NECA TransmissionsNotes from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry
  • Labor Negotiations Prime Time

    Posted on Apr 30, 2009 by John M Grau

    This is labor negotiation prime time. A majority of NECA-IBEW labor agreements have a May 31 anniversary date, so many local areas are deep into the negotiation process. With the deadline for CIR submissions this Friday, the pressure to come to a settlement is even greater.

    One of the most frequently asked questions I hear concerns whether any areas are agreeing to wage freezes or rollovers. The simple answer is yes. With the dramatic change in the construction economy this year, many local unions are taking a sober and realistic look at work prospects in their area. So far only a few have agreed to a wage freeze, but wage increases definitely appear to have moderated.

    On the other hand, I’ve heard quite a few stories about union opening letters with demands that show no recognition of current economic realities. We’ll soon find out whether these were just opening ploys or serious demands.

    The second question I hear most often is, "how were some local chapters able to negotiate wage freezes?" That answer isn’t as simple. 

    Certainly, low market share and a book full of laid-off journeyman can be a big factor. Not every area, however, requires an economic two-by-four in the face to get the negotiating committee’s attention.

    If there is any silver bullet/magic solution in any of these situations, it’s that there’s a good working relationship between the local chapter and the local union. That may seem self-evident, but it’s not. Some think that it’s a lot like winning the lottery: You either are lucky enough to get a cooperative business manager or you’re not. But if we dig deeper, we find that chapters that have a good relationship with their local unions work at it.

    Working at it means good communications. The chapter leaders are constantly meeting with and talking to their union counterparts about industry issues — not just during negotiations, but year-round. Local LMCCs meet regularly and honestly discuss problems. NECA contractors talk and listen to their regular employees, taking time to explain the realities of job costs, estimating, and customer demands.

    This is the message that NECA President Rex Ferry has been preaching at meetings this year. He admits that this is all easier said than done, and he even more readily admits that he hasn’t always been successful in his own communication efforts. The important thing is that he keeps trying, and he believes that if we are ever to achieve a long-term solution in labor-management relations, this is the key.

    Ten or fifteen years ago, a number of chapters were particularly proactive in developing solid working relationships with their local union counterparts. Today, it’s a more common occurrence — and also why we’re seeing some more encouraging results at the bargaining table.

  • Field Rep 2010

    Posted on Apr 07, 2008 by John M Grau

    In my last two posts, I’ve written about the NECA Field Service – its history and the challenges it confronts today. But what about the future?

    Will the job description for a NECA field representative of 2008 meet the needs of NECA members and chapters in the years 2010 and beyond? What will be expected of field reps then? What skill sets will be needed and how will they be organized?

    These are questions we are tackling right now in a project labeled Field Rep 2010. A small task force of NECA staff and chapter managers is working with me to create a profile of the skills and experience that the NECA field rep of the near future will need. Using that profile, we will lay out a plan to create the field service that our members will need in the year 2010 and beyond.

    NECA members can weigh in on this discussion. I recently sent an electronic survey to chapter executives to learn about what field staff services they find most valuable and what services they think we need to improve or provide. That same survey can be taken by NECA members reading this blog.

    Just click here, and you'll be directed to the brief online survey. If that link doesn't work, you may need to copy and paste the URL into into the address bar of your web browser to access the survey. 

    As we move forward with Field Rep 2010, I will keep you informed of our progress and plans. 

  • 21st Century Demands

    Posted on Apr 02, 2008 by John M Grau

    Today, we find that the need for field staff services is exponentially greater than ever before. It can be a challenge for our four regional executive directors and 16 field representatives to juggle all the demands and meet all the needs around the country. So where do we go from here? Let’s start by looking at the facts:

    1. Chapters and local members are continually asking for more field staff expertise and engagement. Chapter staffs are comparably smaller today than they were 20 years ago. Many chapters that used to have assistant managers don’t today. Without this training ground for future manager positions, local chapters have difficulty finding experienced managers with a background in trade association management, labor relations and NECA practices. 

    Also, new chapter managers are less likely to have any labor relations experience since it is so difficult to obtain. Because of this, they will rely heavily on the NECA field staff for assistance in the day-to-day challenges of labor relations and working with local IBEW representatives

    Field representatives are also leading the new labor relations training programs and providing other collective bargaining education. This training aspect of their job is an important support feature for the local chapter.

    2. There is a greater need for field staff interaction with their IBEW counterparts.   The growth of special market recovery initiatives like the Florida Initiative throughout the country requires intensive work by IBEW International representatives and NECA field representatives. Without their constant oversight and guidance, these programs will fail. Meetings to establish an area-wide initiative, to develop market recovery tools, to set up manpower recruiting blitzes, and to guide contractors in the use of the new CW/CE categories require an enormous amount of field representative time. 

