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HOW TO BUILD A LABOR-MANAGEMENT PARTNERSHIP

HOW TO BUILD A LABOR-MANAGEMENT PARTNERSHIP

By Jessica Kirby

 Trust, risk, stability, and good old fashioned hard work are the cornerstones to meaningful change in the signatory sheet metal industry.

When labor-management partnerships work, they are powerful. All parties thrive at their full potential and enjoy the benefits of a fruitful industry. Admittedly, not every partnership thrives. Lack of communication, ever-changing representation, and remaining stuck in old assumptions or beliefs are just a few factors that breed fear and resistance to change. Chapters and Locals try to agree, and many ask for help, but the real work must be done at home. It isn’t always easy, but it is always possible.

Right: Bruce Sychuk, executive director for SMACNA-BC. Left: Local 280’s current business manager, Jim Paquette.
Photo courtesy of SMACNA-BC.

Back in 2001, SMACNA’s National office ran a pilot program in Ohio and West Virginia that proved an important catalyst for change for SMACNA-BC in British Columbia, Canada, and Local 280. The two-day Labor Partnership Program (LPP) was facilitated by Bernie Flaherty of Cornell University. Its focus was on partnership and teamwork, establishing trust and respect, finding ways to make the relationship primary, and developing and strengthening personal relationships. The program’s initial success caught the attention of Bruce Sychuk, executive director for SMACNA-BC. He worked with Robert Colvin, who was then Local 280’s business manager, to bring the program north.

“Basically the program was about listening and understanding the other side’s needs, goals, and issues,” Sychuk says. “It was simple and broken down in a straightforward way so we could absorb it.”

“Bernie’s philosophy was that labor would be further ahead if it worked with management because both were interconnected,” says Local 280’s current business manager, Jim Paquette. “You are trying to get to a happy place where you both can agree. This was his way of getting people to take the training to heart, and he held that, over time, it would just evolve and develop.”

Prior to the LPP, the SMACNA-BC and Local 280 relationship was in bad shape. Meetings were not productive and sometimes ended in fighting. When he became executive director in September 1998, Sychuk reviewed the old meeting minutes and identified a key pattern that was holding both organizations back.

“Although we met nine times a year, had a clear vision of what needed to happen, and agreed on action items, there never was any actual action,” he says. “That became the first order of business: committing to action items and ensuring they stayed on the agenda until they were completed. We knew where we needed to go; we just needed the tools to dissolve the us and them mentality and replace it with us.”

Another problem was market share—the union’s low portion of it and that the membership didn’t have a realistic view of the numbers.

“We had about 26% to 28% of the market at the time, but the members thought we had more,” Sychuk says. “During the LPP training, they began to share their concerns because the state of the industry reflected what was happening with their kids’ futures. At the end of the day, the program’s success rested on testimonials from the rank and file members, and that is key: if you want to have success, you have to have representation from everyone.”

Both parties ensured everyone came to the room together for the two days of training: the Joint Conference Board, training board, executive board, and representatives from health plans and pension benefits. “I knew there were rank and file members on these committees,” Sychuk says. “They needed the information, and we knew they would take it back to the membership.”

Paquette says meeting regularly was certainly instrumental in the relationship’s success, but that was only the beginning. “We have always had the Joint Conference Board, and it has always met nine times a year,” he says. “However, previous executive directors of SMACNA-BC and previous business managers carried out a lot of head butting and that sort of thing.”

SMACNA and Local 280 committed time and resources to the Labor Partnership Program and made a commitment to act in trust before trust was overtly present. “Everyone bared their souls and wore their hearts on their sleeves,” Paquette says. “It was not easy. Some came to the table kicking and screaming, and others came and did their best to encourage those who were apprehensive to take a leap of faith.”

And leap they did. The LPP training resulted in SMACNABC and Local 280 creating and signing off on a shared mandate outlining the steps they would commit to moving forward. Slowly, the partnership grew.

For example, the Local made small changes to the collective bargaining agreement so contractors could bid on high-rise residential work that required crews on site six days a week. Under the changes, employers could work Monday to Friday or Tuesday to Saturday and the workforce could choose the shifts that worked best for their lifestyles.

“It put some ownership for change on the members because it allowed them to opt for a more flexible schedule,” Paquette says. “With making that small change, employers can go after the work and gain market share. Now we have half a dozen contractors that specialize in residential high-rise construction in Vancouver.”

They’ve also worked together on recruitment initiatives, such as removing the initiation fee that used to apply to shops wanting to join the union. They lobbied to allow retirees to re-enter the trade, instead of taking their knowledge and experience to the non-union side. They also worked together to replace written apprentice exams with a pre-apprenticeship program that provides provincial medical care and a 40% wage rate.

“We discovered the best apprentices—the ones who last— are those who are already part of the industry and know what they are getting into,” Sychuk says. “Pre-apprentices can now enter the trade informed and they are less likely to drop out.” Most important, the parties work through their process and address any difficulties as they arise and during regular meetings, so they have a plan going into negotiations.

“We keep meeting so we can stay resilient and not be afraid to keep trying,” Sychuk says. “Some meetings aren’t as productive as others, but we strive to identify industry issues and strive to resolve them.”

There were challenges, of course. There was a great deal of information to share and bringing together what each side represented was a lofty goal. Misconceptions and assumptions interfered with progress. Contractors assumed the union was making decisions for political and personal gain, and the union thought contractors were withholding financially from the workforce.

