NECA TransmissionsNotes from the front lines of the electrical contracting industry
  • Time to do what we're not doing

    Posted on May 19, 2009 by John M Grau

    The annual IBEW Construction Conference was in town last week. I dropped by to hear IBEW President Ed Hill address the business managers from IBEW local unions across the country.

    Ed threw some slides up on the screen showing the number of IBEW-signatory electrical contractors versus the total number of electrical contractors. He broke the numbers down by district and also showed how they looked for some typical local unions. In most cases, the number of non-union contractors exceeded the number of union contractors by six or seven times or more.

    No surprise there. Ed then asked the group what they were going to do about it.

    He also showed slides depicting various types of work, much of which has been abandoned by the union side of the industry - stuff like residential, small commercial, strip malls, churches, and fast food restaurants.

    Ed challenged the audience to go after this work. He told them that the IBEW Constitution does not allow them to decide that this is no longer union work. He suggested that every local union consider developing a small works labor agreement and to use all the tools available to capture this work — such as the CW/CE classification.

    Of course, capturing or recapturing work isn't the sole responsibility of the IBEW. In fact, they can't do it alone. For many reasons, both good and bad, we collectively have decided to walk away from huge segments of electrical construction work.

    We need to sit down in each local area, assess the work that we're not doing, and come up with a plan to do it. It's as simple, and as hard, as that.

    Based on Ed Hill's challenge to his local union leaders, I think NECA chapters may find a more sympathetic partner in attempting to seriously address these issues with their IBEW counterparts. And they will expect our contractors to be ready to accept the challenge as well.

    This isn't the time to score political gains. It’s the time to do what we're not doing.

  • 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.

  • Celebrating the New American Heroes

    Posted on Apr 15, 2009 by John M Grau

    It’s Tax Day 2009. Today as individuals all across our country rush to file their taxes, it’s time to publicly identify and honor the new American Hero.

    Our country is in financial trouble. All the proposals I’ve seen for correcting this mess focus on raising taxes, specifically on those individuals earning over $250,000 a year. On the other hand, these proposals also call for reducing taxes on other income groups. The net result is that over fifty percent of Americans won’t pay any federal income taxes at all. That leaves it up to the $250,000+ earners to bail us out.

    Some analysts claim that we would have to tax 100% of the income of these high-wage earners to pay for everything that’s being proposed. In my mind, that misses the point. Why aren’t monuments being planned for the National Mall (shovel-ready, job stimulating projects, mind you) and parades organized to honor our new American heroes – the remaining taxpayers? Shouldn’t we create a national day off from work to recognize them? Instead of holding tea parties in protest, we should all sit down and write thank-you notes to these people.

    Note to officials at the Department of Homeland Security: I’m being facetious.

  • When in Rome (and Lihue)

    Posted on Apr 07, 2009 by John M Grau

    I’ve been on the road again. This time for the Midwestern Region Conference in Lihue, Kauai, followed by the Eastern Region Conference in Rome, Italy. That’s half a world and twelve time zones apart.

    The meeting locations may seem a bit extravagant considering the tough economic times. They were booked a couple years ago when the work picture for our industry was much better. Still, those who attended found that the money invested in attending these meetings was well spent. Sure they had a good time, but the meeting program and discussions with fellow contractors were at least as important. 

    A comment from the keynote speaker at the Eastern Region meeting made it all worthwhile for me. Captain Gerald Coffee (U.S. Navy ret.) told us about his seven years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict. He related how he and other POWs, like John McCain, survived the ordeal at the so-called Hanoi Hilton.

    Coffee said that during his first few months of captivity he felt sorry for himself. He prayed for his release and an end to the misery. But then he slowly began to realize that this was the wrong attitude. He decided instead that his job was to make each day as productive and positive as possible. From then on, he worked hard to improve himself and the lives of his fellow prisoners. 

    If someone being tortured and held in a small, dank cell in a foreign country can have an attitude like that, then how much easier is it for us to live our lives in a positive and productive manner? It really puts it all in perspective.

    When NECA contractors get together for meetings, far away or close to home, they most often find that they learn something that will improve their lives and their businesses. A great opportunity is coming up at our NECA National Convention in Seattle this September. We’re pulling out all stops to make sure that the program is relevant and useful in today’s economic climate. 

    It will cost to attend. But it could cost more not to.

  • Best Laid Plans

    Posted on Mar 17, 2009 by John M Grau

    Each year I write a memo to the NECA Executive Committee recapping accomplishments from the previous year and outlining my priorities for the year ahead. When I discussed my objectives with the committee at our January meeting, I commented that no matter how well we plan, something inevitably happens that changes what we thought we would be doing.

    While I was expecting the unexpected, I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. 

    I had planned for a bad economy. I had planned for a drop in revenue from member dues, meeting attendance and magazine advertising. I had planned for an increase in government relations activities. I knew this would be an active year for the National Electrical Code panels.

    What I didn’t expect was for NECA and ELECTRI International to become the victim of a financial scandal — in this case, the SEC takeover of the Stanford Financial Group. The past four weeks have been a constant stream of conference calls with boards, meetings with attorneys, and recasting and reformulating budgets and programs.

