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Recovery Agreement Helps Alabama Local Crack Commercial Market


September 7, 2011

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Construction electrician Carlos Fair is one of the more than 150 Birmingham, Ala. Local 136 members who are on-the-job doing small commercial projects thanks to the recovery agreement.

Birmingham, Ala., Local 136 always had a weak toehold in the small commercial building sector, which has been traditionally dominated by nonunion shops.  But the weak economy put it in real danger of being driven out of the market for good.

Says Local 136 Organizer James Reece:

The truth is we had so little market share that we barely registered a blip.

Canterbury Electric – a signatory contractor specializing in commercial construction – was down to less than 10 employees late last year, while a second, Vulcan, was getting ready to shutter its doors for good.    

But 2011 has seen resurgence of IBEW commercial work, with more than 150 Local 136 members on the job wiring new warehouses, banks and other small projects. And it was made possible by the Fifth District market recovery agreement adopted by the local last September, says Local 136 Business Manager Jerry Keenum:

We’re competing and winning projects we weren’t even in the running for last year. We are now working on 27 commercial jobs.

The recovery agreement came in at the right time. Traditionally more than 90 percent of its members work in the industrial sector, with Alabama Power and U.S. Steel providing most of its projects.

But a more than decade-long process of installing new environmental control equipment in Alabama Power’s plants and power stations was coming to an end.

Says Reece:

A big portion of our work was about to dry up and a lot of members would be on the bench soon unless we cracked some new markets.

For Keenum, it was a no-brainer that the local needed a new competitive edge to diversify into new sectors, and the recovery agreement – which incorporates intermediate-level construction electricians and construction wiremen into job crews – was just what they needed. But wasn’t so obvious to some of Local 136’s signatory contractors – at least at first, he says:

They were reluctant. We really had to sell it and convince them to go after work they thought they couldn’t get.

Keenum sat down with Canterbury’s entire shop last summer to talk with them about the recovery agreement, but the owner did not sign on until January. Work had run completely dry for the contractor, but in April it successfully outbid its main nonunion competitor for a project at the Birmingham Airport.  By May it successfully bid on nine jobs, more than quadrupling its payroll.

Says Keenum:

For the first time in a long time, we were a player in the small commercial sector.

Vulcan followed suit, signing on to the recovery agreement, bringing it back from the brink, says Keenum. A third contractor, Southland, also signed on.

Not only is Local 136 getting more work, it is putting pressure on nonunion contractors, driving up wages and bettering working standards in a region where the pattern is usually reversed.

The local was manning a hospital job last spring, along with a nonunion contractor, when, says Reece:

Some of our guys were talking to one of the nonunion workers and after comparing paychecks convinced him to sign up as a CE [construction electrician] the very next day.

Word spread and by the end of the week, Local 136 had recruited five more workers.  

The owner of the competing company was forced to give his employees a steep raise to keep them from going over to the IBEW.

Says Keenum:

It wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the CW/CE classifications which we could recruit them to.