“The biggest thing was communicating to both sides what the other side’s job entails. We just really had to put our hearts out there in front of us and say, if it’s going to work we have to make it work,” says Local 280’s Business Manager Jim Paquette.

“The biggest thing was communicating to both sides what the other side’s job entails,” Paquette says. “We just really had to put our hearts out there in front of us and say, if it’s going to work we have to make it work.”

Deb Wyandt, executive director of labor relations and human resources for SMACNA National, attended the kick-off meeting with SMACNA-BC and Local 280 in 2002.

“The Local business manager at the time had some initial reservations about working with the contractors to educate all on where the union sector stood in the British Columbia market as compared to the non-union,” Wyandt says. “The union brought a good cross-section of union members, not just leadership, who wanted to know what the challenges were and what could be done to make sure that their industry would thrive and prosper.”

That meeting provided a solid first step in establishing more trust between the Local and the contractors and chapters. During its course, Bernie Flaherty had the parties list their biggest challenges, concerns, and obstacles and led them in problem solving exercises to brain storm potential solutions.

“The parties determined the most imperative issues to work on and the action plans that would be most effective,” Wyandt says. “Each person signed their name to a pledge that they supported the collaborative efforts between labor and management and would do their part in advancing the objectives and being a part of the solution.

“In my opinion, the British Columbia Local Partnership Program was the most successful that SMACNA and SMART have seen during the 18 years we have been sponsoring these programs.”

SMACNA-BC and Local 280 continue to build on the momentum created in those early days. They co-sponsor teams comprising six management, six labor, and two apprentices to attend Partners in Progress Conferences, focusing on individuals who have never attended or who haven’t attended for at least 10 years. In 2020, the partnership will co-sponsor two apprentices, Amy Lagendyk of City Sheet Metal and Tyler Crowder of Summit Sheet Metal.

“We have been lucky because Bruce is still executive director and I was there at the beginning and have some history,” Paquette says. “Some people who were in labor at the time are now employers and have seen the process develop, and they realize how the industry works.”

“True trust and respect are created,” Sychuk adds. “You come up with a topic, develop a plan, find someone to spearhead it, and get it done to fruition. Key to that is inclusiveness of rank and file members, and then it comes together by default.”

Labor-Management Partnership Programs Available

The same program that brought SMACNA-BC and Local 280 together is still available to chapters and Locals across the United States. The SMACNA and SMART National Labor Management Cooperation Fund provides several grants annually to SMACNA chapters and SMART Locals who need seed money to work on a project together to increase market share.

The funding program helps participants develop a long-term blueprint customized to address the needs and concerns of individual local markets. Partnerships are provided with tools and a complete understanding of the environment necessary to regain market where it has been lost, grow and expand in areas where it is stagnant, and avoid the mistakes that result in a decreasing market share.

Programs are one-and-a-half days in length. The National LMCF will cover the cost of the program moderator—Mike Gaffney, Clark Ellis, Stephane McShane, and others are engaged to facilitate—and local parties are responsible for sharing the remaining expenses. Parties can also request additional funding for follow-up meetings with the moderator.

“Not enough areas request the grants,” says Wyandt. “It’s a good use of LMCF money to have labor and management working together on anything that can help to increase work opportunities for employees and contractors.”

To get started, submit a jointly-signed letter requesting funding for the program to Sheet Metal Labor Management Cooperation Fund, 4201 Lafayette Center Drive, Chantilly VA 20151 or by email to jwatson@smacna.org.

If you have any questions or need additional information, contact Jason Watson, SMACNA director of labor relations, at (703) 803-2981 or Marc Norberg, SMART assistant to the general president, at (202) 662-0855/ mnorberg@smart-union.org. ▪

Partnering Road Show

The Partnering Road Show was developed in 2002 when Bruce Sychuk, executive director for SMACNA-BC, was inspired after listening to Doug MacDonald, a sheet metal labor representative who presented on partnership in Vancouver.

Sychuk and Local 280's then Business Manager, Robert Colvin, hit the road to 10 locations across British Columbia, bringing the labor-management partnership message into shops.

“If you can’t bring the horse to water, bring the water to the horse,” says Jim Paquette, Local 280’s current business manager. “That’s what the Road Show was about. We went to places of work and employers excused the employees for the afternoon to attend a presentation from labor and management.”

During the first Road Show, in 2002, Sychuk and Colvin focused on bringing labor-management partnership information to their audiences, educating about market share and being open to honest feedback.

“The person on the job site isn’t always aware of market share if they are employed full-time,” Paquette says. “They need to know that although working 12 months of year means a person is 100% employed, it doesn’t really indicate that the signatory industry is only getting 35% of the work.”

The Road Show used market share as common ground to unite parties and demonstrate on how one “side” couldn’t be successful without the other. “Our membership has since been able to see it grow to a point where we probably have 85% to 90% share in Vancouver high-rise and maybe 70% in the industrial sector,” Paquette says. “Contractors are able to get the work they go after, and our guys are working.”

A second Road Show—in 2010—was about what had been accomplished. “We spoke to 900 people about how the employer and union are not enemies and what we need to do to accept change,” Sychuk says. “We need to embrace the challenge. Don’t blame others for change or for what is happening. Accept the challenges given, and work toward solving them.” ▪

Jessica Kirby is a freelance editor and writer covering construction, architecture, mining, travel, and sustainable living for myriad publications across Canada and the United States.