The Lone Star State is known for many things, but union density isn’t one of them. The newly formed Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, with the help of Houston Local 66, Galveston Local 527 and Houston Local 716 is out to change that.

“Around here, people either have a negative view of unions or they’ve never heard of one,” said Paul Puente, Local 716 assistant business manager, and executive secretary of the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council.

Houston area locals are blazing new trails and changing hearts and minds to meet the area’s growing need for skilled tradespeople.

Puente says there will be $52 billion worth of work in the next two to three years in industrial construction alone. From Alabama to Texas, there will be $1 trillion worth of work. Yet there aren’t enough skilled tradespeople to meet the demand. Just in the industrial sector there are estimates of 40,000 jobs for craftsmen. But instead of looking to union halls, there are billboards advertising for skilled tradespeople, where the term “skilled” is loosely defined.

A number of the industrial jobs are in the liquid natural gas market, an area that requires skilled men and women to do work such as welding. And Puente noted that the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of natural gas. A great deal of this work is in Texas and is being done by low-bid, nonunion contractors with little to no concern for safety and environmental protections.

“They don’t have any regard for the rules,” said Puente.

So Puente and others in the federation are hitting the ground and getting the word out that not only do they have skilled trades members, they have the resources to train the next generation.  

Besides natural gas, Texas is home to industries such as oil and gas (both onshore and off), pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, industrial manufacturing, petroleum refining, metals, wood and paper. All of these require skilled men and women with the level and quality of training that the IBEW provides.

In contrast to the experience of other area unions, Houston, Local 66 has members doing much of the available work in their area, including about 80 percent of the outside construction market share, says Business Manager Greg Lucero. This is due to the specialized nature of the work and professionalism of the members as well as the strong relationship Lucero has with area businesses. Centerpoint Energy Houston Electric employs about 1,400 of the 4,000-member union and Generation NRG Texas employs 650. About 1,200 members work in outside construction.

The Houston area locals are part of the AFL-CIO’s newly-formed Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation.

“We’re the anomaly,” Lucero said. “We have some strong relationships and that allows our members to go out and prove themselves. And every time they go out, they do the job right and get asked back for the next job.”

Lucero noted that many unions in the area are up against history and tradition. In some cases, bad union-employer relationships dating back to the 1960s and 1970s are still influencing hiring today.

“There is still a good old boy mentality in some places,” said Lucero. “In others, you have young presidents in their 40s who don’t even remember the fights of the ‘60s and ‘70s but are afraid to be the first one to reach out and make any changes.”

Reorganizing and Reactivating

The new Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation is part of the AFL-CIO effort to reorganize the Houston-area central labor councils to more effectively share resources and work together. Local 716’s jurisdiction alone covers 17,000 square miles, and Local 66 is responsible for 57 counties, or about one-third of the state.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre visited for the inauguration of the federation and toured Local 716’s training center. The center and other apprenticeship schools train hundreds of skilled construction workers every year and are ready to do more.

“We train for everything with a wire,” Puente said, citing the local union’s appeal to new customers. “We can create a curriculum for anything where there is a need.”

The three IBEW locals are part of 26 building trades unions in the area. Lucero represents the IBEW on the executive board for the federation and Local 527 Business Manager Mike Henderson represents the Galveston County Labor Assembly. By working together, they hope to dispel the myths about unions and increase membership and market share.

“We should brag more, advertise our expertise,” Lucero said. “We do it right the first time. We need to let people know that.”

Puente agrees. “We have to overcome our past. We’ve got to change hearts and minds.”