NECA TransmissionsNotes from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry

A Brief History of (Construction) Time, Part 2

Posted on Nov 19, 2007 by John M Grau

Read Part 1 . . .

I attended my first meeting of the Construction Committee of The Business Roundtable in 1986. I was invited by J.R. Pritchard, a NECA member from West Virginia who did a lot of work for DuPont, and Jack Buttrum, a NECA member from Evansville, Ind. who worked on Alcoa projects. Despite their sincere invitations, I didn’t feel very welcome at the meeting.

The owner representatives of The BRT were very hostile to unions and union contractor associations. Everyone I talked to recounted the “horrors of the 1960’s” when construction unions called the shots and owners suffered jurisdictional walk-offs, feather-bedding practices, and costly job delays. Ted Kennedy (not the Senator – the founder of non-union B.E.& K Construction) was the darling of the group. The carpenters union followed Ted wherever he went and set up pickets outside the meeting hotels where he spoke. He reveled in the attention and saw it as a sign that he was doing something right.

The non-union organization Associated Builders and Contractors had a prominent spot on most of the BRT meeting agendas to talk about their “Wheels of Learning” training program and how they were developing safety and drug testing programs. Union leaders were not invited, and union contractor associations were barely tolerated. 

With Jack Barry elected as the new IBEW president and other changes in union leadership, I knew that construction unions had changed. I also knew that the owners were stuck in the past, unaware of these changes. So I decided to engineer at meeting between Jack Barry and Charlie Brown, a DuPont executive who many considered the spiritual leader of the BRT Construction group.

Charlie drove down from Wilmington, Del., and we met at the Madison Hotel next to the IBEW office in D.C. We didn’t get off to a good start. Charlie started talking about the 1960’s, and then starting quizzing Jack about the IBEW’s position on federal legislation. He wanted to know when the unions would start supporting Republicans for office and why they were aligned with the Democratic party. 

For his part, Jack was very patient. He tried to convey the union’s new attitude, but Charlie kept talking politics. I asked Charlie what all this had to do with productivity on the jobsite. That sent him back to the 1960’s, and I never got an answer. It was clear to me that Charlie would never warm up to unions, and that with few exceptions, the entire BRT group felt the same way. The BRT hated unions and unions hated the BRT.  I thought the situation was hopeless.

What started to change was a shift in focus of BRT-member CEOs. They became less interested in U.S. production issues and more focused on global competition. They began building production plants in Mexico and Central America, and later, in China and India. They cut their own in-house construction management staff and in the late 1990’s, these CEOs shut down the BRT Construction Committee completely. The BRT, which was founded on controlling construction costs, was no longer interested in construction at all.

So where does CURT come from? I’ll answer that in my next post ...

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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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