The Electrical Worker online
January 2014

Recovery Agreements:
Winning Members, Customers and Market Share
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The last decade has been one of the most trying periods for the IBEW and the unionized electrical construction industry since the Great Depression. A growing and aggressive nonunion sector has eaten into the IBEW's work, even in regions where we have been traditionally strong. And the 2008 economic crash sent the unemployment rate to the highest levels in 70 years, threatening to further erode our market share.

Meeting the challenge of growing the IBEW required decisive leadership and new thinking to move our Brotherhood forward.

The cornerstones of the IBEW's efforts to increase employment opportunities and regain market share are the recovery program and the Code of Excellence.

One of the key tools of the recovery program is alternative job classifications. The International labels these as construction wiremen/construction electricians (CW/CE), but many local unions call them by another name, but with the same intent. These are lower-skilled electrical workers who don't fit into either journeyman or apprentice classifications, but many have been working at the trade for several years without the benefit of union representation or any formal training. The recovery program has given IBEW organizers the tools they need to strip these workers from nonunion competitors, bring them into IBEW membership, give them training opportunities and make signatory contractors more competitive. This enables our contractors to win work they would not otherwise have won. And that means jobs for journeymen and apprentices.

As we reported in the cover story of the March 2013 Electrical Worker ("Construction Comeback?"), the recovery programs are producing positive results. Although The Great Recession eroded the IBEW's market share, aggressive use of these programs has enabled us to make a good start at rebuilding it.

Big changes often bring controversy; the recovery program and the Code of Excellence are no exception.

The Electrical Worker recently spoke with International President Ed Hill about the recovery program: what it has done and where it is going.

70 percent of electrical construction work in the United States is done nonunion.

EW: Why did you launch the alternative classifications and the Code of Excellence recovery programs?

EH: To begin, these programs are not going away because, simply put — our members are not doing the majority of electrical work being done in our jurisdictions. We have been very descriptive in discussing our situation, we have been explaining to every group of brothers and sisters that we had the opportunity to meet and talk with since 2005 that 70 percent of electrical construction work in United States is done nonunion.

I'm sure some of you are sick of hearing about market share, but just look at the number of nonunion jobs being done around you, like we have been suggesting since the DVD "Sunrise — Sunset" was put together to illustrate our point. I have requested input and listened to members across the country about how to move forward. With social media and modern technology, we have probably had a broader discussion on this topic than any other in the history of the Brotherhood, a fact that I am proud to have been a part of and welcomed. I have also welcomed discussions of alternative solutions that would have worked across our Brotherhood equal to or better than the one that has been tested and proven to work. But no one has been able to come up with a solution that would work in all jurisdictions.

I have been bombarded with many types of comments and questions. The questions, when sensible, I have tried to answer openly. The comments, when not personal, I tried to answer as well, explaining in an honest manner, sometimes in rebuttal and sometimes in agreement.

Now, let me answer what seems to be the basis for most of the questions with a very simplistic answer — the IBEW as we know it will not survive for the next 50 years without the use of the recovery and Code of Excellence programs that have been developed. Some critics have told me they would rather be a strong union than a big one. That's a fantasy world because the smaller we get, the weaker we will get as well. Only when we have strong union density will we return to market dominance.

The IBEW as we know it will not survive for the next 50 years without the use of the recovery and Code of Excellence programs.

EW: How did the alternate classifications (CW/CE) get started?

EH: We first started to use alternate classifications eight years ago as part of a comprehensive organizing program we called the Florida Initiative. We used technology to measure our market share — that is the percentage of electrical construction work in any given jurisdiction — far better than ever before. And the results weren't encouraging, especially in places like Florida, a large and growing market.

And we found that when market recovery agreements were used properly and as intended, locals and contractors in Florida could be competitive on projects where they wouldn't have had a shot in the past, period. Because of that success, and when applied AS INTENDED, it was expanded to other parts of the South and eventually nationwide. I emphasized "as intended" because if allowed to be utilized without oversight, it can create unintended issues.

As a journeyman wireman and former business manager, I didn't like the idea at first. But no matter how hard we tried to come up with alternatives, the cold reality was that we had to do something to get back the work we were not doing — and that's the key phrase — work we were not doing.

