The wall and ceiling industry has long been divided between contractors who have a relationship with a labor union and those who do not. Since the early 1980s the percentage of the construction industry that has been dominated by unionized companies has decreased, that is until the last few years. Something has changed.
There are five labor unions that represent workers in the walls and ceilings industry and all five have taken a long hard look at their place and value in the industry. Unions offer training programs, a ready supply of skilled labor, and a level playing field of wages and established fringe benefits. They recruit and attract professional-caliber people who wish to make a career in the trade.
BECOMING UNION SHOPSThe following is the story of two young plastering contractors who recently decided to sign up to be union shops with the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association (OPCMIA). Both companies were in business about three years before becoming union.Both are primarily plastering and stucco companies, both run about 10-15 employees, both compete in light commercial, both decided to stop operating non-union and enter into a partnership with a trade union as a way to make things better for their company and themselves.
They are from very different parts of the country, and I believe that their story reflects the change of direction that is allowing organized labor to show the value it brings to our industry.
Here is a little background on our two contractors, in their own words:
Brenan Filippini is the owner of Plastering Plus-Northwest based in Bellingham, Wash.: “My dad was, and still is, a stucco contractor. I started working for him early on and did mostly plastering and stucco work. However, I also did a lot of steel stud framing/drywall for a couple of the years. Most of the work we did was commercial work, including hotels, malls and public works jobs. The last four or five years I was working for him, I was running jobs and bidding work. As my dad started slowing down, my wife and I started our own company. I focus mostly on hotels, malls, and public works buildings. It was a tough start-up trade due to all of the equipment (scaffold, mixers, pumps and trucks) needed.”
James Duby is the owner of Duby Plastering, LLV operating out of Scott City, Mo.: “I started in the trade about 15 years ago working for the hotel chain, Drury Inns. I traveled around the country with them building their hotels. I broke off on my own with three or four of the other guys and started doing residential work. We got most of our jobs by word of mouth back then. We grew quickly and found ourselves competing on light commercial and against big union contractors.”
Trowel Talk: As a non-union contractor, what were your primary labor challenges (i.e., finding and hiring skilled labor, training new hires, retaining good people, etc.)?
Filippini: The biggest problem was that I had to do a lot of work myself. There were just not enough good people to employ up in our locale for the amount of work we were doing. A lot of guys would work in the summer but then “disappear” around November.
Duby: We definitely had a problem recruiting and keeping the better guys. The better ones are going to deserve and get the better wages. So, if we were going to pay more, we wanted to make it worth it in every way.
Trowel Talk: What were some of the factors you considered when first entertaining the idea to sign a labor agreement with the union?
Filippini: The first one was obviously the price difference. It is quite a bit more costly to become a union contractor. It was a big step for us because we are a fairly small company (15 guys with one office staffer). I had to make a decision based upon performance and my time. The biggest factor for me was to free up some of my time to run our business. I liked the idea of having a larger pool of manpower to draw from. Before, if we got a job in Tacoma we would just drive our crew down and maybe hire one or two local guys. With the union, I can send one lead guy down and hire local guys just for that job. This seemed beneficial to traffic problems, local economy and keeping our crew closer to home and their families.
Duby: We are a young company and we wanted to improve our market share into the areas union contractors controlled. Now we are one of the largest EIFS contractors in the Memphis area. We are also a bunch of young guys thinking about our futures, and we wanted the benefits the union was offering; pension, family medical insurance, etc.
Trowel Talk: Did you have any positive or negative experience with a union before? Had you been a member, been targeted for picketing, and did you know anyone with the union?
Filippini: I never had a negative experience. Even if I did, I tend to be a positive person and rise above whatever issues I may be dealing with at the time. When I first started working for my dad he was a member of the local carpenters union. He had some very good members, but not a lot of the guys want to lath in the winter.
Duby: I had gone through the union apprenticeship program and knew the union from the membership side, but not from the contractor’s point of view. My employees had mixed feelings about it at first. They hadn’t been in a union before and now they were going to have to pay dues. But they were excited at the prospect of having benefits.
Trowel Talk: How has the relationship with the union benefited or hurt your business?
Filippini: It has been a good benefit. We have some outstanding members from the local. We also signed on a couple of our plasterers and they are now getting the benefits as well. It was a positive step for us because I sat down with our existing crew and asked them individually if they want to start plastering, lathing or doing scaffolding work. Now that I know what people like to do, I can schedule them more effectively. This resulted in a huge boost in morale. The most important part is that I have freed up a lot of my time. I have been doing more equipment maintenance, office work and better quality control. No longer do I clean up the sidewalk at 7 p.m. or fog panels with the hand hopper. Now we are able to use everyone’s strengths.
Duby: We have definitely benefited. My bid price isn’t much higher than before, but now our productivity has increased with fewer callbacks. The crew likes making more money, and they are willing to do what it takes to keep the company profitable so they can keep the better wages and benefits. They know what is available out there for them working non-union, and they prefer to work with us so we can all share in the benefit. This attitude has allowed us to improve our market share.
Trowel Talk: What advice would you give to non-union contractors who may be considering a partnership with the union?
Filippini: To take advantage of the market recovery program. This helped us transition into the union. This enabled me to see exactly what my costs were while I was still bidding work, keeping me from bidding work too cheap. It works out good for us because it helps recoup some of our costs, and it is good for the union because now they will get a lot of man-hours on a job that normally the same guys may be sitting at home. I think it is very important to note as well, that you still have to put the time in. Signing with the union is not going to allow you to watch matinees or sleep in until 8 a.m. It is a great way, however, to effectively manage time and get more square footage done in an efficient manner.
Duby: If you are looking to grow your business, there is not a faster train to hook yourself onto than becoming union. You will be able to get what a contractor deserves to get for your work. If everyone was union we would be competing on a level playing field where productivity and quality were the deciding factors.
Filippini: One thing that I would like to add. The first two weeks of having union guys on my jobs blew me away. One of the guys told me in a conversation we had: “We just want to make your company money.” Wow, I have never heard this from an employee. It was refreshing to hear, and as I work with more union employees most of them seem to have this attitude. They ask me questions, wanting to know if we are coming in under our projected man-hours. Most importantly, they put in the effort and really try to make things profitable for us. They seem to understand that if Plastering Plus makes money they will have more work, which means more jobs for them as well as a more productive and stronger labor union. W&C
For information on the five labor unions in our industry, check out these Web sites:
• Plasterers Union (OPCMIA): www.opcmia.org/
• Painters Union (IUPAT): www.iupat.org/
• Carpenters Union (UBC): www.carpenters.org/
• Brick Masons Union (BAC): www.bacweb.org/
• Laborers Union (LIUNA): www.liuna.org/