The Drive to 100% Market-Share: One West Virginia Local's Push to Take Back Residential Work
When Jeff Burge was elected business manager of Parkersburg, W. Va., Local 968 in 2019, his local had almost complete control of the large industrial base found winding along the Ohio River in the state's midsection. Burge's plan was nothing less than 100% market share — every wire, lightbulb and plug in their six-county jurisdiction.
We were doing all the industrial and powerhouse work, but the residential was where we needed to grow and we saw an opportunity," Burge said.
He had the tools: mixed classifications. About half a dozen signatory contractors were using construction electrician and construction wireman classifications to win most of the larger apartments and housing complexes. Together, though, they were only doing about 40% of residential work.
What Burge needed was a partner.
The appeal of putting out your shingle is undeniable. Chart your own destiny. More money, more independence. And Powell had a lot going for him.
Wiremen can stay close to home and still be the complete electrician at Solvay and DuPont Chemicals, Constellium Steel and coal powerhouses. They have everything but skyscrapers, really.
But however ambitious Powell is, and he is plenty ambitious, he had to start small. Powell wired up a new house he was having built for his family, looked at what it cost him, then looked at what he saved.
He reached out to the local, picked up a construction wireman, did some service calls and started business studies where he realized that he could take that kid off the street — if they have some skill and work ethic — and could get them working independently but supervised within three houses.
"We don't see a lot of nonunion electrical contractors doing residential here. What we see is a contractor with a pretty good carpenter who gets $5 more an hour, takes three weeks to do the electrical and gets it kind of right," Powell said.
The reality, he said, is that there is no inspection for 80% of residential work and the attitude is, "If it's works, its good." Powell's pitch is that a contractor can make more money putting that carpenter back to work banging nails into trim work as God intended.
"You might pay me $5,000 more than the carpenter, but it takes me three days, you have no headaches. I provide material. I have all the liability and you don't lose your best guy," he said. "You can build two more houses a year."
The question was, would the local take him seriously enough to let him grow.
When Burge took over, he told Powell those calls would be filled. Not only that, Organizer Mike Sigler, who was always swinging past residential jobs on the hunt for some hands to strip, would be the No. 1 evangelist for the Powell Electric value proposition.
"In the residential, we can continue to grow the way Eddie is going after it," Sigler said. "Before, I walked onto a job to talk to the contractor. Now I look for the developer to flip the whole job."
The IBEW may cost him more per hour, he said, but the business service he gets is worth it.
With the IBEW, he said, he doesn't have to find workers, drug test them, shop for health benefits or negotiate a wage every time someone new comes on board. He can also hand off his workers to the JATC for the mandatory 10 hours of training and offers everyone $1 more an hour if they take it.
"All I have to do is write a check, I can be out bidding work and I don't have to fight those battles. Being union is smart business," Powell said.
For Burge, the CE/CW program is also the best screening process there is for the apprenticeship, and the apprenticeship is the best marketing tool for organizing.
The result is exactly what Burge hoped. In less than two years, he believes they have gone from that 40% market share in residential to at least 70%, and an even better 90% of apartment buildings.