`Open shop' association marks 50th anniversary

Group meeting in town urges nonunion hiring

Conventions

June 02, 2000|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

On June 1, 1950, Charles Mullan stood before six other Baltimore general contractors in a small Fayette Street house and vowed to fight for the right to hire nonunion workers.

The Associated Builders and Contractors was born, and with it an organized advocate for "open shops" and "merit shops" - contractors that employ nonorganized labor.

Yesterday, Mullan returned to Baltimore for the association's 50th anniversary and called the meeting to order, just as he had a half-century ago. But instead of rallying a sparse audience in a small house, Mullan stood before 1,900 people at the sprawling Baltimore Convention Center. And Mullan, once a blacklisted general contractor in Baltimore's thriving post-war labor movement, is inching into his late 80s and semi-retired in Orlando, Fla.

But more than that has changed. Today, ABC boasts 22,000 member companies, with 81 member chapters stretching from Alaska to Guam. Its staff of 500 lobbies Congress, sponsors education and safety training programs, and offers insurance programs. Yesterday, it endorsed Gov. George W. Bush for president.

Forty Baltimore police officers ringed the convention center, anticipating protests from organized labor. The ABC has long drawn the ire of unions, who often picket its conventions. Two months ago, 1,000 union activists disrupted traffic at a regional ABC meeting in Toledo, Ohio.

But nowhere did it turn as ugly as in San Francisco in 1988. That year, 5,000 union protesters clogged the streets outside the Moscone Center, shouting, "Scabs, go home!" Construction in the area halted, as union workers walked off job sites to demonstrate. Some of them hurled eggs and tomatoes at conventioneers. ABC members ran through makeshift corridors between buses, using their briefcases as shields. Fifteen protesters were arrested.

The convention went on. Mike Perkins, a Dayton, Ohio, shopping center developer who was named president at that convention, walked into the national spotlight. "I saw it as a perfect venue for me to get the word out, that we were just trying to compete in a free-enterprise system," Perkins said.

Nothing of the sort happened in Baltimore. Police said only four protesters turned up to hand out pamphlets yesterday, and they were gone by 9 a.m.

Those attending the conference had other things on their minds. Steve Palkovitz, owner of Hagerstown Paint and Glass Co., and Hagerstown roofing contractor Ken Kline said they are losing workers to Western Maryland's warehousing business. The labor shortage, they said, has forced them to turn down jobs. "Used to be, we would bid on almost every job that came in the area - schools, churches, government," Kline said. "Now, we're more selective, because we just can't get the people."

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