LAS VEGAS — “The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining, and the sun is shining right now,” said author, CEO, and keynote speaker, Mark Breslin, at the recent joint UA/MCAA Labor Relations Conference. “The union is growing, the market is strong, but there’s a significant hole in the roof that we need to begin patching before the clouds come again.”

That hole, noted Breslin, is the current makeup of United Association (UA) members, 32 percent of whom are baby boomers in the process of crafting an exit strategy.

“Our leadership is on the way out, the field has to reinvent itself, and apprenticeship does not appear to be an effective talent pipeline,” he said. “Only 13 percent of the local unions in the U.S. and Canada are meeting their apprenticeship intake goals at this time.

“That means we have to reinvent our entire work force in the next five to seven years, and we have an insufficient effort and an insufficient pipeline,” he continued. “What are we going to do about that?”

That was the question posed to the packed house during this two-day conference, which served as a vehicle to share ideas and best practices in order to expand opportunities for UA and Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) members.


Labor and management leadership from around the U.S. and Canada shared some of the best practices they are employing to raise awareness of the benefits of union membership in their communities. Representing the San Francisco area, Armand Kilijian, president, O’Brien Mechanical Inc., and Larry Mazzola, Jr., business manager, Local Union 38, focused on how cultivating relationships is key to keeping and growing their markets.

“I honestly think the majority of negotiations are relationships,” said Mazzola. “If you have a relationship, you can get a deal done, and you can knock out the hard items.”

But, you have to work at it year-round, he added, not just sitting down every five or six years at the bargaining table but doing things together like getting a beer, having dinner, or playing golf.

Kilijian agreed, noting that, thanks to many years of these informal get-togethers, it has been possible to establish a relationship of trust and understanding both at  and outside  the bargaining table.

“We can say to each other, ‘What is it that we both need? How can we make this best for all of us?’” he said. “It’s an open dialogue. Because of this, the terms, ‘strike’ and ‘walkout,’ are not part of our vocabulary.”

By working together and having a strong relationship, they are better able to keep a greater share of the San Francisco market, according to Kilijian.

“We have a strong foothold in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area, but it is hard to keep that non-union contractor out of the city,” he said. “We talk a lot about what we can do to keep that market share.”

Part of that plan includes having a strong labor-management relationship, but it is also necessary to get involved with local politics.

“We have a board called the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition (SFHAC), and every developer has to get their approval before going to the board of supervisors and the planning commission,” said Mazzola. “So we joined SFHAC and go to all the meetings, so we can start talking with developers right away about their projects. We explain to them how we can partner with them, and it’s helped tremendously.”

In Denver, the recent close partnership between MCAA and UA was touted as being one of the best models for transforming the sometimes contentious labor-management relationship.

“For years and years, labor-management relations in Colorado were OK,” said Rick Allen, UA international representative. “But in 2012, we started down a pretty dark path, and when negotiations were done, no one was happy. After that, we went months and months without talking to each other.”

In 2013, the UA started working on a plan to try to repair the damaged relationships with contractors, and, fortunately, everyone was committed.

“Both labor and management could see that we were heading down a path where we were going to destroy the labor movement for both the UA and the MCAA in Colorado,” said Allen.

After two years, and with the help of a third-party mediator, the relationship was finally turned around and is now stronger than ever.

In Boston, creating partnerships between local unions and contractors has resulted in a new way to recruit members.

“We’ve had some successes in organizing over the last few years, but it wouldn’t have happened without the trust between the contractors association and Local 12,” said Harry Brett, business manager, Local Union 12. “We developed an open house that we hold every Wednesday night, and since the end of 2013, we have added over 850 people to our database.”

The idea for the open house came about in 2012, when unemployment in Local 12 was around 50 percent. There was a lot of work on the horizon, though, and they wanted to be prepared for it. Not happy with the current vetting process, the union decided to hold word-of-mouth open houses for individuals who were perhaps interested in joining the union. The relaxed setting allowed union members to talk with these individuals, learn more about their work history, and hone in on those who would be welcome additions to the union. The weekly events took off, and when work started ramping up in Boston again, there was a pipeline of qualified personnel who were able to hit the ground running.


Trying something new and different, such as holding the open houses in Boston, is something all UA and MCAA members need to do if they are to going to increase the number of skilled union workers, said Breslin.

“We do not have a skilled labor shortage,” he said. “We have a skilled union labor shortage. I am tired of hearing everyone complain about the fact that there’s no skilled labor when, in fact, there’s an abundance of it sitting there, waiting for us, and we seem to be apathetic or unable to bring them into the fold.”

Breslin stated that there are about 280,000 union plumbers, fitters, welders, and service technicians, and approximately 1 million non-union workers in the same business.

“That means there are three or four times the number of union labor who are readily available to us if we’re willing to change the way we look at the market and embrace best practices in a completely different way,” he said.

That different way involves reaching out to existing non-union labor rather than focusing on recruiting young people for the apprenticeship program.

“Why do that?” Breslin asked. “Because it fills the need right now. We put a kid into the apprenticeship program, and he’s ready five years from now. That’s five years versus right now. In addition, the training is done at someone else’s expense.”

One of the best ways to reach non-union workers is through local job fairs, but because these workers may be hesitant to attend a union-sponsored event, Breslin suggested contractors handle most of the interactions.

He described that recently, in California, there were three joint labor-management job fairs. The union’s role was to go out three weeks in advance and leaflet every non-union job within 150 miles. The leaflet didn’t mention the union, it only listed the contractors who were coming to that event, looking actively for talented non-union people.

The first job fair drew 153 candidates, the second one 285 candidates, and the third one 360 candidates — all non-union people interested in going to work for the union. The result was 200 dispatches in one month, said Breslin.

“Now, do the math,” he said. “It cost $5,000 for each event, so $15,000 total for three events. Now, look at apprenticeships. For 200 people, we’re going to give them five years of training, so combined, that’s 1,000 years of training. In addition, we’re going to pay $10,000 per year for that training, so that’s $10 million to turn out those 200 people to match the people in five years that we can get tomorrow for $15,000.”

It is time for revolutionary change, summarized Breslin.

“In the next five to seven years, we have to build the people who are going to build the work,” he said. “We need to put more effort into it as never before.”

Publication date: 12/11/2017

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