Building Trades Employers’ Association (BTEA) Boston has rebranded as BTEA Northeast in a move that expands the more than century-old organization to serve all six New England states, Pennsylvania and portions of upstate New York.

ENR New England spoke to BTEA executive director Thomas J. Gunning about the move. He began his career as a union laborer for Turner Construction and George Macomber Construction. Gunning applied decades of hands-on experience and unique labor management perspective to his position when he joined BTEA Boston in 1985 as director of industry and government affairs. He assumed the position of executive director in 1992.  

In addition to his position as chairperson and co-chair for multiple building trades' pension, annuity, health and welfare funds, Gunning is also active in managing training and apprentice funds with the mission of bringing hundreds of qualified candidates into the building trades.

This interview was edited and condensed in places.  

How much has membership in BTEA Northeast grown in the past year?

BTEA Northeast has approximately 225 members this year, compared to just south of 220 a year ago. Our membership has been extremely stable over the years. If we lost a member, it was because of consolidation or the company went out of business during COVID.

What labor trends are reflected in this growing membership?

We have grown partly because we were a tremendous resource for providing information firms needed since the rules for contractors differ from state to state. I have an internal memo to my whole staff that states that if we don't have the answer, we will get it.  We’ve lived with that motto for years.

How will your recent rebranding impact the Northeastern regional building trades?

We are one of the largest union construction contractor associations in the Northeast, so we bring many resources to the table. We have experience that benefits both the labor and management side of the business. The majority of what we do is in labor relations assisting with collective bargaining contracts. We have the respect from the building trades we work with, which takes years to develop. We’re proud of the Gunning name association that has evolved from this work - “we tell it like it is, we’re not afraid to say no, and I think the union respects us for that.”  (The late Thomas S. Gunning, father of the current executive director, had served as BTEA executive director for 40 years until 1992 and his grandson, also Thomas S., currently is BTEA Northeast director of labor relations.)

How is your organization helping to strengthen partnerships between labor and management?

In any relationship, communication is key and we've already established that, which gives us the upper hand. We also host many labor management meetings. Sometimes there is tension in contract negotiations. You take the pressure off the table and talk about the future. What's working? What areas are we weak in? What areas are we strong in? Then we bring that to the table. We also have affiliations with five national associations and their legislative teams and directors, which gives us an upper hand.

Tell me about your apprenticeship programs and the level of demand for those programs?

As a union, because of solid benefits and solid wages we’re not overly burdensome with apprenticeship candidates. We have established some pre-apprenticeship programs that give the contractor or employer a way to see if they have the individual qualities to be on the job site every day at seven o’clock and work eight hours. It also gives the individual the opportunity to say “Is the sheet metal industry for me?”  We train them ASAP. We don’t want anyone going on a drive unless they have the basic OSHA 10- hour construction training or OSHA 30-hour training online.

The apprenticeship programs are more in demand with those looking to the higher paying trades such as a mechanical pipe fitter, plumber, sheet metal worker or electricians, rather than individuals that come from the local communities who see the price decks. We can’t get a qualified laborer today. People look at a laborer and say I’m not doing that. I remember the days of working with a graduate from Brown University who was a laborer. At the lunch trailer, he was the only one who would be reading the Wall Street Journal. He was an incredible worker who said he needed to work physically.

What is your greatest challenge heading into the future?

Competition. The owners are changing their attitudes. Everything is about dollars and cents—not the quality of work, bringing up the wage of the middle class or making sure that we have the benefits. We need to do more residential agreements to be able to gain a foothold and expand into other areas. I think this organization will be able to assist as we go forward.