[Editor’s note: A growing awareness of labor shortages in the construction industry recently prompted United Association union leader, William Hite to challenge his organization and others to take up the mantle of this industry’s future. Following are excerpts from a letter he wrote to the membership. This article is reprinted with permission from theUA Journal,November 2006.]

As members of the United Association, we all know that we are among the elite in the building trades. We are right at the top in terms of our training and our overall commitment to our industry as well as to our union. However, it’s no longer enough for only us to know this - it’s now time to make it official, so that everyone we come in contact with knows that we are truly the best in the business.

That’s why we’re making our commitment to doing the best job possible a formal policy of the United Association. In this issue ofUA Journal,you will find a comprehensive document entitled UA Standard for Excellence. We are putting down in writing our pledge to maintain the highest standards of excellence in all that we do - in training, maintaining our skills, working safely, being more productive, improving workplace attitudes, and all the other elements that will set us apart from the rest of the pack.

It’s also about pride; I want our UA members to be the ones who stand out on the jobsite when it comes to how they conduct themselves, their professional attitude, and even what kind of image or appearance they present.

These are not just words on paper; these are principles we believe in. Our contractors are also part of this initiative. Like us, they want to do the best job possible, because they understand that their future success - and ours as well - depends on it.

The UA Standard for Excellence is a joint labor-management pledge to uphold the highest industry standard in the workplace, with the ultimate goal of ensuring complete customer satisfaction. Owners contract with union contractors because they give them the best “bang for their buck.” It’s the union’s job to make sure we keep our contractors competitive to increase market share, which equates to more jobs for our members.

I believe strongly that the UA Standard for Excellence is a policy that should be adopted at every level of our organization. I don’t mean that you should just put the official policy up on a wall somewhere and walk away. I mean that we should incorporate it into our daily lives - in our training schools, on the job and in our interactions with our local union and our UA brothers and sisters.

During the past year, I, along with our other general officers, have traveled to all parts of the United States and Canada. We have met with hundreds of UA members and officers, dozens of contractors and many owners and clients of our signatory employers. These meetings have been invaluable in providing insight into the things we do right on the job and, more importantly, where we can improve.

There is always room for improvement, and the UA is no exception to that old saying. We do get high marks from our employers and their clients when it comes to our overall craftsmanship. We have shown time and again that when skilled manpower is critical, for the most part, we can provide that manpower whenever and wherever it is needed.

The truth is, I have no doubt that the vast majority of our membership is made up of good, decent, hardworking people who simply want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. By and large, UA members work hard and are always willing to go the extra mile to help a contractor be successful.

Now, that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and take it for granted that everyone appreciates the UA and the good job we do. Moreover, as I noted, there are areas where we can do better. In every corner of North America, if you ask a contractor or a construction owner where we need to improve, the answers are all pretty much the same. To put it very simply and directly, this is what concerns our employers and their customers: low productivity, absenteeism, worker appearance on the jobsite, poor attitudes and inadequate safety practices, lack of training and certification, unqualified foremen and concerns about illicit drug and alcohol use. While these may sound pretty ominous, the fact is that all of these concerns are easy to fix, if we just have the will to do so. The reality is that most of our members are not guilty of any of these negative things, but the bad actions of a small minority can spoil it for the rest of us.

Let’s face it - every organization has that 5 percent who are negative on everything. This is also true in many local unions. They are the 5 percent that your elected officers spend way too much of their time addressing and putting up with their nonsense and unwarranted behavior. They’re the same ones who are at the union meetings or on the jobsite disrupting everything. Their focus is on everything negative.

Unfortunately, this small group often has a lot of influence on what goes on in their local and on the jobsite. Brothers and sisters, this has got to stop. We cannot let a small group of malcontents bring us down and ruin our reputation. I think we all know who I’m talking about. It’s time to put this group in their place and focus on more important things, like increasing market share through owner satisfaction.

Make no mistake about it - the owner, no one else - decides if a job goes union or not. It’s our responsibility to work with our contractors to make the union the “go-to guys.” Increased market share equates to better wages and benefits and goes a long way to securing the UA’s position well into the future.

However, I don’t believe that we can simply blame a few people for the problems we face on the job. As we all know, for construction jobs to run smoothly and safely, it takes a team pulling together. When one element of that team lets down, the whole team is affected, even those who are doing exactly what they should be doing. This is a domino effect that ultimately works its way throughout a jobsite and eventually gets to the construction owner.

When it gets to that point, there is now a serious problem. We need to do all we can to prevent the problem from starting in the first place - and that’s where all of you come into play.

The UA Standard of Excellence serves as a guide for everyone - labor, management, the owner - to use as a means of smoothing the path to job completion. You will also be glad to know that the UA isn’t alone in taking this approach; most of the building trades unions are also embracing this concept. I encourage you to read in its entirety the official UA Standard for Excellence.

Our Standard for Excellence is strongly supported by two other initiatives. These are our Strategic Planning Committee, which is tasked with expanding our market share, and the Mechanical Allied Crafts Council (MAC) which brings together the six unions responsible for the majority of the work in the mechanical and piping industry. MAC allows us to speak with one voice as we seek to increase job opportunities, eliminate jurisdictional disputes and do all the other things that we must do to make building trades unions competitive today.

The bottom line is that we want to increase the market share of our organizations and our employing contractors. It’s up to us to make that happen by keeping our commitment to being the most highly skilled, best trained, safest and most productive workers in the industry. Our contractors will go after the work, if they know they have a team behind them that they can depend on. If they don’t have that certainty, they will hesitate to seek work beyond their own comfort zone.

In essence, it’s up to us to create the future we want. The UA Standard for Excellence sets us on a clear path for change in the workplace. As you read the policy, you will see that responsibility for improving the job is not just placed on the shoulders of the members, the local union, the contractor, or owner. We are stating that we believe responsibility lies with all parties engaged in a project. I believe our contractors and their customers will make the commitment we are asking for, especially if they see that our rank-and-file are committed to it as well.

That’s why I am asking for your cooperation and support in making the UA Standard for Excellence the basis for a new, stronger and mutually beneficial relationship with our contractors and their clients.

I’ve said over and over, if the union, our contractors and the owners are on the same page, we’re unstoppable! The UA Standard for Excellence is our commitment to making that a reality.

Publication date:04/23/2007