The Electrical Worker online
March 2013

Tentative Recovery Driving
Membership Rebound
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After six years of shelved projects and record unemployment, things are starting to look up for the construction industry — even if the upturn remains fragile and tentative.

"In 2012, you could have felt hopeful about the economy on any given day. Some days, you also could have felt the opposite. It was the year of the rocky recovery," writes Jeff Gavin in the Electrical Contractor, a publication of the National Electrical Contractors Association. "But if you take a closer look at what happened in key construction sectors and the economy as a whole, you'll find a fragile recovery gaining strength for 2013."

Despite the large number of construction workers on the bench — unemployment is still running upward of 14 percent — many IBEW business managers see work in their areas picking up, with 2013 shaping up to be their best year since the Great Recession started in 2007.

Unemployment among IBEW inside wiremen is down to 19 percent, a drop of seven points from the height of the recession, while outside construction boasts near full employment.

"We have quite a few big projects on our radar screen," says Miami Local 349 Business Manager Bill Riley, who also serves on the International Executive Council. Some of the jobs in store include the $1 billion Port of Miami Tunnel, some large condo units, and various commercial projects throughout Miami-Dade County. While still short of the employment picture before the recession, most Local 349 members are back to work.

In its 2013 industry outlook report, McGraw-Hill Construction says record low interest rates and an improving housing market will help make single-family housing, multi-family housing and commercial building among the fastest growing sectors.

Manufacturing and institutional building (health care and universities) can expect to see modest growth, while public works will see a slide as federal budget retrenchment slashes funds for infrastructure work. Pinched state and municipal budgets will limit non-federal public works as well.

Electric utilities construction has been a bright spot for construction since 2009, thanks in part to federal investments in nuclear, renewable energy and transmission upgrades. But the sector is expected to see a decline in 2013 due to regulatory challenges for coal, nuclear and renewables and the completion of several large projects last year.

Despite the encouraging data, the recovery remains tentative. The industry's biggest fear — that congressional stalemate would push the economy over the fiscal cliff — was averted before the New Year. But another damaging battle over the debt ceiling or contagion from the Euro-debt crisis could easily reignite a recession, which is enough to make some contractors reluctant to expand their payrolls.

As good as the numbers look, they are cold comfort for the millions of construction workers still on the bench. The rebound in construction has not been large or fast enough to fully offset the damage created by the 2008 crash, which slashed more than 2 million employees from the rolls. Construction went from a $1.2 trillion-a-year industry into an $800 billion-a-year one in less than six years. Even with the upturn, there are still 72,000 fewer electricians — union and nonunion — working today than there were in 2008—a gap that is unlikely to be closed in the next year.

However, many employers express worry that a larger-than-expected recovery could create a skilled labor shortage, Construction Financial Management Association Chief Executive Stuart Binstock told Engineering News Record.

Holding Even

Post-recession recoveries have traditionally hit unionized workers harder than their nonunion counterparts, leaving organized labor in a weaker position than before a downturn. Construction has been no exception.

The 1981 recession saw the share of unionized construction workers drop from 30 percent to 24, while the dot-com crash of the early 2000s slashed the building trades' market share from 17 percent to 14.

The decline continued under the latest recession — albeit less severe — with an approximate 1 percent drop in market share from 2008.

While the IBEW lost more than 30,000 members in construction since 2008—reflecting the general drop in total construction work force — there is a silver lining. After small drops in 2009 and 2010, the IBEW has fully regained its pre-recession market share in both the inside and outside electrical construction markets — holding even at approximately 30 percent.

Maintaining and growing market share — which measures how much total construction work is done union — is vital to getting work, driving standards up across the industry and putting the IBEW in a good position to grow as the recovery progresses.

"Market share is power and the more we have of it means more work and better wages for our members," says International President Edwin D. Hill.

The secret of the the IBEW's success, says Local 349's Riley, is the union's aggressive market recovery program.

"A lot of credit goes to President Hill, who had the vision to really push for developing innovative ideas and tools for us to aggressively fight for market share," he says.

First launched in the midst of the housing bubble, the IBEW's recovery program was initially focused on building market share in right-to-work states and in sectors with low union density such as small commercial projects. Florida was one of the first states where it was launched as part of a statewide campaign.

As we wrote in the IBEW Journal in 2007 about the Florida Initiative:

"From blitzes of open shop work sites to the implementation of new job classifications and dialogue with unorganized employers, the Florida Initiative is changing lives and the IBEW's internal culture since it was launched."

Three years later, under the leadership of IBEW Fifth District Vice President Joe Davis, similar efforts were launched across the district and beyond, including the Carolinas.

But what was started as a program to help the union break into new sectors during a boom economy would soon become a strategy for survival in a time of historic construction unemployment.

Market Recovery

One of the recovery program's biggest changes — and challenges — was the implementation of construction wiremen and construction electrician job classifications. These alternative classifications help signatory contractors become more competitive in the bidding process, and business managers across the country say it is a lifesaver.

"The only reason we didn't go completely in the hole is because we instituted the CW/CE program before the recession," says Santa Anna, Calif., Local 441 Business Manager Doug Chappell.

While still far from enjoying the pre-recession employment levels, Local 441—which covers suburban Orange County — has been successful in putting members to work and expanding into new construction sectors, thanks in part to the use of the new classifications.

"Without it, our foothold in the private sector wouldn't exist," Chappell says.

While controversial with some members who say CW/CEs take jobs from journeymen, Chappell says that without them, many more members would be still sitting on the bench.

"When a member has a question about it, I show them the numbers, how many journeymen are working because the new classifications won us those jobs," he says. "We've put 545 journeymen and apprentices to work because of CW/CEs."

