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.

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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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