Plaster, the Union and You (Part 1)
Through this and next month’s column, I am sharing an interview I had recently with William Rogers. I think you’ll find his background in the plastering trade interesting, and also it may give some insight into what the union has to offer and whether it is something to consider.
I met Rogers at the AWCI Convention 2001 in Nashville. In December 2000, he became the executive director of the Plasterers and Cement Masons Job Corps Training Program, which is an opportunity for America’s disadvantaged youth, sponsored by the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association, the Association of the Walls and Ceilings Industries International, the National Plastering Industries Joint Apprenticeship Trust Fund and funded by the U.S. Dept. of Labor. Rogers works in tandem with the U.S. Dept. of Forestry and Park Service, operating 59 live-in training facilities across the country that prepares young men and women ages 16 to 24 for careers in the plastering and cement masonry industries.
I caught up with Rogers and asked him some questions about himself and the union.
A little Q&ARobin Raymer: First off, how did you get introduced to the plastering trade?
William Rogers: I grew up in Southern California where, after my father and grandparents died, I spent my teens in McKinley’s Boys Home in San Dimas, Calif., and in foster care. It was my foster father, Lynn Rogers, who introduced me to plastering. He was a semi-retired contractor who was still doing a lot of room additions and patch repair work when I came to live with his family.
After graduating high school, I applied for an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker (woodworking was my first love in school) but at that time there were few jobs available in that industry. So, shortly thereafter Lynn marched me down to the plasterers’ union office where I signed up and began serving my formal apprenticeship. I soon discovered the creative side of the plastering industry and came to love it even more than I had woodworking (At age 20, I won first place in the California State Apprenticeship Contest).
A few years after completing my apprenticeship, I struck out on my own and took over the small plastering business from my foster father. We upgraded the volume of work to include custom homes, small commercial buildings and historic restoration. I was young and wanted to play by the rules. So, like my foster father, I became a signatory contractor with the local unions, maintained all the appropriate insurance, hired men out of the hall, did all of the estimating and accounting myself and worked out of my home to keep the overhead as low as possible.
After nearly four years, my business was doing fine but the stress of 14- to 18-hour days nearly seven days a week was more than I wanted at that age, and I chose to close shop and return to working for other local union contractors. I had always been an active member in the union, so a few years later in 1985, the membership of the local union elected me as a business manager of Local 73 in Riverside, Calif.
RR: It’s clear that with your experience, you have a lot you can offer to the Job Corps Program.
WR: What my foster father did for me changed my life. When I first heard about Job Corps, the concept sounded like an institutional recreation of what my experiences in the foster home were. Job Corps gives youth who are at the crossroads of life positive role models, a work ethic and an attainable goal to be self sufficient, to take pride in what they produce and a real chance to one day live the American Dream of homeownership and financial security. So, in 2000 when the executive director position came open, I sought it out and was elected by the National Plastering Industries Joint Apprenticeship Committee.
The work we do changes lives, lowers our nation’s poverty level and provides a supply of entry labor for the industry. If you define success the same way I do, “helping others while you get to do what you love,” I would say that I am one of the most successful guys around.
RR: I’ve heard several reasons why there has been a decline in plastering over the years. What’s the explanation the union gives?
WR: Of course, the economic problems of the early ’70s and ’80s didn’t help, but the story is really simple: a change in technology and an unwillingness to embrace change. Both the unions and employers who had been doing conventional plastering for generations saw drywall as an inferior product, a challenge to their marketshare and a potential flash in the pan. They didn’t want to see their reputation diminished by being associated with it. If the entire plastering industry had fully embraced drywall finishing from the beginning, I am confident that there would not have been any decline in the number of plasterers working the trade, only a shift in the type of work that they performed. Good thing we can learn from our mistakes.
RR: What do you see now, as far as the number of plasterers in the country?
WR: Since 1985, the number of union plasterers has steadily increased. This is due largely to the introduction of EIFS, the use of free-form or theme-style plastering that has become popular at theme parks and casinos, the renaissance use of interior plaster and integrated color finishes, Level 5 drywall finishing, and the organizing efforts of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association.
If the union and the plastering industry wish to flourish, we should keep doing what we have been doing for the last decade under the leadership of our General President, John Dougherty: Learn from our past mistakes, keep journeymen abreast of new materials and application techniques, and keep recruitment and training of new apprentices a top priority.
RR: Why should a contractor consider joining the union?
WR: In a recent survey, wall and ceiling contractors rated “finding and keeping quality employees” as the biggest single challenge to them in conducting their businesses. Plastering being so skill and labor dependent, this statement is especially true in our segment of the industry. Union employers have the opportunity to use the union hiring hall to man up a job with the qualified workers and the flexibility to scale down a crew at will as the job slows up or is completed. The union or its apprenticeship counterpart certifies the qualifications of all its members by practical and related knowledge testing.
Union employers are part of a collective resource for the training of personnel with the union and all of the other area union employers, when new materials or techniques are developed, these training facilities are the first to offer them to the industry. Training programs are established not only for apprentice training, but for journeymen upgrading as well. Employers who are not part of the “union group” cannot pay for the comparable cost of supplemental training on their own and are ultimately stuck with whatever kind of employee they can find—some skilled, some not so skilled, and hope they can learn on the job.
From an employees’ perspective, the case is even clearer. One of our local union mission statements reads in part: “The purpose of the organization is to supply the trade with skilled workers, to assist each other in securing gainful employment and to establish and maintain a fair standard of wages and benefits for all of its members.”
If a worker joins the union he also has access to the hiring hall and are dispatched to employers as calls come into the hall. Union employees are paid according to a “scale” depending on their level of training, and everyone progresses up the ladder as long as they meet all of the established requirements. Fringe benefits include medical insurance for the workers entire family and a solid retirement plan. The wages and benefits remain the same from one employer to another, that way nothing is lost and they never have to start over just to prove themselves. In fact, the term “journeyman” loosely means a craftsman who journeys from place to place, but carries the skill of their trade and the acknowledgment of their industry—that they do not have to re-prove themselves from place to place.
Next month’s issue will carry the second half of this interview. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to send them to me in care of this magazine. You can also visit http://www.plasterzone.com, or check out the new “Ask Plaster Man” area on Marshalltown Trowel’s Web site (http://www.Marshalltown.com). Just click on the “How-To Tips” button.