Our nation’s trade unions have been under attack and losing ground in the construction industry for decades. Once the construction industry was dominated by the trade unions, today they control only a fraction of the construction industry.
I believe the construction unions will always exist in some form or another, but the fight will continue to be a tough one. They will survive and may even regain some strength in the coming decades. It won’t be easy and the challenges of being competitive, remaining relevant and training may be tougher than anyone can imagine.
THE INTERNAL BATTLEThe last person the unions should have to fight is their own rank and file, but they do have a battle in their own house. It is the journeymen upgrade programs. The program is needed, noble and also one union leaders are trying to implement in an effort to preserve the industry and their unions. With all the new material innovations, code changes, modifications in industry practices, safety regulations and legal ramifications, the journeyman has it much tougher today than the journeyman of only a few decades ago.
I was asked to help put together a journeyman upgrade program for union plasterers a few years ago. I was willing to help, the union leaders were eager to participate and the 40-hour training program for journeyman upgrading was soon under development. I was excited to pass along what I had learned about plastering from sitting on code panels, being in court rooms, being involved in litigation and years of site inspections.
While writing the upgrade program, I had some remodeling work done on my own home. I used a retired union painter (Ben) I knew quite well from past jobs. He was the epitome of a journeyman, a true craftsman. He was clean, prompt and professional; Ben could paint three to four times faster than I could even hope to, with superior results. I would never again do my own painting after using Ben. Young apprentice painters should all be mentored by someone like Ben.
While I was talking to him at the end of a day he expressed displeasure with the painters union and why he took early retirement. More than displeasure, he even felt insulted by them. He was informed he needed to take journeyman upgrade classes. Given my current project, I was very interested in his opinion and why he was so opposed to the journeyman upgrade program. He explained he had been doing this trade for over 40 years and did not need any youngster to tell him what he already knew. He was not about to go back to school. He believed that if he didn’t know how to paint by now, then it was time to quit. This was very disturbing to me; the absolute last thing I wanted to happen was for the unions to lose great craftsmen like Ben. He is what made the unions strong, and I wondered if the work I was involved in was inadvertently chasing him out. This was certainly not my intention or that of the other union leaders I was working with.
THE GREATEST SHAMEWe did continue our conversation and I pointed out that other professions, including doctors and lawyers, need continual training. Even architects must have continual education to keep their AIA status. Welders need to be re-certified and building inspectors need classes to stay up on the codes. Is it too much to ask a journeyman to invest a little personal time to ensure a strong future for the trade and fair wages for the families of the skilled union worker? As he pondered my statements I reiterated my thoughts that it would be the greatest shame in the history of construction to lose great craftsmen like him. As a journeyman upgrade instructor, I had nothing but respect for him and his knowledge of the craft. He began to see my point and softened to the idea of journeymen upgrade classes.
The point of this editorial is that we do need continuing education, such as the journeyman upgrade program, to keep the craft strong and moving forward. We must also recognize the justifiable pride of the journeyman and not attack or inadvertently insult his stature within the trade. We all need to communicate with the experienced journeyman why the additional training is warranted. Laws change, safety regulations change and materials evolve. We must be open-minded, respectful, and above all communicate to the rank and file why we all need journeyman upgrades.