Trowel Talk: Accountability and Cooperation
The general president of a trade labor union is equivalent to the chief executive officer of a corporation. The direction and profitability of any business relies on its CEO’s leadership, vision, integrity and commitment to both productivity and customer satisfaction for the company to be successful. A change in top leadership can, and often does, make a profound impact on the bottom line. On Jan. 1, 2007, the Plasterers and Cement Masons Union made such a change, and I had the opportunity to interview their new general president, Patrick D. Finley, about his background and the challenges he faces in today’s changing environment for unions.
Q: Tell us a little about where you’re from and how you came into the construction industry?
A: I grew up in Bucks County near Philadelphia, where my father was the head of the science department in a local high school and taught chemistry. I was one of seven children. I got into concrete through my neighbor who was retired from the Army and working as a laborer. He helped me find a job on a residential concrete crew. The union representative, Dominic Martell, was frequently on the job sites encouraging me to join the OPCMIA. One day, I went down to the hall and from that day on I have been a union member.
Q: Why did you decide to step into a leadership role with your local union?
A: President John Dougherty (immediate past general president of our union) was the business manager of Local 592, Philadelphia, at the time and was looking for a new administrator for the local union trust funds. John felt I had potential and offered me the position. He told me to take my time and think it over for an hour and then we had to get to work. I liked the challenge and I enjoyed that position. I also became an organizer for the local and held a seat on its executive board.
Q: What was it like for you to transition from the kneeboard to an administrative job with the union, and now positioned as the general president of the entire organization?
A: It’s the same thing we all experience, going from “tools to the tie” as they say, putting down the tools and putting on a tie. I was no different from any of the rest of the guys in the field. I said, “Look at those guys, they got it so easy riding around in their cars and we’re working out in the heat and the cold.” We all think it’s an easy job, but the perspective is unbelievable once you cross that fence. And you wish you could take every one of them who are saying that and let them put on a tie for a day. The exact same thing happens on the International level; you wish you could take those guys back at the local who are saying, “What’s the International doing for us” and take them and sit them in the chair for a day. Perspective is everything.
Q: What experiences do you think best prepared you to take over as general president?
A: The thing that has got me focused is, through the years, seeing some gruesome horror stories where hard working people and their families didn’t have anybody represent them. People who gave up their bodies for years and years, sacrificing their knees and elbows and backs for their employer and seeing these guys turned out, especially in the construction field, with nothing; no pension, no insurance, given nothing when they could no longer physically perform the work. Guys our age who’ve given 20, 30 years to an employer, they have to sell their house and move into a small apartment so they can live. That is not right. I care just as deeply about those who are not protected by union conditions and I have a big responsibility to protect those conditions for our fortunate union membership.
A: It will make no difference at all. Whether you are a plasterer or a cement mason, we all face the same issues: negotiations, jurisdiction, member’s benefits, etc. We are all just working at our trade and I have some great plasterers around me including yourself, Ron Bowser and Danny Stepano, who can advise on trade specific issues. The trade specific issues generally are more prevalent on the local level.
Q: How long has the OPCMIA been involved with plasterers and wall and ceiling contractors?
A: Our organization was formed in 1864, and is the oldest of all the present day building trades unions.
Q: Recently, several large unions have disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO and from the Building Trades Department. What is your take on these events and how do you feel they will impact the wall and ceiling industry?
A: I am sure that the leaders of these unions feel they are doing this for the right reason, but any type of split within organized labor is not good for anyone.
Q: What, if anything, will the OPCMIA be doing differently in light of these disaffiliations?
A: Our goals and agenda remain the same. We will stay focused on serving our members and contractors. We will not allow this split, or anything else, to detour us away from building and maintaining good relationships in the industry.
Q: In today’s competitive construction economy, I would think that unions must be sensitive to the needs of both employees and employers. How do you plan on navigating that narrow, and sometimes conflicting, path?
A: I truly believe in labor/management cooperation committees and we need more of them. If I bring anything to the table, it is definitely going to be more cooperation between labor and management. The best example I have so far of that is our work with the plastering contractors association in New York, led by Mike Patti. He represents his employer members very well, but he IS fair and he worries about his own employees. He is the kind of contractor we wish everybody was. You get guys like that to sit down and work with us on improving wages and benefits, and the industry will move ahead by leaps and bounds.
Q: Twenty-five years ago, union employers were concerned with competition from non-union or open shop contractors who were not bound to the terms of union agreements and could pay lower wages. Today, even legitimate, non-union contractors are losing work to those who exploit illegal immigrants by paying poverty-level wages and profit from avoiding tax and insurance liabilities. What do you think should be done to address the illegal immigration issue, and how can we stop exploitation of undocumented workers by employers who refuse to play by the rules?
