LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL — Some union leaders like to compare the particular relationship that exists between labor and management to a marriage: Both parties are stuck with each other.

If that’s true, then the SMWIA-SMACNA Labor-Management Partnership Conference, held here recently at Walt Disney World, was marriage counseling. More than 400 members of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and the union Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) came to find out why some contractors stay with union labor, while others divorced themselves years ago.


The statistics tell the story of a relationship long in decline. Since the early 1980s, unionized labor’s share of the U.S. construction market has fallen from 80% to less than 40% in many areas.

SMWIA officials acknowledge they may not have always been the best partner. Antiquated work rules and an “us vs. them” mentality when it came to recruiting helped create the current crisis, said Mike Small, SMWIA director of organization.

“We have to change the culture,” Small told attendees. “We’re just doing the same things we did in the 1960s and calling it something different.”

SMWIA general president Michael Sullivan said if the union really wants to boost its share of the market, members must be open to change.

“We must be willing to take a chance, to step outside the box, and to try new things,” Sullivan said, before asking the question, “Are you willing to forget the past?”

Such a strategy appears to have worked for some unions in the building trades. In recent years, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has experienced an increase in its ranks and share of the construction market. Conference sponsors brought IBEW member Jim Rudicil to Orlando to discuss the union’s success.

Rudicil told attendees he credits a change in recruitment techniques. For decades, Rudicil said, IBEW members were reluctant to recruit apprentices into the union, out of fear that they would take work away from older, longtime members. Such an attitude eventually led to a plummeting market share for the IBEW, since younger workers became less interested in joining the union.

The IBEW fixed the problem by actively seeking apprentices and experienced electricians who formerly worked for nonunion companies. Having a supply of younger workers also brought down the cost of using union labor for many projects, since their wages are typically lower. Now IBEW locals have 10,000 more calls for electricians than the locals can fill, Rudicil said.


Adding union members is only part of the solution, according to Cornell University Professor Bernard Flaherty. Both union leaders and members of management must change their attitudes while at the bargaining table, he said.

A nationally recognized expert on labor issues, Flaherty has written extensively about the concept of “win-win negotiations,” where labor unions and members of management approach collective bargaining with the goal of drafting a contract beneficial to both parties, instead of trying to “put one over” on the other side.

“[Collective bargaining] should lead us to a system of respect for all employees,” he said. If union leaders and management don’t adopt such an attitude, Flaherty said that both parties will be “facing a future we don’t want to face.”

In an effort to foster better respect and understanding between nonunion and union contractors, SMACNA and SMWIA invited representatives from Kmart Corp., KeySpan Services Inc., and Ameren Corp. to discuss their experiences.

Joseph Rinke, manager of construction and engineering services for Ameren, a St. Louis-based energy provider, said he has always used union labor. However, he said, it hasn’t always been easy. “I think we need to do much more together to get an idea of what motivates the other,” Rinke said.

He suggested that trade unions need to establish more low-paid, entry-level positions to cut down on the cost of using union labor, while contractors need to work harder to enforce their rights. Both sides need to be easier to work with.

“[We need to] eliminate the phrase ‘past practice’ from our list of reasons for doing or not doing things,” he said.

A last-minute addition to the agenda, representatives from struggling discount retailer Kmart told the contractors that union or nonunion, controlling costs is critical — and Kmart is proof of what can happen when you don’t.

“All of you need to recognize it,” said company spokesman Gary Crull. “When you get [your costs] out of line, it can be a reason why you’re in the shape you’re in.”

Stephen Weglarz, senior counsel for New England energy and telecommunication provider Key-Span Services, told sheet metal workers a lack of regional or national labor standards was costing them jobs.

Weglarz said that in KeySpan’s New Jersey territory, five different sheet metal union locals cover a 50-sq-mi area, each with its own sets of rules regarding work and wages. Corporations don’t want to deal with such a bureaucracy, Weglarz said.

“It can’t help but have a detrimental effect on our ability to grow and give shareholder value,” he said.


Reviews of the conference were generally positive, although some SMACNA contractors thought it offered little in the way of new ideas. “It was fairly beneficial,” said Roger Ramsey, vice president of Stromberg Metal Works of North Carolina. “A lot of that stuff we have already tried in the state of South Carolina.” Another SMACNA contractor said he thought it focused too much on union recruitment efforts, giving short shrift to topics of greater importance to management. “I personally felt like it was nothing more than a push for organizing,” said the Indiana contractor, who asked that his name not be used. The next SMWIA-SMACNA Labor-Management Partnership Conference is scheduled for 2004.

Publication date: 04/08/2002