    Add to this support for the Code of Excellence and Industry Awareness programs, joint market recovery meetings and efforts toward multi-chapter portability. 

    Each NECA field representative must work with anywhere from three to eight IBEW International representatives. The IBEW has five times the number of field staff (not counting organizers) available to work on these issues compared to NECA. 

    3. Field Representatives are responding to more national directives. The field staffers have always been instrumental in collecting information and data that serve the broader membership. As industry information needs increase, the field representatives are being called on more often to assist in these efforts. They organize chapter board conference calls, prepare workforce development reports, gather labor agreement and labor data information for the members’ on-line database. 

    The field representatives are the face of the national organization at the local level. They are called on to meet frequently with local chapter staff and members to present and explain national programs and initiatives. 

    As NECA looks to the future and seeks the means to grow the value of the association for its members’ benefit, the role of the field staff must also be evaluated. More on what I hope will be the future of the field staff in an upcoming post.


  • The NECA Field Service

    Posted on Mar 24, 2008 by John M Grau

    The idea for NECA “field service” came in the late 1930’s when the Labor Relations Committee reasoned that NECA could negotiate better terms with the IBEW if it represented a significant portion of IBEW-labor employers. The committee adopted a set of seven objectives to guide the work of one field representative whose first objective was membership. The fifth objective was “to give assistance to contractors locally, as needed.”

    In May 1939, NECA hired Paul Geary, former manger of the Youngstown, Ohio Chapter, as its first full-time traveling representative. He had one primary goal: Build members’ bargaining strength by soliciting electrical contractors to join and work together.

    As NECA’s lone field representative, Geary soon found himself concentrating less on his first objective to build bargaining strength and considerably more on his fifth to assist contractors locally. In an October 1941 report to the Committee, he wrote:

    When this Committee adopted that objective, I am sure that it did not fully appreciate how far it was “sticking its neck out.” I am sure that it did not foresee that our Local Chapters and members would need and desire so much assistance as they have; much less, that they would not only request it, but would demand it, backing up their demands with threats that they would drop their N.E.C.A. membership if we didn’t get them exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it. What they want ranges anywhere from the total extermination of Journeymen (working) contractors, to the removal of an alleged uncooperative, incompetent or dishonest Union Representative. Performing under this objective has taken up at least 80% of your Representative’s time and the expense connected therewith represents of course a proportionately large share of your revenue.

    Today the NECA field service team is a vital component in NECA’s service to its members. It is comprised of 16 field representatives organized into four regional offices, each under the direction of a regional executive director.

    Unique among trade associations in the construction industry, NECA’s field service is the link that connects the national organization with independent local chapters and local members.

    More on the field service in my next post.

  • Love and Labor Relations?

    Posted on Feb 25, 2008 by John M Grau

    It’s hard admitting a mistake in public. I made a big one a couple weeks ago. Instead of enjoying a night out with my wife on Valentine’s Day, as we traditionally do, I went out to dinner with the NECA Labor Relation’s Task Force. They weren’t happy to be with me either, and their spouses weren’t any happier than mine.

    When we scheduled a meeting with the IBEW leaders in Washington DC for the morning of February 15 we forgot that everyone needed to fly into town the night before. Thus, the dinner meeting on February 14.

    Beyond our personal problems, we did have a good meeting with Ed Hill and his top officers and staff the next morning. Milner Irvin, Rex Ferry, John Negro, John Colson, Geary Higgins and I were there for our regular meeting to discuss key issues of concern to both parties.

    It’s difficult to describe these meetings. They’re not labor negotiating sessions, but they do deal with real, substantial issues. We’re not announcing any new contract language or programs, but we do agree that we must increase market share for our members.

    At the national level NECA’s positions are pretty simple. We recognize the IBEW’s interest in bargaining for the wages and benefits of its members. Beyond that we believe that all other aspects of managing the work should be left to the employer. That includes the decision to select who to hire, how they’re supervised, in what ratios, and where they perform the work.   Over the years we have developed local labor agreements that control too much of what should be management rights. So our solution to competitiveness problems is to remove barriers which hamper an employer from managing his jobs.

    The IBEW doesn’t see it exactly the same way. But they do agree that we needed a new approach, because the old one wasn’t working. To that end we continue to seek common ground and common solutions, and we are making progress. We are developing and testing new tools in the many “initiatives” advancing across the country. Some work better than others.  Instead of waiting around to create the perfect plan, we are willing to make mistakes, and to learn from them.

    As far as my mistake goes, I’ll remember not to schedule a dinner meeting on Valentine’s Day. Actually around the table that evening, as we sipped our complimentary glass of champagne, we admitted that it’s nice to know that our wives wanted to be with us. It would have been much worse if they didn’t care that we were gone.


About NECA Transmissions

NECA Transmissions is a collaborative effort from CEO John Grau and NECA staff to provide insight and feedback on key issues from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry.


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