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Preparing for Change

July 27 2012

Joining us for the 2012 “Can We TAUC?” event were James Williams, General President of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT); James Callahan, General President of the International Union of Operating Engineers; and Edwin Hill, International President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The Q&A session, moderated by Mark Breslin, touched on a wide range of subjects, but a number of consistent themes emerged. First and foremost, all three leaders stressed the importance of communication at all levels.

“There has to be communication all through [from the owner to the field] on a daily basis,” Callahan said. “Things change. The mindset that everything is stagnant…maybe that was true years ago, but not anymore.”

“Just talk to me,” Hill said to the contractors. “If an employer says, ‘We’re going to tell you to change,’ it may not [work out] that way. As we change, it may not be the way the contractor would like to see it, but the best thing to do is to sit down and talk about it, make sure the employer is satisfied.”

“Using the methods of the 1950s and 1960s today is just not going to work,” Williams added. “In 1968 the average age of an apprentice was 19, and today it’s 28, so you’re getting a much more educated worker. I don’t think the contractors understand sometimes the need for communication. That’s paramount.”

The three leaders also expressed a willingness to make changes at the local level in order to keep union construction competitive. Williams noted that IUPAT recently had to step in and make major changes to district councils in St. Louis and Michigan because of internal political disputes. “They weren’t carrying out our policies and programs [in Michigan], so we just said, ‘Okay, no problem. You were the leader, now you’re not.'”

Hill said that many of the local political disputes are rooted in the sour economy. “It’s the economy that’s killing us. At the local level, a guy can’t provide jobs, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They blame the business manager or president of the local union.”

Callahan agreed. “Hours were abundant in 2008, and we had a ten year run prior to that, and it’s no longer the case. For a whole generation of workers, that’s a rude awakening.”

But it’s not just a willingness to change that is important. The presidents also stressed the need to prepare the rank-and-file union membership for those changes, and get them to accept the fact that while the “good ol’ days” aren’t coming back any time soon, a new set of opportunities is waiting just around the corner.

“We try to innovate, and make sure that the mindset of the old guard is waning,” Callahan said. “When I took over my local, I was 40 years old, and I wasn’t afraid to go to my membership and say, ‘This is how it is. Either we [agree to change] and get something for it, or it’s going to be mandated.’ You have to have that courage.”

“You have to be ahead of the curve, not behind,” Williams added. “That goes to the question of politics. You have to have the guts to go up to your membership and say, ‘This is the reason we have to change.'”

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