Unions' Future Questioned

December 26, 2005
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Sheet metal unions hit rocky water in 2005 according to a report issued by the New Horizons Foundation. The problem, "Although unions are widely credited with creating and defending opportunities for waves of new Americans to begin living the dream of a middle-class lifestyle, the 21st century worker is not seeking union membership," according to the study.

The Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA) and the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) were encouraged to work together to solve the problems and dispel the myths of the sheet metal union's future. The solutions to the following myths, as stated by the study, were considered to be the keys to future success of sheet metal unions.

  • All union sheet metal construction will remain locally controlled.

  • Unions will continue to have a significant influence in the marketplace and society.

  • The SMACNA contractors and SMWIA workers have an adversarial relationship.

  • Union sheet metal construction will always have a training advantage over nonunion sheet metal construction.

  • Employees will always be more loyal to the union than the employer.

  • Union labor agreements will always have a pay scale based upon seniority, not tasks or skills.

  • Both SMACNA and SMWIA contractors will continue to share a common vision for the growth of the industry.

    SMACNA and SMWIA were concerned with the upcoming retirement of the baby boomers. A gap in the union workforce was addressed by the study estimating, "That less than 13 percent of the U.S. labor pool was organized."

    This will most likely create fierce competition for new workers in 2006 not only between the industries, but also within the industries.

    "We have to go out and recruit people and show workers that we can provide them with lifetime educational opportunities and that we have sound benefits," said Mark Watson, SMACNA immediate past president.

    "We have to be in the position to solicit the best people available." Watson believed that reorganizing union compensation to be based on task and skills, not time, would be the answer to sheet metal union survival.

    "Recruiting, not compensation, in the construction industry is going to be the biggest problem in our trade," said Mike Sullivan, SMWIA general president, disagreeing with Watson.

    "Today our people are making 25 percent less than they were making in 1979, which equates to less buying power. Recruiting is hard enough as it is. You can only keep people down so long."

    Despite the disagreements in 2005, "We have the best working relationship that we have ever had with national SMACNA," said Sullivan. "We can disagree on things, but we sit down and find a common ground."

    The study issued a final warning to the sheet metal associations saying, "Labor unions in general and the SMWIA in particular must fully comprehend the challenge they face. Membership will decline if immediate action is not taken.

    "Aggressive efforts to organize the market and articulate the union advantages on issues such as wages, health benefits, and retirement will be vital for survival over the next 20 years. The union that can clearly and aggressively articulate its vision and mission will be successful in attracting like-minded individuals to its ranks."

    Publication date: 12/26/2005

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