Photo Courtesy of AP Worldwide
Photo Courtesy of IUPAT
The painters' union now is using third-party groups to certify industrial coating specialists.

The building trades' offensive to regain market share and take the union construction message directly to owners, particularly in southern states, appears to be paying off.

The AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Dept. has negotiated a project labor agreement with Richmond-based Dominion Resources Inc. on a planned liquefied-natural-gas export terminal in southern Maryland, a union spokesman confirmed on March 26.

He did not elaborate on the pact's details, but the estimated $3.5-billion project is set for U.S. Energy Dept. review this month, with construction scheduled to start by early 2014, according to a published report in Maryland.

Sean McGarvey, department president, and other organized labor officials have been taking the union message directly to owner CEOs, executives and groups such as Business Roundtable to foster new and longer-term relationships rather than letting contractors do it for them.

"We love our contractors, but we're no longer relying on them to tell our story," McGarvey told ENR in a recent interview. Acknowledging that unions have been "bad at marketing," he said the building trades now are "going directly to the top level."

At a Construction Users Round Table meeting last November, he told the owner attendees, "We do want to do your work."

McGarvey is hopeful that current craft shortages, particularly on planned energy and industrial projects across the South, will make owners more receptive to the message and to a well-trained union workforce, despite perceptions of higher costs and disputes.

"Jurisdiction is much overblown as a problem," he says. "That's contractor-speak, not owner-speak." McGarvey also notes the "soup-to-nuts partnerships"—including lobbying efforts in statehouses and in Washington—he hopes to forge with owners.

"Unions have to have a different mind-set about work rules to be competitive with the open shop," says Eddie Clayton, planned-outage and labor manager for Southern Co. Generation in Birmingham, Ala. "In the South, you need the right labor agreements to be successful and contractors that can manage [them]."

He claims that Mississippi Power, a unit of Southern Co., used union labor on a recent maintenance project and achieved a 13% cost saving. He said that under labor pacts used by the utility, workers are shifted between projects; further, crews may be both union and non-union and include "skilled apprentices" to lower costs.

"We're happy to have good skilled craft," Clayton says.

Officials of the non-union Associated Builders and Contractors declined ENR requests for comment.

Brian Turmail, Associated General Contractors public-affairs executive director, in a March 26 email, said the group preferred that labor decisions "be made between contractors and their workers—or the union that represents them—ultimately. But as long as [owners] are not using public funds to finance the project, it is their right to decide how best [to] structure the contract, even if that means putting themselves in a position of having fewer firms competing to perform construction on their behalf because of the exclusionary nature of project labor agreements and their potential for disrupting existing collective bargaining agreements."

Other union officials cite efforts they think will make employers more competitive and raise the overall quality standard for industry work.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades is in the second year of a program that provides the first outside certification for "coating application specialists" on bridges, industrial facilities and other steel and concrete structures. Workers must meet requirements set by the Society for Protective Coatings. The higher standards also are being integrated into apprenticeship training.

Union Executive General Vice President Kenneth Rigmaiden says the union met "the industry's challenge" in certifying about 700 workers as of January.

"That not all journeymen passed shows the independence of the program," he says. "If an open-shop firm can meet the number specified for certified workers, it creates a level playing field."

But says McGarvey of the union blitz,"There's still a lot to overcome. We still have our warts."