work and they don't pay the appropriate legal prevailing wage, we deal with them."
What issues in regards to construction are important to ABC-NJ?
"The first is that everybody be given an equal footing to be able to bid on various projects—particularly public projects. The second is, we'd like to see a much more welcoming attitude on the part of the New Jersey state government to business in general. Our guys do commercial construction, but at the moment, unfortunately, it's a very unhealthy atmosphere for business. You only have to look to the Assembly and the state Senate to see a negative approach to business—it's tax upon tax upon tax, whereas many other municipalities and states are doing everything possible to engage businesses and bring them to their state.
"The benefits of bringing businesses to the state are very obvious: so that you don't have the huge deficits that we have and huge financial crisis we're having at the moment. But you can only bleed companies so far before they decide it's not worth being in a particular location in order to be financially healthy."
Anthony Stoeckert is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.