In the late 1970s, the Business Roundtable’s landmark Construction Industry Cost-Effective study told a harrowing tale of management-labor hostility and jobsite atrocities. Projects shut down as unions squabbled with one another over work jurisdiction; the rank and file came to expect $3–$5 hourly increases like clockwork every year, while at the same time negotiating ever more restrictive work rules and featherbedding provisions; strikes became routine; card-carrying foremen regarded business agents and stewards as sovereign over contractors and project managers.
Such was the tenor of the times, and it explains why non-union construction swept over the land. But as is the case, even in Serbia, generalizations are always unfair to some peace-loving folks.
There were pockets of the country where management and labor conducted their affairs in a sensible manner; where both sides recognized common interests; where they actually talked to one another apart from the negotiating table and maybe even broke bread together. And if all this wasn’t taking place amid the anarchy of the ’70s, it soon came to pass in many areas once things started falling apart.
In St. Louis, in Indianapolis, in D.C., in the Baltimore area and elsewhere organizations arose to trumpet the message of labor-management cooperation. Using the same cents-per- hour funding formula that supports training and industry promotion efforts, collective bargainers thought up clever acronyms and started drawing attention to the best side of union construction.
In mechanical contracting, one of the most prominent of these groups was the COUNT (Contractors & Unions Together) program involving the Mechanical Contractors Association of Maryland, UA Plumbers Local 48 and Steamfitters Local 438 (now consolidated as Local 486). Formed in 1987, COUNT has since expanded to include the Seaford, DE, plumber-pipefitter Local 782 and the Cumberland, MD plumber-steamfitter Local 489.
Collectively, the COUNT program encompasses 2,000 plumbers and steamfitters and some 80 contractors. Binding the organization together is the founding document of the program, a Pledge of Trust, which assures labor-management harmony, the absence of jurisdictional disputes and work stoppages, and promotes the highest skills within the craft. “COUNT mechanical contractors will deliver a lower installed cost over term than other industry contractors,” vows Robert Beck, business manager of Local 486 and current chairman of the COUNT program.
The current bargaining agreement among participants allocates a sturdy 8 cents per manhour toward COUNT activities. Marketing and public relations are the organization’s primary reason for being, but in recent years those activities have expanded into charitable works. They have formed a tax-deductible foundation and host a golf tournament that through last year poured over $100,000 into its coffers.
According to Foundation chairman Fred Matusky, president of Flo-Tron Contracting (Hunt Valley, MD), “the annual charity golf tournament has grown to become one of the premier golf events in Maryland, and net proceeds have grown as well with the addition of corporate sponsors whose donations go directly to the Foundation.” Funds have gone to the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Dollars Against Diabetes, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute’s CAD-LAB project, House of Mercy, Baltimore Architecture Foundation and various other community institutions and projects.
Why? Why has COUNT managed to remain vigorous over the years? One reason, offers MCA of Maryland executive vice president and COUNT trustee Bernie Vondersmith, is simply a commitment to keep it together. “We’ve met 120 times in 10 years — never missing a monthly meeting. I doubt there’s another labor-management group that can match that record,” he says.
The group would love to claim that they’ve led a resurgence of union mechanical construction in their markets, but they’re too forthright for that. They reckon that 80 percent of construction goes nonunion in their territory, leaving them with about the same 20 percent share as when they started in 1987. “But, had COUNT not happened, I guarantee we’d be down to 10 percent,” says Ray Jung, executive vice president of Baltimore’s mechanical contracting giant, The Poole & Kent Co., and a COUNT trustee.
This reporter spent an evening with most of the trustees from both the labor and management sides and came away with several impressions of my own to explain their longevity. Foremost is simply a level-headedness that recognizes situations as they exist rather than as one would like them to be.
I asked COUNT chairman Bob Beck how as business manager he weathered what had to be some dicey political storms during the recent consolidation that resulted in the combined Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 486. Beck just shrugged and said “it’s something that needed to be done, so we did it.” (Later that evening, Beck demonstrated his political agility by getting Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to leave his table in another part of the restaurant to meet our group.)
Getting Along: With non-union companies dominating local construction, labor militancy is a thing of the past. Union general contractors are about as rare as Cal Ripken days off in their territory, so COUNT contractors and workers have to get along with everyone. They never disguise who they are or what they stand for, but the term “union” gets downplayed in their promotional literature. Instead, they boast of their training and manpower capabilities, along with a track record of excellence by member companies.
A chief source of pride is the Apprenticeship Training Center run by Local 486. It is one of the largest and most modern to be found in the country, with classrooms, workshops, labs and offices spanning more than 27,000 sq. ft. Apprentices and journeymen receive training in the most sophisticated bio-tech installations, use of laser technology and modern energy-efficiency techniques.
While most of the smaller work in their area has gone non-union, COUNT contractors are still very much in the ball game when it comes to major projects, such as Baltimore’s Convention Center, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, National Aquarium, Harborplace and the acclaimed Oriole Park at Camden Yards, along with numerous prisons, hospitals, research facilities and government buildings.
A useful promotional tool is a user’s guide published by COUNT, listing the work categories performed by member contractors along with contact names and other information. COUNT has also aggressively advertised in publications read by construction movers and shakers. Their classy ad messages emphasize the high value of quality construction and the track record of COUNT members in bringing them in.
COUNT represents a face of union construction absent in parts of the country where union officials and contractors still see themselves as adversaries in a business arrangement where one side has to lose for the other to win. It used to be said that what’s good for General Motors is good for the country. That may or may not be true, but it’s virtually indisputable that what’s good for union contractors — plenty of work, plenty of profits — is also good for their work force. “Contractors & Unions Together” is a message that had to be first hammered into the labor ranks before it could spread throughout the community. COUNT has done it better than anyone else.
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