Martin J. Maddaloni, 56, took over Jan. 1, 1997, as the new General President of the International United Association plumbers and pipefitters union. He hails from Philadelphia, where he served many years as business manager of Steamfitters Local 420. He was elected a UA vice president in 1988 and more recently served as an international representative.

A founder of the “Built Rite” labor-management cooperation program in the Philadelphia area, Maddaloni comes to office with a reputation as an innovator and conciliator. He managed to get elected to his post without opposition from his UA brethren, yet at the same time draws rave reviews from people on the management side for his straight talk and unpretentious ways.

“I am not just saying what I think you want to hear, I extend to you a hand of friendship and cooperation,” he told management personnel attending last October’s MCAA Labor Relations Conference. “Disagreements don’t have to be devastating. I’m here to offer a new theory — unite and conquer.

“Some of you feel uneasy about labor flexing its muscles. We will not be hostile for the sake of being hostile. There is too much at stake to be at odds,” said Maddaloni.

PM: Tell us a little about your background.

Maddaloni: I’m the first generation of my family born in this country. My father was a welder in the Philadelphia shipyards during World War II, where he got into a UA local. I acquired my interest in the trade from him and went into apprenticeship when I graduated from high school in 1957. Since then I’ve worked my way up through the ranks as journeyman pipefitter, foreman and general foreman.

For awhile I ran the mechanical department for Henkels & McCoy (a large electrical-mechanical contracting firm in the Philadelphia area), so I have a taste of what it’s like from the contractor’s perspective.

What do you anticipate being the issues that will occupy most of your time as UA General President?

Number one, we need to organize. We’ve taken a beating over the last 10-15 years, and there’s been a laid back sort of attitude not just in the UA, but all the construction trades. I think (AFL-CIO president) John Sweeney has sparked some momentum in the labor movement in Washington that has generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm in the rank and file.

I will put more manpower and money into our organizing department. Everyone doing pipe work who are qualified people belong in the UA. We are going to go after them.

Also, we’ve done a survey of members who have left the union, and found that in most cases it was simply because there was no work in their area. So I am going to establish an amnesty period for all members who left us, a window of maybe six months in which they can come back in with no penalties. It’s the right thing to do and sets the tone for what we want to achieve. I think we can bring a lot of them back and start from there.

Don’t you get resistance from the rank and file when you try to take on people who haven’t passed through UA training programs?

There is some, but we have a very well educated membership and I believe they know what’s needed to survive. The labor movement is like any business. If the business stays stagnant, what’s going to happen to it? We in the labor movement have been stagnant. Membership is down, manhours are down, and we’ve not done anything different. It’s time to do something different. The rank and file is starting to accept this.

We’ll be taking part in the COMET program, bringing an individual on board to take it to the local unions.

Editor’s Note: “COMET” is an organizing program the Building & Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. A key component is the so-called “salting” campaign, in which union organizers seek employment with nonunion firms for the sole purpose of organizing the work force and goading management into labor law violations.

“Salting” is very controversial around the industry. Your views on it?

Let’s face it, the news media does not give organized labor fair coverage. There are only two ways we can really get our message out: One, market ourselves, which we’ll be doing; and two, send people into the jobsites to explain what we stand for.

Primarily what we’re doing with salting is talking to workers in their own environment, where we can bring their attention to unsafe situations, health and welfare benefits and so on. So I support salting.

What else besides organizing are your priorities?

Education will remain our premier priority. Our high standards must be maintained.

We also will start establishing some new departments within the UA, a marketing department for one. As you see here (at the MCAA Labor Relations Conference), there are a lot of local unions around the country doing great things. I want to bring them all together to help other locals that maybe are not doing so well, instead of expecting each one to reinvent the wheel.

And I think it’s crucial to stay active in the political arena fighting for legislation that’s good for the working men and women of America. Marvin Boede (Maddaloni’s predecessor) established a volunteer PAC fund. I want to build on it and get all the rank and file involved, still on a volunteer basis, but more spread out.

Another thing is certifications. Certification is the wave of the future. Take our welder certification program. Where in the past individuals would be certified and paid by the contractor, now the UA is doing it ourselves at no cost to contractors. Welding, medical gas certification, valve repair certification, these programs have brought a lot of new manhours into the UA, and we will enhance them.

I had lunch the other day with two contractors who said the average age of workers in their UA locals were 44 and 46, respectively. That’s kind of old. Isn’t this a problem throughout the UA?

I think the average age nationally is about 43. That’s not too old, especially when you look at it from a pension actuarial standpoint. But I do believe we have to bring in more youth, no question about it. And I do believe there’s a labor shortage and intend to do whatever it takes to address that situation. Primarily we’ll do it through our apprentice programs, but we’ll also do it through organizing.

Why is it such a struggle to recruit apprentices for the trades?

I think because of the beating organized labor took in the last 10-15 years and nobody responded to it. Where I come from in Philadelphia, 30 percent of our apprentice recruits were college graduates. We had a great training facility to show them. But the numbers and quality have gone down over the years.

Most people recruit at career days in high school, but that’s too late. That’s when you find out that the kid didn’t take any algebra, sciences and all the other things he needs in the trades.

You have to start in the 8th, 9th and 10th grades and let that individual know what he’s working toward. Tell him up front to take math and science. I think you’ll see more responding if you get to them early enough.

Once we tell them our story, UA training entices a lot of people. There’s no other craft as diversified as the UA. We touch every individual every day of their life. Throw on the light switch, well, we built the power houses that provide the electricity. We built the drinking water plants, the sewerage plants, manufacturing facilities. Our people helped build the space shuttle. You name it, we’re involved in it.

