When Joe Hunt, president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental & Reinforcing Iron Workers, addressed union delegates at its 41st convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 14, he didn't pull any punches. With membership in decline, the union needs progressive programs and increased involvement to remain strong, he said. "We can choose to hang our hats on our past accomplishments," he told delegates. "We can choose to believe that if we maintain our current level of activities and programs it will be enough to sustain our union. Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you these are the choices of a union that is slowly dying. A union that is willing to accept the status quo is a union that is doomed to failure."

With Baby Boomers heading into retirement, the situation is even more dire. Hunt noted that even if locals are able to get apprenticeship up to a mandated level of 20 percent, which in most cases is all they have the infrastructure to support, the union will lose members over the next ten years. "We organize or we die," he proclaimed.

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  • Delegates responded and voted to increase funding for organizing by 50 percent. But organizing will take more than money�it will take smart business moves. Among the recent initiatives to revamp organizing efforts, the iron workers are creating a new level of accountability. Locals have shown varying levels of enthusiasm about organizing in the past, Hunt said. Now they report directly to district council presidents about the use of grant program funds. "This gives us more accountability and we're assured that everyone is organizing, not just acting as another business representative," he said.

    The call to arms comes at a time when the industry is still enjoying a construction boom. It's a scenario that can give a false sense of security to union members, he said. "It's a struggle because people in this market can think, we're all working and don't have to worry about being unemployed," he said.

    On the contrary, Hunt notes that when the economy has soured during past cycles, union membership has dropped. "We're at the tipping point," he said. "We can't afford to be any smaller or we'll become insignificant." To combat concerns, the iron workers are on the offensive�talking straight about challenges and seeking solutions.

    One key change is the continued shift to see employers as partners, not adversaries. At the convention, the iron workers brought in Richard Teerlink, the former CEO of Harley-Davidson who helped engineer the company's turnaround in the 1990s, to talk to attendees about understanding your customer.

    "We're not the 400-pound gorilla on the street anymore," Hunt said. "We have to look to our employers and understand that our employers are a key for us. We're looking at how we work together and how to make each other more competitive in the market."

    To help improve its image, the iron workers are promoting efforts such as its national substance abuse program and safety insurance program through IMPACT. The union is now working with a handful of major insurance carriers to lower the costs for employers who institute the programs.

    The iron workers are also honing in on growth opportunities. The union is fighting its way back into the reinforcing industry. It launched Local-846 to focus on the rebar market after surveys showed that fewer than 200 union members were placing rebar in 18 states. Since then, it has climbed up to nearly 1,000.

    "Contractors that used to bid in those areas, who ceased bidding because they weren't competitive, are back now and bidding," he said.