    However, it’s probably not all that different from what many NECA members are going through right now as they see their backlog shrink and their prospects for new work evaporate. We are forced to look at the fundamentals of our business and decide what to trim, what to strengthen and what to eliminate entirely.

    Rex Ferry has addressed these issues in his recent “From the President’s Desk” columns in ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine. He casts it as an opportunity to step back and prepare your business for the next period of growth. It’s also a test of management skill and resourcefulness to be able to react to the unexpected and change course in business as conditions warrant.

    So my best laid plans from a couple months ago need some reworking. On the other hand, constantly revising our plans may be the best plan of all. Tell me — what changes are you making in your business these days? Use the link below to send me your stories of what you're doing to get by.

  • Two Jerry's, One Eulogy

    Posted on Feb 26, 2009 by John M Grau

    The electrical contracting industry lost two stalwarts in the past couple weeks — Jerry Nixon and Jerry Hill. At first you wouldn’t think they were anything like each other, but upon reflection they were quite alike.

    They were both Midwesterners — Jerry Nixon from Chicago and Jerry Hill from Madison, Wisconsin.

    Both stood out at industry gatherings. Jerry Nixon was always well dressed and sported a bold, often amusing necktie. Jerry Hill always wore a bright red University of Wisconsin blazer.

    Both were extremely passionate about whatever they did. Whether at work or play, they lived life to the fullest on their terms. 

    Neither man was shy. They both told you exactly what they thought, and they often wore their heart on their sleeve.

    Both loved the electrical industry. When asked for support, they each eagerly stepped forward and gave freely of their time and money. They were leaders in everything they did.

    Their industry loved them back, and each had a number of awards and accolades to prove it. In fact, both earned the Comstock Award, twenty years apart; Jerry Hill in 1988 and Jerry Nixon in 2008.

    While each of these gentlemen was a unique individual, they also fit the mold of many NECA contractors. They were among the best of their peers. I’ll miss them, and so will the electrical contracting industry.


  • Why I Oppose the Employee Free Choice Act

    Posted on Jan 29, 2009 by John M Grau

    Congress is busy with the stimulus package right now, but the legislators may soon turn their attention to organized labor’s top priority — the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Some refer to it as the “card check” bill. It’s legislation designed to make it easier for unions to organize non-union employers. 

    Since most NECA members are already organized, and since we encourage the IBEW to organize non-union employers, you would think I would be in favor of this Act. I’m not.

    The core reason for my opposition is the key component of the legislation which would eliminate secret-ballot elections for employees deciding whether they want to join a union. Instead of secret elections, unions would instead collect cards signed by the employees requesting union representation. If a majority of a company’s employees sign these cards, then the employer must bargain a labor agreement with the union.

    What’s the difference? Eliminating secret ballots opens the process to the potential use of intimidation and corruption. Our government, and the AFL-CIO, demand that governments and labor organizations around the world use secret-ballot elections. It’s the essence of democracy and freedom. How, then, could we deny that same right to our own citizens when it comes to decisions regarding union membership?

    The real issue for unions under the current process is that, too many times after they win an organizing election, the employer stonewalls them and never legitimately bargains a labor agreement. The EFCA addresses this problem with an expedited bargaining timetable and the requirement for arbitration if a settlement can’t be reached. Those provisions are a more reasonable approach— and ones that I am more likely to support.

    However, there is a caveat about arbitration that concerns me and that I’ve asked union leaders promoting the legislation to consider. In a multi-employer setting like we operate in, what is the impact when an arbitrator’s decision is at odds with the prevailing NECA-IBEW labor agreement? If the arbitrator grants a lower wage rate, it might be to NECA’s advantage to invoke the “favored nation’s clause” in our agreements. But what if the arbitrator imposes a different apprentice program? What if the arbitrator says the employer will pay into NECA-IBEW benefit plans at a different contribution rate?

    I’m sure the framers of the legislation are focused on single-employer settings, but mutli-employer differences need to be addressed.

    My guess is the when the EFCA is ready for a vote in Congress, it will include a compromise that retains secret-ballot elections. Until that happens, I can’t support the legislation.


  • Meet Bill Kuhr

    Posted on Jan 18, 2009 by John M Grau
    Bill Kuhr, Executive Director, Western Region, NECA
    Bill Kuhr, Executive Director, Western Region, NECA

    There’s a lot more to Bill Kuhr than initially meets the eye. When dressed in his trademark wrap-around sunglasses, dark suit and thin black tie, he has the look of an international spy. Actually, when reviewing his resume, I haven’t totally dismissed the notion that Bill might be involved in clandestine operations during his spare time.

    Born in Osaka, Japan, Bill has lived most of his life in California. He earned his undergraduate (Government) and graduate (Business) degrees from the University of San Francisco. The product of a military family, he himself served in the U.S. Army Reserves, attaining the rank of Major.

