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Lyle Balistreri
Union boss Lyle Balistreri was always ready to rumble when negotiating for tradesmen. But as he retires, he admits confrontation is doomed to fail.
By Avrum D. Lank
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

You have been president of the Building and Constructions Trades Council, one of the most influential unions in the city, for 18 years. You’re retiring?
I’m 66 years old and I am still raising a 12-year-old. The majority of my time is going to be spent with him. I will maintain my position on the Bradley Tech Commission. I am also taking over the Bradley Tech Foundation as its chair. Hopefully, the mayor will keep me on the Metropolitan Sewerage District. I am going to have a very nice pension and, if I stay healthy, I’ll have a very good life.

How many contracts have you negotiated?
I negotiated over 50 multiyear public-sector contracts with the state, city, county and MPS. We had six or seven project labor agreements over the course of my career. The value of those agreements – to build the Convention Center, Potawatomi, Miller Park – exceeded $5 billion. Yeah, I would say I negotiated a lot of agreements.

What was the most fun?
The Convention Center. I was green, and my mandate was “get this thing under a project agreement or don’t worry about running for another term.” There were a lot of politicians and businesspeople that were opposed to building it with union contractors. We had this demonstration around the convention center, April 19, 1996, that completely surrounded the place, and we had broken off bargaining. And so that victory was really savored. After that it got old. A lot of it wasn’t fun.

What was the biggest setback?
The Miller Park accident. Three ironworkers were killed, and it was an accident that was totally preventable. There had been a number of incidents leading up to that point during the construction of the job that made a lot of us union leaders very nervous about how Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was working their workforce. I mean, they wanted to showcase lifting 400 tons of steel into the air and putting it in place with this monstrous crane. But you don’t fly 400 tons of steel when you have wind gusts of 24-25 miles an hour. And we could not stop it and they refused to stop it, and knowing what I know now in hindsight, I would have taken other measures to stop it. 

Pulled the workers?
Oh yeah.

What is the state of the labor movement today compared to other times in your career?
The labor movement has been weakened and is in much more dire straits than when I came into it. The anti-union environment is stronger than it has ever been, and the laws of the land have not been shaped in a way that is helpful to unions in terms of organizing. We are born out of a very aggressive behavior, and I think that any system that is based on intimidation or warfare or confrontation is doomed going forward.

How do you change that?
You pick your fights. There are ways through labor and management cooperation that you can win people over and get more people in the fold without this sense of conflict at all times. When I first started negotiating, I took a very hardline approach to gain what we wanted. Intimidation was definitely a factor. It didn’t win us much, and when it did, the animosity came with it. Later on, I took an approach that dealt more with common interests and problems in the industry and always respected the other side.

Who were the best and worst politicians to work with?
I’ve been equally disappointed by both parties. A lot of people don’t like Tommy Thompson, but in terms of the construction unions, he was very good to us.

What do you think of the way Gov. Walker is running Wisconsin?
I am not a Scott Walker fan for one reason: He took away the right for many, many thousands of state workers and public sector workers to bargain fairly. I don’t necessarily disagree with his motivation. You don’t keep on asking for more and more when the cupboard is bare.

Who was asking for more and more?
Public sector unions. The teachers’ union. To the credit of their leadership, they bargained great contracts, and it led to this backlash and to Act 10, and it has propelled Scott Walker into the presidential spotlight.

Are we at a point where unions are starting to come back?
I won’t be around to see it.

Have you enjoyed your career?
Immensely. It’s tough. Every day in this kind of environment, you get up and get ready for some sort of battle. There are days when you don’t feel like fightin’. I am certainly tired of it.

This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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*condensed and edited from a longer interview




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