March 2010

Hard-hit Detroit Construction Local
Looks to Future
index.html Home    Print    Email

Go to

Detroit. Despite publicity surrounding the federal bailouts of Chrysler and General Motors, the relative success of Ford and the hard-to-repair dents in Toyota's brand and reputation, this city and its people are still looked upon as withering monuments to yesterday's industrial age.

For labor unions, including Detroit's Local 58, survival and success demand that leaders figure out how to challenge the narrative of a death spiral in this once-powerful place.

Business Manager Joe Abdoo and his staff are doing just that. The local and the National Electrical Contractors Association have excelled in marketing and lobbying efforts, winning federal and state training funds—keeping the faith with members by preparing them for new opportunities when the economy improves.

In January, the parties received funding for renewable energy training for incumbent journeymen and apprentices under the federal stimulus' energy training partnership grants that benefited building trades training centers across the nation. (See "IBEW Wins More Than $20 Million in Green Jobs Training Grants," the Electrical Worker, February 2010.)

Ken Briggs and Shawn Crump, Local 58 business representatives, worked with nonprofit organizations in Wayne County to help design the grant that will return $4 million to Detroit. Detroit's unemployment rate is around 23 percent, with underemployment more than 35 percent. A portion of the funds will be used for remedial training to prepare unemployed city residents to enter electrical training.

A photovoltaic training system at the Local 58 training center, financed by Michigan's Department of Energy is widely utilized.

But Local 58 and NECA are not depending upon government largesse alone to align new training programs with emerging opportunities.

IBEW 58 and the Southeast Michigan Chapter of NECA have erected a wind turbine for training and new programs are constantly offered. "We had 62 members waiting in the cold outside our training center to get applications for a fire alarm maintenance class," says JATC Director Gary Polulak. "Thirty-four years ago when I started in the electrical trade, it was all pipe and wire," says Polulak. "Today, you have to walk around with a résumé showing your certifications."

Jared Thienel, 28, a fifth-year apprentice, has been out of work for 10 out of the last 15 months. "Our local is grateful for the good times and we take advantage of the hard times to improve our reputation and quality of work," says Thienel, a father of three, who is certified in photovoltaics. "There's a lot of pride in Detroit. If we have to travel to other jurisdictions, we want to spread a reputation of excellence." In the meantime, many members are volunteering on Habitat for Humanity projects or helping out in local schools.

With nearly half of 4,200 local members out of work, abundant opportunities exist for refresher training and teaching new skills, but Polulak says that positioning the local union to tap a pickup in the national economy will take a lot more than résumé building. It will take a regional strategy for rebuilding an industrial base.

More than half of Local 58's jobs were directly tied to manufacturing before the wave of plant shutdowns in auto and the outsourcing of suppliers in the 1980s. So Polulak and Business Agent Mike Moran and Gary Hellmer joined the work force development board of Macomb, Livingston, and St. Clair counties to support development in the renewable energy sector. Tax incentives for startups are showing promise as a shuttered Ford plant is being re-tooled to produce storage batteries and other alternative energy producers are considering setting up shop.

"We are constantly opening up our training center to the vendor community," says Polulak, who invites engineers and architects to audit apprenticeship classes. Their firsthand understanding of the skill sets developed in training is essential because job specification language "often determines whether or not our members get the work," says Polulak who credits the NJATC's green jobs curriculum as an important factor in promoting the union's expertise and winning grants.

"You can't ‘part-time' efforts to develop lasting relationships with business, government and academic institutions," says Polulak. Full-time responsibility for marketing IBEW and NECA and building ties falls to Business Development Representative Jennifer Mefford.

Mefford, says Abdoo, helps bring the union and signatory contractors to the table with industry and government leaders. Mefford's work paved the way for Tom Bowes, assistant JATC training director, to be on the inside planning a well-attended alternative energy conference on March 3 sponsored by the Engineering Society of Detroit. The local aims to influence recommendations flowing from a new Center for Energy Excellence in Michigan.

Local 58's contribution to regional planning fits the model for manufacturing recovery promoted by the Industrial Union Council, AFL-CIO. Bob Baugh, the council's executive director, says that when a number of manufacturers cluster in one area, "they feed off each other and create a market that's big enough to develop a vibrant supply chain."

Polulak sees evidence of the IBEW's improved stature in articles in Crain's Detroit Business, a weekly newspaper that seldom places unions in a favorable light. "We're explaining how positive labor-management relationships can improve safety and productivity," says Abdoo, adding, "the business community is more and more seeing us as a partner." That same message is sent to public officials who regulate electricians.

Because Michigan requires licensed electricians be qualified to perform solar installations, Bowes has been relieved of some training responsibilities, making time for dialogue with licensing authorities to ensure that skills and professionalism are maintained in all renewable energy installations.

On March 31, Local 58 and NECA hosted the second "All Things Green" Conference and Expo in partnership with the Macomb County Chamber of Commerce.

The event, at the IBEW-NECA Electrical Industry Training Center in Warren, featured 50 exhibits and several seminars showcasing regional efforts and issues in renewable energy.

Renewable energy classes are popular with Detroit Local 58 members who know that training is key to winning new projects in a region that has been slammed by deindustrialization.