    Bill’s career with NECA began as an assistant manager with the San Francisco Chapter. In 1988, he became manager of the Redwood Empire Chapter and joined the NECA field staff in 1992 as a field representative in the Western Region. In August 2000 when Emerson Hamilton retired, I tapped Bill to be the next Executive Director of the Western Region. It was a good decision.

    Besides his wealth of experience, Bill brings his great sense of humor and personable nature to the job. He’s bright, thoughtful and highly motivated. You don’t have to ask Bill twice to get the job done. In fact, you don’t have to ask him the first time. He’s already on it.

    A bit secretive about his hobbies (see paragraph one above), I know Bill enjoys shooting and riding motorcycles. I believe he’s also a bit of an oenophile. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that). Bill and his wife, Bonnie, live in Marin County, California.

  • Response from IBEW President Ed Hill

    Posted on Jan 17, 2009 by John M Grau

    One reason I blog at NECA Transmissions is because I want to hear directly what people on our industry's frontline are thinking. I don't expect everyone to always agree with me, and I appreciate the people who take the time to write comments to my posts. While most NECA members agreed with my position on the Employee Free Choice Act, IBEW International President Ed Hill had another view.


    I am somewhat surprised that your editorial regarding the Employee Free Choice Act hits as something that has little to do with our working relationship, but is more of a personal attack on the rights of working men and women.  I understand your concern regarding the favored nations issue; however it is our opinion that this is not a real issue, but one that some of you are using to mask your disdain for the rights of workers.  I believe that in the past when your organization wanted something legislatively that we did not necessarily agree with, there was a gentlemen’s agreement that we would not get involved, but would sit it out.  I believe for the most part this has happened and for the most part when there was something that was good for the industry we were there to work with our partners.

    Your buy-in of the position of the anti-union forces does surprise me, and like the rest of them you have got it all wrong.  The present situation lends itself to the control of management when it is they who decide whether to have a card check for representation or not.  As you know if there are 95% of the people want a union, and the company refuses to accept the wishes of the employees and recognize the union as their bargaining representative, then the employer can demand an election. It is then that they grind the process to a halt until they can intimidate enough people against the union that they will permit the process to continue. Well, since it has been that way and anti-union management types seem to like it, we would like to be able to have something to say about the process as well, and if there enough cards to determine that the majority want a union then they should be permitted to have one instead of being brow-beat with the threat of loss of their employment and in many cases the actual loss of their job, until there is an election held.

    However, there may be a bright side to this issue. Your position of concern for the voting rights of working men and women, however narrowly applied to a single issue, may be something to smile about.


    I appreciate Ed's willingness to share his response here. Feel free to use the link below to send me any additional comments on this topic.

  • New Year

    Posted on Jan 05, 2009 by John M Grau

    On December 31, an inside section of the Wall Street Journal was headlined “How to Fix Your Life in 2009.” I was enticed so I took a glance at the article but didn’t find much useful advice. “Consider giving some of your beaten down stocks to your kids.” “Take advantage of coupons at the grocery store” “Have the shoe repair store shorten your four-inch stiletto heals.” (The article was written by someone named Sarah).

    I decided to ask some of the senior staff at NECA what resolutions they were making for the New Year.

    Eastern Region Executive Director Rich Parenti has resolved to spend more quality time with his family and to be more tolerant of others’ views as well as being a better listener. I have a feeling those are all related somehow.

    Southern Region Executive Director David Roberts has resolved to transfer all seriously controversial phone calls to my office. (In turn, I have resolved to reconsider David’s pay raise). David also resolved to do his part to increase NECA membership — thereby partially offsetting the first ill-advised resolution.

    Always an optimist and in fundraising mode, Electri International President Russ Alessi plans to increase foundation support through contributions and planned gifts. Russ sees the foundation as a shelter in the economic storm.

    Government Affairs Executive Director Lake Coulson has resolved to fight any unreasonable regulations against electrical contractors coming from the new administration. Lake also plans to complete a marathon in under 4 hours.

    Midwest Regional Executive Director Drew Gibson is committed to help NECA members navigate rough economic waters. He resolved to address problems head-on and build a positive, can-do attitude among chapters, national staff, and leadership.

    Rob Colgan, Executive Director of Marketing, plans to promote NECA contractors’ expertise in energy efficiency, energy conservation, and alternative energy resources. Rob also vowed to never eat at buffets or drink beer from a bottle with a screw-off cap.

    Dan Walter, NECA VP and COO, has vowed to make the new NECA sponsorship program a success, thereby helping to strengthen NECA finances. Dan also wants to lower his golf handicap but admits that’s more of a wish than a resolution.

    Western Region Executive Director Bill Kuhr has resolved to concentrate on the facilitation of “follow through” by the members of NECA, his staff and their IBEW counterparts towards the accomplishment of the goals and objectives set by our membership through the utilization of strategies and tactics already developed but yet to be completely implemented. (I'm going to hold him to that one, assuming I figure out what it means.)

    And you would expect the Management Education Institute (MEI) guy to have some nice pithy sayings. Greg Mankevich says: “It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice” and “None of us is as important as all of us”. I guess he’s resolving to be humble and nice.

    As for me, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. For some reason my wife always encourages me to do so. I wonder why?

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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