Some years ago the UA boosted apprenticeship duration from four to five years. Hasn’t that held down manpower?

You have to understand the original reason they went from five to four. It’s because years ago we had a situation where we weren’t recruiting enough minorities. So one of the ways we addressed that was to shorten the training period to get more minorities in the work force quickly. But our instructors were complaining that four years wasn’t enough time. Our curriculum demands more. So that’s why we went back to five years. We must maintain our quality.

Has the UA made any progress recruiting minorities?

Yes. My experience has been that the best way to recruit quality minorities is through the minority members we already have. We ask them to spread the word in their communities, at school meetings and so on, and then our business agents go with them to the schools.

You are committed to step up the UA’s service training. Tell us about it.

I come from a local union with a strong background in service. Twenty-seven years ago we established two separate apprentice programs, one for construction and one for service. We probably had the jump most other local unions around the country.

Service is a business that’s growing by leaps and bounds. No matter what anyone says, the amount of construction is limited by a budget. In the service industry, there is no limit to the work that’s needed.

Many of our locals have not gone after that work. We have a construction mentality. Service work is an altogether different mentality.

In construction, you know you’ll work with a crew, have somebody to converse with, have decision makers on the job. In service, it’s going to be you and your computer. Service is a major industry that requires highly skilled people with customer interaction skills.

Most important, he’s going to be an individual who makes the decision to push the button. If that half-million dollar piece of equipment is not set up right, poof. We’re providing the training needed in electronics and computers. People who visit our training schools are amazed at what they see. “These are plumbers and fitters in front of all those computer screens!” Technology is changing at a rapid pace and the UA has a big jump on any other craft in keeping up with it.

Do you see sorting people out during apprenticeship and directing them toward a service curriculum?

You do that provided you have the training to direct them to. A lot of our locals did not. Now our people are starting to do it.

I’ve been going around the country the last two years and been honest with them. I told them if they took the necessary steps toward training and organizing the qualified people, then I’ll support you. If not, your territory is open territory, and if another local is doing the job right, you’re not going to prevent them from coming in.

In service, if you’re doing, say, a McDonald’s, you can easily pick up 40-50 restaurants to service, and that could be in four states. So if a local union is not training qualified people, we must allow freedom of movement.

One of the tools we give our contractors to go after service work is the National Mechanical Equipment Service Agreement. A lot of business managers have done a fine job with local agreements, but we need a national agreement to do service work (across state lines and jurisdictions). I was part of negotiating that agreement, now I have to sell it to our business managers. It’s an education process.

Can the UA be a player again in the residential market?

Yes. Everything starts with residential. That’s where we came from.

Another big project of mine is putting together a national residential agreement, which is almost finalized. It will be a generic type of agreement, so if one area has special requirements, it can be adapted to their needs. Face it, what will fly in New York won’t in California.

When will all these programs be phased in?

I will have a lot of my game plan take effect in January. We have a whole new regime coming in, a great group of officers full of enthusiasm. We’ll do things right away rather than sit around and talk about them. The best thing to do is kick it off right away — out with the old, in with the new. If you wait, then all of the old politics come into play.

I’ve heard the UA described as 400-plus individual fiefdoms. How much influence does your International office have over your local unions?

I wouldn’t say they’re “fiefdoms.” We allow our locals tremendous autonomy. I think that’s important. You get a lot of creativity that way. If you set down a set of rules and say this is how you must operate, it will hold people back. They’re composed of independent thinking individuals, and that makes for a good organization. But I don’t like the term fiefdoms.

I’ve heard some mechanical contractors talk of jurisdictional strife with other unions. This is something that really damaged the trade unions in the 1970s and early 1980s. Is this a growing problem?

My home town of Philadelphia was always a tough town for jurisdiction. We had many, many battles. One of the things I learned is to build relationships with the heads of the other crafts where you can resolve problems with a phone call. Because when it gets to the jobsite, let’s face it, we’re all political animals. All of a sudden you have to put on a show, and that’s not good for the men. So I’m starting to forge relationships with the general presidents of the other trade unions.

We’re not lily white either. In certain parts of the country, we’re doing other crafts’ work. I don’t want to do that. I’ve never gone around bragging that we’re doing the boilermakers’ work, sheet metal work and so on. If we’re doing some other craft’s work and they’re doing ours, I’m going to sit down with that general president and resolve our differences.

I believe in honor. There are gray areas where if you can get it, take your best shot, if I can get it, more power to me. But what’s in black and white is honor. We have to build respect so that we can work together, even if that means taking our crews off someone else’s work or vice versa. There’s enough work for everyone.

On your big jobs with national contractors, rather than lay off, say, carpenters, they’ll tell a carpenter to move a load of pipe, work that belongs to the pipefitters. I’m not trying to throw stones at contractors, but a lot of jurisdictional disputes arise from who assigned the work to whom, and that’s the contractor. This often is the source of a problem.

I haven’t heard of many strikes by UA locals in recent years. Are strikes a thing of the past?

We still have the right but most of the time there is no reason to go on strike. Does it benefit anybody to go on strike? Or is it better to stay at the table and pound out your problem?

There may be a time when you can’t do that and the only tool you have left is to strike. But today you have a lot more individuals who have a fair negotiating game plan rather than just pound on the table and threaten to walk away.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we’ve not discussed?

I’m really pleased to say that our people are ready, willing and looking forward to our program of training, organizing and educating people to meet the 21st century. There has not been a lot of opposition to my game plan. This sends a nice message to me.