A: I believe that everyone has a right to make the best living he or she can, but I also believe that anyone who is here in the United States should be here legally. Now, I don’t know the answer to this problem, but I feel the length of time and administrative requirements to process an immigrant here in the United States are a huge deterrent to legal immigration. I would venture to say the vast majority of our illegal immigrants would willingly become legal if given the opportunity in a timely manner.
The contractors who are hiring illegal immigrants and who are not playing by the rules should be fined, if not jailed. You can’t blame a guy who is making $5 a day who walks across the border to feed his family, but you can hang some of those contractors who are getting rich on the backs of these people and who are cutting the ability of legitimate contractors to make a fair profit. I have nothing against immigrants who come to America to work; I do think they need to do it legally and employers who hire undocumented immigrants should be stopped. The federal government needs to shine a light on these employers; it is a simple solution, yet our politicians don’t seem to have the will to do it.
A: The competition that now exists between unions has made us all sharper in what we do. It has made us focus more on the big picture and do a better job of representing and training our membership, and take a more open-minded approach to the way we operate that keeps our contractors competitive in the marketplace.
All unions big or small have the same challenges: attracting young people into our industry; training; increasing market share; and organizing. I will tell you that nobody represents a plasterer or a cement mason better than the OPCMIA. And our increase in membership during these difficult times proves that point. When an employer calls one of our local unions for a plasterer, they will get a skilled journey person or apprentice.
Q: There is an old saying in the business world, “you are either moving ahead of your competition or you are falling behind, there is no standing still.” What are your plans to move the OPCMIA ahead and to improve wages and conditions in the wall and ceiling industry?
A: You say that is a saying in the business world, but it equally applies to organized labor. I firmly believe in accountability and believe that if we are going to move this organization and industry forward, then we have to change our approach and view organized labor as a business. Communication is the key to fostering better relationships and we fully intend to make use of labor-management committees where they exist and create these important committees where they currently don’t exist. Labor and management generally agree in areas such as training, promotion and safety, which can be building blocks for use to develop a more comprehensive and mutually beneficial relationship in areas such as wages, benefits and conditions of employment.
We also need to educate our members, beginning with our apprentices, that the employer is not the enemy. They risk their capitol to bid the project we work on; they pay from their profits into our pension and medical plan. Yes, we helped make those profits, but this isn’t an “us vs. them” scenario. We need to insure that our members understand that we are in a partnership with union employers, and as in any successful partnership, each side must deliver the goods.
Q: If you were an open-shop contractor, why would you want a relationship with the OPCMIA?
A: Open-shop contractors can get all the people on the job they want, but the industry is filled with new materials - very expensive materials - and even open-shop folks must have journeymen who know what they are doing. Open-shop contractors are limited to how many jobs they can perform by the number of people they have. If they have a relationship with us, they can be assured of skilled labor to meet any demand. They can also have the flexibility to lay off their crew when work is wrapping up. When work picks up again, the skilled labor will be readily available through the union hiring hall.
OPCMIA members are kept abreast of the latest materials and techniques in the industry through a system of apprenticeship schools and journeymen upgrading programs. We have long-standing relationships with material manufacturers such as USG and Dryvit, who work closely with our training programs and curriculum committees. These manufacturers have no bias toward union or non-union, but they understand that the key to insuring sales is to have a quality product applied by skilled craftsmen. Skill and quality have always been the hallmark of our organization.
Training new employees is expensive; this financial burden is shared among regional employers and the union so no one entity needs to bear the full expense for instructors, curriculum development, and the equipment necessary to do a quality job of training. In addition to skill training, OSHA safety certifications such as the OSHA-10 and scaffold-users are basic skill-sets taught by our training programs.
Q: Having made a case that productivity and accountability are important factors to you as the general president of the union, what are your feelings on drug testing in the workplace?
A: 150 percent behind it! I don’t understand how anyone can be against drug testing, if it is a labor-management operation and conducted fairly.
If there are 200 workers on a job site, and five of them complain that I am not representing them over drug testing; I say, I am representing the other 195 who come to work each morning expecting to return home safely to their wife and kids. I have a responsibility to my members and their families to insure a safe workplace, and the only way to do that is to have a drug free environment.
Q: If a contractor or tradesperson wanted more information about the OPCMIA, whom should they call?
A: They can call our International headquarters 301-623-1000 to have their questions answered by one of our specialized International staff or to receive a referral to one of our local unions in their area. For Web-based information, visit www.opcmia.org..