Local 441 is focused on transitioning its CWs into the apprenticeship program. More than 30 percent of its apprentices come out of the CW/CE program.

"Alternative job classifications aren't just a way to get work or permanent second tier employees, but a tool to win over new workers and bring them into the apprenticeship program," Chappell says.

Salt Lake City Local 354 Business Manager Richard Kingery has also incorporated competitive composite crew ratios to win commercial and institutional work throughout Utah, including a $2 billion National Security Agency data center.

Also vital, he says, is a new emphasis on marketing. He says the local works closely with signatory contractors to identify future projects and aggressively goes after the work, in a way they haven't in the past.

"We need to ensure that we have a shot at getting these jobs," he says. "And that means finding the work early."

New Tools of the Trade

Project Tracker, an online program developed by the International Office that allows locals and contractors to track upcoming jobs and projects in their area, has been vital to getting new work, says Local 349's Riley.

"It gives us the ability to be a lot more proactive," he says. One of the biggest challenges is getting signatory contractors to compete for jobs outside their particular niche.

"We have the tools they need to be successful in the market," he says. "But we need to encourage them to leave their comfort zone."

Bottom-up organizing goes hand in hand with market recovery, says Director of Construction Organizing Scott Hudson. The IBEW's beefed-up Membership Development Department has jump-started construction organizing since 2005, using creative tactics like industry nights — public events promoted in the local press to attract nonunion electricians — worksite blitzes, local ads and social media to win over nonunion workers.

"They're two sides of the same coin," he says.

Membership Development also launched new tools to help organizers and business managers in the field.

The Organizer Accountability and Reporting System — OARS –is an online program that gives IBEW activists the tools to assess progress daily on all aspects of organizing and learn from each other's successes and failures.

The Member to Future Member program — which recruits union volunteers to talk to nonunion workers — has also been vital in seizing organizing opportunities, says Membership Development Department International Representative Alan Freeman.

Perhaps the most important component of the IBEW's market recovery program has been the cultural shift– both in the union hall and the contractor's office — that puts organizing and growth front and center, says Kingery.

"In order to expand we need to actively let firms and nonunion contractors see what we have to offer," he says. "It's about building relationships so the industry knows who we are and what we can offer."

Changing the culture also means reaching out to members about implementing the recovery program and why it matters to them.

"It's always tempting for members to stop paying dues and drop out," says Kingery. "We've worked to educate them about the long-term benefits of sticking with the union, even through the bad times. And most of them agreed."


Ground is breaking on projects across the country, as construction makes an economic comeback.


Despite the worst economic crash in decades, the IBEW regained its pre-recession market share last year.

IBEW Construction Employment Share

The Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009, was the worst economic collapse on record since the 1930s. Recessions traditionally fall hardest on the unionized sectors of the work force, but the IBEW's aggressive recovery efforts allowed it to maintain its pre-recession market share.

Employment Share* by Classification**


Source: National Labor Management Cooperation Committee Market Share Summaries

*Employment share measures the percentage of the electrical construction work force that is IBEW
** U.S. only


Construction Upturn Projected

Total construction starts for 2013 are expected to increase 6 percent, a five-point jump since 2011
– 2013 Dodge Construction Outlook

• One-fifth of the 155,000 new jobs created last December were in construction, making it only the third time the industry has added more than 30,000 jobs since the recession started
– Washington Post 1/14/2013

• 44 percent of contractors believe the market will be on the upswing by the end of 2013
– Engineering News Record Construction Industry Confidence Survey

• Construction activity was up
9 percent
through the first eight months of last year
– U.S. Commerce Department


First District Sees Steady Growth During Global Recession

In stark contrast to the slumbering recovery in the United States, Canada's construction market continues to run on all cylinders, fueled by the country's booming resource extraction industry.

The big problem for Canadian contractors and workers isn't that there are too many workers chasing too few jobs. It's that there are too many jobs and not enough workers.

According to the Construction Sector Council's annual report, Canada will need 319,000 new construction workers by 2020 just to keep up with the coming retirement of the baby-boom generation.

Nowhere will be the squeeze be felt more strongly than Alberta, which is highly dependent on skilled construction labor to keep its growing oil- and gas-based economy growing.

"To realize Alberta's full potential — and the spinoff benefits in other provinces — this imminent work force challenge must be addressed immediately by industry and by governments," writes the Construction Owners Association of Alberta in a 2011 position paper.

But near-full employment doesn't mean the challenges of growing the IBEW are any less urgent than they are in the U.S.

"The First District isn't taking anything for granted," First District Vice President Phil Flemming told the Electrical Worker last fall about the IBEW's organizing efforts.

Anti-labor provincial governments, the growth of faux unions like the Christian Labour Association, and an increasingly aggressively nonunion sector mean that the First District has made organizing and market development a top priority.

"We are taking an aggressive and proactive approach to building the IBEW to continue to make sure it remains the right choice for a generation of electrical workers," says Flemming.

The First District's efforts have paid off, with the IBEW in Canada seeing a net growth of approximately 4,500 construction "A" members since 2007. Edmonton, Alberta, Local 424 and Toronto, Ontario Local 353 saw the biggest growth, both adding 1,300 new "A" members over the last five years.

The IBEW — along with the Canadian Building Trades — is also working with employers to help meet the coming skilled labor crunch.

Last summer, the Building Trades entered into a joint agreement with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to increase training opportunities and support provincial and federal policies that make it easier for workers to go to where the jobs are.

"The IBEW needs a marketing plan to capture the lion's share of the new work force," says First District Organizing Coordinator Mike LeBlanc. "This is an excellent opportunity for the IBEW to reinvent itself and increase our membership to levels we have not seen before."