Important Questions -- Does Anyone Have Answers?
That's the closing statement of Jim Olsztynski's February 2003 editorial in this magazine. His questions were, "Where will tomorrow's plumbers come from and how can they be adequately compensated for their skills?"
God's only son, and his earthly father, were natural-born craftsmen. This ability to build is inherited in our genes, along with two very critical needs: pride and respect. He will continue to produce more craftsmen than we will ever need, but it's up to us to produce the pride and respect. Do you remember that quote from the movie "Field of Dreams"? "If you build it, they will come." Believe it!
Jim's editorial begins with, "No mystery why it's so hard to attract qualified people to your trade. There's the image problem of hard and dirty work. There's the school counselor problem of directing only losers toward trade careers."
We have two four-letter words that will change this loser image: envy, not pity. We cannot change the hard and dirty work, or the problems of danger, weather, travel, layoffs and necessary training. What we definitely can and must change is how these skilled craftsmen are adequately compensated for their skills. That will provide the critical pride and respect that every craftsman needs.
First-Class WagesJim states, "When I first came into the industry a quarter century ago, union wages were about double that of nonunion." When I came into this industry more than a half century ago, that is exactly what provided, that "envy, not pity" concept for anyone capable and fortunate enough to become a union craftsman.
We faced all of those hard and dangerous work conditions, but we didn't have the negative school counselor problem. We were making twice as much money as they could make with their college degrees.
The answer I'm asking for is very simple: Raise the wages. I'm not insinuating that this is easy, but it is definitely possible and the unionized building trades are already organized with enough clout nationwide to do it.
America is a capitalistic, free enterprise nation with a competitive economy based on supply and demand. When we have an abundance of anything, the prices will go down. When there is a shortage of something we need, the prices should go up. We watched it with gasoline when they created a fake shortage back in the 1980s. Look at your gasoline prices today if you have any doubts.
There is absolutely no question or doubt about our ever-increasing shortage and need for skilled craftsmen. You did not have to read Jim's editorial to find out about this. We've known it and read all about it since the '80s. There is also no question or doubt about our great nation's desperate need for skilled craftsmen to produce quality workmanship on schedule and under budget.
The big question is why do we continue to provide these valuable services so cheap -- almost giving them away -- when we live in a capitalistic, free enterprise society?
Let's first take a quick look at why the unions did not maintain their wage rates at double what open-shop craftsmen were making.
I was very actively negotiating those high wages, which were not coming out of the contractor's pocket. Our customers wanted first-class workmanship and were willing to pay first-class wages to get it. They also expected first-class productivity for those enviable wages, but featherbedding work rules and jurisdictional squabbles opened the door for the open-shop contractors to grab a large share of our market. Unfortunately, the unions picked the wrong road (heading south to get to Canada) and attempted to compete by cutting wages rather than increasing productivity.
Of course, that was not true with every trade or with every local. As our pride, respect and drawing power continued to dwindle, many of the union locals attempted market recovery tactics.
My first seminar on this "contractor-union-customer partnering" was at the U.A. Pipefitters Local 208 in Denver on May 28, 1985. We covered motivation, cooperation, team building and communication with team members. We explained and discussed the critical importance of productivity and profit for any signatory contractor to survive and utilize union members.
We continued these union-contractor programs in many other U.A. locals and with the other building trades, but the message did not get through to enough people in command. Too many union members could not swallow our "Cut waste, not wages" and "Profit is not a dirty word" slogans, hoping their power of collective bargaining would emerge victorious. (It's a long, long way to get to Canada as long as you keep heading south!)
All Kinds Of BuyersDoubling the union wage rate will definitely create some very predictable problems only because the unions waited too long before doing it. America is filled with all kinds of customers who need and must pay for these critical services. Even if our economy turns sour again, there are millions and millions of installations that continuously need maintenance, repair and replacement.
America is also filled with all kinds of buyers. That's why we have Chevys and Cadillacs, Fords and Lincolns, K-Marts and Sak's Fifth Avenue, etc. There is absolutely no doubt that people will pay more for something better. Quality, on schedule and under budget is what many buyers want and they are willing to pay whatever it costs.
Jim's editorial also states, "Nonunion contractors need people just as badly but have a much harder sell. After grabbing large chunks of market share throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, nonunion contractors were unable to finish the job of killing off union construction altogether."
Surely you realize that doubling the union wages will not kill off the nonunion sector. It will definitely not make it a much harder sell for them to attract the proud and productive craftsmen that they need. Common sense tells you as the union rates go up, so will the open-shop rates, as they did back in those "good old days" that us old-timers can remember.
Jim states that the unionized pipe trades must increase apprenticeship enrollment by more than 40 percent over the next three years. The U.A. and its contractor employers have devised a number of creative programs to boost union trade ranks:
The U.A. and its bargaining partners are spending more than $2 million a year on recruitment advertising.
We cannot expect advertising alone to attract the proud, talented, born-to-build youth we need into a career where they are pitied rather than envied. They want to take home an enviable paycheck, live in a nice neighborhood, drive a company truck and nice family car, proudly dress their family in good-looking clothes, take family vacations, etc. Today that's called "cool." In our day it was "macho."
No one will ever respect or envy us for what we do in this great construction industry. When our proud wages keep pace with our economy, Jim Olsztynski will have the right answers for all of those "important questions!"