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Recovery Agreement Wins Birmingham Stadium Project


August 20, 2012

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Travis Berg (left) and Paul Deffebach, members of Birmingham, Ala., Local 136 at Canterbury Electric, rough in a slab.

Few construction projects are followed more closely by the public than new ballparks. When the Birmingham, Ala. Barons, the AA minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, announced that the team was going to relocate from the city’s suburbs into Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood in 2013, leaders of Local 136 saw an opportunity to win not just a big job, but some renewed respect in the community.


The local union had long advertised on the fences of the ballpark, made famous by Michael Jordan’s stint in baseball and future World Series-winning Boston Red Sox Manager Terry Francona’s apprenticeship as an inspirational leader.  

That might have helped get a foot in the door on the $64 million stadium that will be publicly-funded, mostly by an increase in the city’s lodging tax.  But to win the job, says Business Manager Jerry Keenum , a union contractor would have to make a bid that could compete with the two of the largest nonunion contractors in the region.

Keenum, who served on the committee that wrote the Fifth District Recovery Agreement, was asked by Frank Canterbury, the second-generation leader of 60-year-old Canterbury Electric, about putting the agreement to work to win the bid for the new stadium.

Canterbury had previously approached the project’s general contractor, Robins and Morton—one of the top 100 U.S. contractors, specializing in hospital and large-scale commercial projects to be placed on the bid list.

Canterbury Electric had fallen on hard times.  Says William Canterbury, Frank’s son:

About two years ago, all contractors—union and nonunion—were in rough shape. Many of us bid jobs below cost just to keep busy and new construction is coming back real slowly.

To win the bid on the 40,000-manhour stadium and favorably impress Robins and Morton, Canterbury would have to lower its composite labor costs.

Employing the recovery agreement, Canterbury shaved costs by 10 to 15 percent staffing the job with a 5 to 1 ratio of journeymen to apprentices and CE/CWs.  The bid bested the nonunion competitors.

To meet municipal requirements, Canterbury also partnered with a minority contractor on the project which will include a museum paying tribute to Birmingham’s Negro League history, including the Black Barons and legends Satchel Paige and Willie Mays.

Construction is just beginning on the new Barons stadium, but the city wants the park to be completed by April 2013, leaving Canterbury a finish date in March. Says William Canterbury:

The owner is the city of Birmingham and the mayor regularly comes by and checks on the job.

With 20 electricians currently on the payroll, Canterbury plans to hire 30 or 40 more to staff the stadium project and others, including a church, a medical office building and the renovation of terminals at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.  Says William Canterbury:

We showed a bit of a rebound in fiscal year 2011. Next June, we expect to do significantly better.

 Keenum sees the stadium project opening the door to more work and helping to initiate needed dialogue in the local. He says:

We were told by Robins and Morton to think outside the box to win the stadium job. We sat down face-to-face and assured the general contractor we could get the numbers right. This is a step towards regaining the trust of the general contractors in our area and showing them what the IBEW brothers and sisters can do.

“I’ve been upfront with our members about why we need to use the recovery agreement,” says Keenum, who explains that the new classifications are the essential lever in winning new work to put unemployed members back to work.

 Years ago, the local walked away from small commercial jobs in favor of power houses and steel mills, says Keenum.  He tells members:

If we hadn’t ignored the commercial market for so long, it wouldn’t be so hard to get now.  

Utilizing the recovery agreement helps gain more control of the market and breaks through any complacency about the need for aggressive measures to help signatory contractors compete.  Says Keenum:

We either embrace change to get the jobs, or we continue to go downhill.

Hard work is paying off.  Vulcan Electric, a signatory contractor, had shut its doors for over a year.  Now the company is back, employing the recovery agreement on two hospital projects. Says Keenum:

We haven’t worked on hospitals since I was an apprentice 32 years ago.