The cold reality was that we had to do something to get back the work we were not doing.

EW: Has the use of CW/CEs been successful?

EH: I am proud to say the CW/CE portion of the program is working where it has been given a fair chance, and used as it is intended — that is, to supplement the journeyman wiremen with a reasonable number of CW/CEs to gain a competitive wage rate. And it would be working even better if every local would develop a plan for utilization of these alternative classifications to their best advantage, and with the intent of a training period to permit CW/CEs to gain the extra knowledge to become JWs, thereby gaining members, union density, and in turn, market share.

To the point of success, when this program was first implemented in 2005 through 2007, our membership in construction had reached an all-time high before the recession, and then took a hit. To me that was proof that all of our efforts were working, and will work again as the economy picks up. Our recovery programs together, including the alternative classifications and the Code of Excellence, are important because they not only help us ride the wave, they give us a more solid foundation by getting us onto jobs that we couldn't otherwise compete for.

And our market share is back to where it was before 2008. Now just remember, after every previous recession going back to the 1970s, we were unable to win back the market share we lost after a recession. But that still doesn't get us where we need to be.


EW: What are some recovery success stories?

EH: There are some high-profile projects where we would not have had the chance to place a single journeyman wireman or apprentice on the job without the use of CEs/CWs.

Take Google. We're doing five Google data centers in various parts of the Midwest and southeast part of the country, and I have been advised that we would not have gotten any of them without alternative classifications.

At one job in Omaha, we presently have 860 journeymen, six apprentices, 20 construction electricians and 72 construction wiremen.

To remain competitive, the customer demanded 20 percent of the manpower be apprentices or sub journeymen (CW/CEs). I am sure that there are not many in our Brotherhood that would say no and chance losing these jobs.

In Atlanta, Local 613 wouldn't have got their Google project without the competitive wage rate provided by the use of the CW/CE or a like classification.

In Tulsa, Okla., and Charleston, S.C., it's the same thing. We're talking about providing employment opportunities for hundreds of journeymen because of alternative classifications.

In Oklahoma, Google will provide jobs for 600 journeymen and 167 apprentices and CEs/CWs. In Charleston, we're talking around 600 employees at the peak, with about 300-350 apprentices and CEs/CWs.

And we're seeing the same thing with other companies we have contracts with — AT&T, Intel, Facebook, etc.


EW: So what is the future of the IBEW and the recovery program?

EH: That's the key question, and it's up to our locals to help write that chapter; and it will depend on how they utilize the programs that the officers have provided. It will depend on the acceptance of those organized hands into the alternative classifications and how our membership is willing to view them. It will depend on whether our membership will acknowledge the history of how the IBEW was built, "one member at a time" and they were all welcome.

The construction industry of the postwar period that some of us knew is all but gone. This is for many reasons, including technological and material changes, changes in the way electrical work is installed, more cable trays, less conduit, more open wiring and so on. Times are different and so are people, including the membership of this great union.

We must accept what the future will bring, and as we attempt to maneuver through the maze of it, will have to adapt to what we find along the way. If we don't, then we must accept the fate of having fewer members and less market share and be relegated to the large industrial jobs until our presence there is gone as well. The recovery programs of CW/CE alternative classifications and the Code of Excellence are here to stay. Now we must move on to the next step: Making sure the right ratios and the right programs are in place to advance our industry for the greater good of the IBEW.

The IBEW is one of the best unions in the world. Our members are leaders in their communities, leaders in their places of worship and the entire labor movement.

Brothers and Sisters, we have had a good and constructive debate about this subject, even if it's been heated at times. However the debate is over and we will move forward with the CW/CE classifications and the Code of Excellence message. We, the officers and I, realize that this means a drastic change in our culture, but not so much our history because many of our local unions have utilized alternative classifications in the past. Now I totally understand the resistance to change because I felt it myself. But the evidence is clear, and there is no turning back. We have had a long debate and good debate on this subject. Rather than keep on arguing, it's time to move forward, close the debate and get down to the business of growing our Brotherhood so that we can count on a solid base for generations to come.

It's time to move forward, close the debate and get down to the business of growing our Brotherhood.