Bill and Kevin attend the UIPAT to witness the next generation of drywallers

It isn't easy to come up with creative new material each month ... which is why we don't. Instead, as George Carlin said, "We call 'em like we see 'em, and if we don't see 'em, we make 'em up." Though some may mistakenly come to these pages in search of substance, technical data and business advice, we feel confident that they leave empty-handed and empty-headed. This month, we will once again go where wise men fear to tread: labor unions.

In late July, we were invited to attend the annual conference and training seminar of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and Joint Apprenticeship and Training Fund. The IUPAT is the union for painters, carpet layers, glaziers, billboard posters, scenic artists, sandblasters, designers, civil service workers and shipyard workers, among a number of other trades and crafts related to building finishes. Most importantly (at least as far as we are concerned), it's the drywall finishers union.

Strong feelings

Unions and their benefits and drawbacks are fodder for some of the best debates you can have. Decades ago, unions were nearly the cause of another civil war. At their best, they represent and protect the hardworking blood and guts guy or gal from corporate exploitation. At their worst, they shield the lazy and undeserving employee. But being the non-committal, lily-livered journalists we are, we won't come down on either side of the fence in the discussion.

The IUPAT has numerous locations throughout North America through which apprentice tapers are taught the trade by journeymen trainers. As with any other trade, some kids come to the program with a lot of talent, but are often self-taught. The 150-plus training centers teach them techniques, applications, industry standards and terms, and often help them secure a future in the industry through their contacts.

Each year, the apprentices are challenged with finishing a small room mock-up, which consists of an arched opening, an octagon window, two inside off-angles, two small soffits, an inside radius wall with a butt-joint, a skylight opening, and several inside and outside 90-degree corners. They also have a free wall on the outside of this box that they can decorate creatively. Each apprentice chooses from the same group of materials, whether it's compounds or trims. Among the criteria for judging is production (speed), workstation cleanliness (no mud on the floor), quality of finish (hold the chatter) and creativity. As the mock-ups are constructed, the framing and hanging is done to imitate a real-life situation, as in un-sunken screw heads, gaps, uneven butts, etc. Just about everything you might encounter on a job site except for things like board shortages, late deliveries, the fat purple-faced screaming boss, or the ceiling tile hanger with atrocious body odor.

At any rate, each training center has its own competition, and the respective winners go on to regional and ultimately international competition. The international competition took place, as it has for the last several years, at Marshall University in Huntington, W.V. For all you football fans, that's wide receiver Randy Moss' alma mater. Thanks to Richard Hackney, the JATF fund administrator and a first-class guy, the university and neighboring hotels house the instructors, business representatives and contestants for all of the IUPAT's participating trades for a week of classes, seminars and competitions.

Just a note: Though this is a truly beautiful part of the country, we don't recommend flying in to this airport, because there are mountains everywhere, and whoever dreamed of putting a landing strip in the midst of this should give back his engineering scholarship money. We are also firmly opposed to driving into this area, as the roads don't allow you the modest luxury of falling asleep at the wheel for anymore than a few seconds at time. The best way to get there is to live there, as Mr. Hackney did growing up.

The contest judges determine which finishing materials the contestants are allowed to choose from. The mud choices were National Gypsum's ProForm All Purpose, USG's Sheetrock All Purpose, USG's Sheetrock Lightweight All Purpose Plus 3; joint tape; and Vinyl Corp.'s vinyl corner bead and flexible arch bead, Phillips' metal corner bead, and No-Coat's SmartSeries corners. The mud of choice appeared to be the ProForm, while the arch trim was Vinyl Corp's. The No-Coat SmartSeries was the corner of choice for the outside 90s, the inside off angles, the soffits and the skylights. The apprentices were not allowed to sand after finishing. As one instructor put it, "This is a finishing contest, not a sanding contest."

The finishing competition is three grueling days of being scrutinized by the competition's judges and trying to take the sum of all one's drywall finishing experiences to that point in a pressured environment to produce what is ultimately one's signature. Witnessing the pride that these guys took in their craft and the pride the instructors took in their respective competitors was honestly inspiring. Most of us spend our days going through the motions, taking for granted all that we've learned, as well as taught. To see these craftsmen doing what was obviously in their blood was primal. The ever-popular tortured-starving-artist effect. They were working for the sake of the art. Although they do compete for prize money, the winner takes home about what the trip would cost. Our guess is that after beer money, it was truly a labor of love.

Bright futures

These guys will inevitably end up in some decision-making capacity on job sites, and will probably feel the frustration of never being able to transfer their talents to the people who fall under their employ. But this is how the craft survives and thrives. Guys who take what they?ve learned and then take it to next level.

Chuck Murtha, Joe "Fingers" Flanagan, Dennis "Denny" Bond ... these are some of the guys who make it happen. From training to field support, the apprentices are given everything they need to be the best they can. The apprenticeship trainers truly give back to the union. And when these guys talk about their prodigies, it's like listening to a parent talk about his or her children. Although a lot of time in class is dedicated to tips and techniques, the instructors try to impart some of the more important lessons to these kids, not the least of which is learning to get along with each other. Yeah, we all spent a lot of time in kindergarten with that credo, but for most of us, it didn't seem to stick. While the contestants were competitive, it was nice to see them hanging out and having a laugh together after they finished their mock-ups.

We'd like to tell you who won first prize, but as of the writing of this article, the judges had not yet made their decision. We personally liked the kid from Philadelphia, Bobby Stella, but our opinion probably didn't matter to the judges. In our next column, we'll announce the winner. In the meantime we want to thank all of the IUPAT brothers for their hospitality. And, of course, anytime we come across free food and beer, we feel as though we've stumbled into paradise. We look forward to next year's competition.

We tip our hats to the IUPAT for demonstrating that, union or non-union, the only way to stay competitive in this business is by being open to change and innovation. Remember, drywall's not just a job ... it's a brotherhood.