NECA TransmissionsNotes from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry

What's in a Name?

Posted on Nov 05, 2007 by John M Grau

How do NECA contractors describe their relationship with the IBEW? I’ve heard it called everything from “partnership” and “marriage” to “employer-employee” and “customer-vendor” – even “parent-child.”

I’ve heard all of these definitions of our relationship. And I’m hearing those definitions debated more and more lately.

Within NECA, we tend to talk about “our partnership” with the IBEW. But a number of our members have objected to this, stating that a partnership is a sharing of risks and rewards. They say that the IBEW doesn’t share in the risk, only the rewards.

When I first started in this industry, I often heard our relationship compared to a marriage. I guess that’s just another way of describing a partnership, only closer and more permanent. I don’t hear that description as much anymore.“Partnership” seems to indicate that ours is a professional relationship.

Others argue that the IBEW should view the contractor as their customer, and that they (the IBEW) are a vendor supplying electricians. And in one case, someone suggested that the contractor is the parent providing all the support and benefits, and the union employee is a child needing guidance and discipline. He noted that the child shouldn’t be allowed to tell the parent what to do.

There may be some confusion because we often fail to define who the parties are. The contractor and union electrician? The contractor and the local union? The NECA organization and the IBEW organization?

No matter who the parties are, I still like to characterize the relationship as a partnership. Certainly all the other descriptions apply in one form or another, but the reason I like the term “partnership” is that it helps drive us toward our goal of flexibility, change, and increased market share.

I like the market-driven concept behind “customer-vendor,” but I’m not sure that we want the IBEW as the so-called “vendor” to consider it appropriate to sell their services to the highest bidder. Even though it now happens occasionally, do we really want the IBEW supplying electricians directly to the customer, whether that’s the general contractor or industrial plant owner?

By naming the IBEW as our partner, we’re inviting them to consider themselves as sharing in the risk, even if that risk is only a fraction of the contractor’s risk.  When someone has “skin in the game” they’re more likely to agree to concessions, delayed rewards, and tough changes. Partners are more open to understanding what it’s like to be in the other partner’s shoes. Partners look at the big picture, and what’s advantageous in the long run.

In the end, it’s just a game of semantics. But semantics can have a lot to do with how we feel. And for my part I’d like my employees to feel that my success, my organization’s success, and my industry’s success is just as important to them as it is to me.

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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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