The Electrical Worker online
August 2012

New Tactics, New Spirit
Recovery Agreement Nets Big Wins
for Arkansas Locals
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As a mere 4 percent of Arkansas residents belong to unions, getting a toehold in construction market share has always been an uphill climb. The state has had so-called "right-to-work" laws on the books since the 1940s, and — as in much of the South — long-simmering antagonism toward trade unions often travels from generation to generation.

But IBEW leaders in the Natural State are succeeding in spite of towering obstacles. One roadblock had come from lower-paying, nonunion contractors who were undercutting signatory contractors' ability to submit competitive bids. By putting in place the Arkansas Recovery Agreement, which created alternate classifications to allow for a more flexible crew mix, signatory contractors are securing more and more work.

That has spelled increased man-hours for existing members, as apprentices and journeymen answer more calls, pick up their tools and hit dozens of sites statewide. The effort has also bolstered the rolls at the union's four major construction locals — Little Rock Local 295, El Dorado Local 436, Fort Smith Local 700 and Jonesboro Local 1516.

For Local 295 Business Manager Bobby Thornton, new jobs harken back to a more robust time in the industry. "We're again doing work at some factories that we haven't been inside in 30 years," he said. "Our members are back in places I worked at as an apprentice."

Such success wasn't by accident, and it didn't happen overnight. Arkansas Organizing Coordinator Charlie McKinney lit the fuse on the effort when he was business manager of Fort Smith Local 700 in 2010. "We were just in a place where we didn't want to be. Market share was low. So I put everything in the jurisdiction under the recovery agreement. With time, we saw some of our 15-member shops grow to 30-member shops. This has been the best thing that we've done for our members and contractors in the state."

Soon afterward, leaders of the locals began coordinating efforts to win more jobs, get journeymen off the bench and grow their ranks. By implementing the recovery agreement statewide, market share in the Arkansas has steadily grown from just over 6 percent last year to about 8 percent. It's a major accomplishment in a state that has the fourth-lowest union density in the nation.

"The business managers have clearly communicated to the membership how valuable the recovery agreement is," said Tenth District Organizing Coordinator Dave Hoque, who aids membership development efforts throughout Arkansas, Tennessee and the Carolinas. "With a program like this, it may take a year or two years before you start seeing some tangible effects. In Arkansas, the leaders had to lay the groundwork for some time. It's starting to pay off, and members are starting to come around to see how this is a solid tool for journeymen and apprentices."

Jonesboro Local 1516 started off 2011 with a 17 percent market share in its jurisdiction, the northeast corner of the state. Some 15 months later, the local commanded nearly 43 percent of available work, local estimates show.

"We've been planning industry nights just to keep up with the manpower request," said Local 1516 Business Manager Kirk Douglas of the job fairs that attract potential members for upcoming projects. "As our contractors are able to get more bids, they feel more confident. They go after more and more work, which gives our members more man-hours."

Similar stories are repeated across the state.

"The numbers don't lie," says Hoque, "but they don't show the preliminary hard work that it takes to get a program like this going. Fortunately, once the foundation gets laid, then — boom — things take off."

'We All Came Together' in Little Rock

For many electricians like Kevin Barnes, employment in the Little Rock area has been hit or miss. While going through his apprenticeship, the newly minted Local 295 journeyman saw many of his fellow members on the bench.

But for the last year, Barnes and his classmates have enjoyed steady work on projects large and small. "We've picked up some residential [work] in the past few years," said Barnes, who topped out in April and earned the Apprentice of the Year award. He recently finished an apartment remodeling project that involved rewiring new units and installing fire alarm systems and security cameras. "With the recovery agreement, we've gained some jobs that we wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Initially, some people were nervous and worried about the plan, but we've really had no complications. Work is picking up slowly and surely, and I'm feeling pretty optimistic."

Business Manager Bobby Thornton said that even in the down economy, buy-in for the program by the membership is increasing as signatory contractors go after more projects. "We're not at full employment, but we're making progress," he said. "We're having success with gas stations, truck stops, strip malls — things we haven't been in the market for in decades."

And as more journeymen come off the bench, the local is growing. Through the recovery agreement, 15 new members have been added since January, while man-hours remain on a modest but steady climb of about 4 percent since early 2011.

Thornton is quick to point out that his local's success is intertwined with the efforts of other construction locals across the state.

"This isn't just us," he said. "This is everyone. We all came together to do something unique. And in many ways, we're just getting started."

IBEW Values Take Root in Fort Smith

Along the Oklahoma border to the west, unemployment in Fort Smith still hovers around the national average of about 8 percent. But as signatory contractors in the area find success with the recovery agreement, more and more area residents are finding work — and Local 700 plays a role.

"Down here in the South, people don't accept unions as much as in other places," said Business Manager Carl McPeak. "But with the newer CEs and CWs that we're bringing in, they appreciate the heck out of what we have to offer them. I know a lot of them are going to be with us for the long haul."

That's also good news for journeymen and apprentices who are getting more man-hours. Nabbing projects at big box stores like Dick's Sporting Goods — a job that helped clear the names on Book Two — and other smaller jobs has contributed to doubling the number of members working since October, McPeak said. "This is huge for us," he said.

According to Local 700 leaders' estimates, contractors steadily increased their market share from 4 percent in January of 2011 to nearly 8 percent in April.

'Full Employment' in El Dorado

The success in some of the larger cities is also starting to be reflected in El Dorado Local 436's jurisdiction — which extends through the south-central part of the state, and includes many smaller towns.

"Our numbers had dropped since the recession," Business Manager Pat Cossey said. But since the statewide recovery agreement was implemented, "We're now at full employment," he said.

Cossey said that by bringing in more local hires as construction wiremen and construction electricians, contractors are breaking into the residential market.

"We're seeing some growth in some new markets," Cossey said. "It shows the value of working together as a team to take on some big challenges. If it can happen in Arkansas, it can happen anywhere."

Doubling Market Share in Jonesboro

Two and a half hours northeast of Little Rock, signatory contractors in Jonesboro Local 1516's jurisdiction are snapping up projects — including schools, auditoriums, fairgrounds and restaurants — all because of the recovery agreement, Business Manager Kirk Douglas said.

"We had to do away with some old thinking," he said. "I know that a lot of our contractors in the past probably didn't bid on some of the projects they now have, because they thought, 'We'll never get that job.' But we convinced them enough to allow them to try it out and get used to it."

It worked. And since January of 2011, market share has more than doubled. "It's all about confidence," Douglas said. "Contractors need to know that they can be competitive, and now they have more tools to do just that."

With greater market share comes greater exposure and positive attention, Douglas said. He points to a 100-member project at Northeast Arkansas Baptist Memorial Hospital — the largest industrial job in the state — as proof.

"That was the big one that opened the door," Douglas said. "After our signatory contractor got that, they started bidding on renovation projects for schools, fire stations, you name it." It was at that point that market share started opening up for companies targeting the smaller projects.

"Before this, some of our employers might have bid about four, maybe five of those kind of jobs a year," Douglas said. "Now they're bidding on almost everything."

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By utilizing alternate classifications, Little Rock, Ark., Local 295's signatory contractors are winning more bids on projects and are getting journeymen off the benches.