The Sept. 4 issue of the Rochester Business Journal included the results of that week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll regarding readers’ opinions of unions and the role—positive, negative or neutral—they play in the local economy.
The overwhelming response was, not surprisingly, very negative. In the readers’ comments, the only exception was the remarks by a local architect and his positive experience in his dealings with union craftsmen.
Our affiliation with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is one of the reasons I believe our company has been so successful for almost 100 years.
I cannot speak for unions representing other industries or government employees. The problems we have seen in other areas are quite obvious to most of us (auto, steel, New York budget and so on).
The construction trades are an entirely different situation. We can thrive and compete in most markets, private as well as public works, based on the outstanding training and productivity of our electricians, including apprentices.
Here is a list of some of the reasons our union affiliation is a strategic advantage:
- We have a five-year apprentice program paid for by contributions from affiliated contractors, educating the next generation of craftsmen, with the latest high-tech training required to be successful today and in the future. The training approved by the state includes classroom as well as on-the-job training. I invite any skeptics to come and visit our training facility at 470 Metro Park. You will be impressed. Our apprentice and journeyman training allows us to complete most tasks with fewer labor hours than the competition. Our highly motivated apprentices allow us to average our labor rates to a very competitive level in light of our high productivity.
- Safety is without a doubt one of the primary concerns of all of our contractors as well as union craftsmen. We work collaboratively to minimize accidents and prevent injuries in this potentially dangerous field.
- Our craft workers are highly motivated in part because they have medical as well as retirement benefits. They are not and will not be a burden to society. They are not part of the current medical insurance problem; they are part of the solution. When they retire, they will be able to pay their own way and not be another “problem” for the taxpayers. Our jointly administered health fund is run very efficiently, holding average cost increases to just 5 percent a year over the last five years. Our benefit program allows the contractors to offer good fringe benefits without the normally high administrative cost of providing them in-house. The administrative cost can be spread very efficiently over all the affiliated contractors.
- A key benefit provided by our union affiliation is the ability to expand and contract our work force as our volume dictates. We can meet customer demands with a phone call and are able to provide highly skilled, union-trained craftsmen. This could involve ramping up employment to respond to an ice storm for our local utility, install a new assembly line for a food processor requiring dozens of skilled workers seven days a week over several weeks, or assist with a maintenance shutdown at the Ginna nuclear plant requiring a substantial number of workers in various trades. It would be extremely difficult to meet these requests without our union affiliation.
- Our construction workers are paid very well. Their high skill level allows this. Before you get too critical and try to compare the various construction unions to the public employee unions, be aware that our workers are paid only when they work. In most situations, they are not paid for sick days, holidays or vacations. Their pay rate has to reflect this.
O’Connell Electric is currently the 43rd-largest U.S. electrical contractor. Our sales this past fiscal year exceeded $133 million. We were able to meet customer needs locally and as far away as Alabama and Louisiana. As a veteran of 38 years in the electrical construction industry, all with O’Connell Electric, I can make these comments without hesitation and look to the future confident of our ability to succeed. If we did not have our trained union work force, I do not believe I could take this position.
Although my vantage point is in the electrical industry, I am sure that most if not all the above applies to the other construction trades—carpenters, operators, plumbers, fitters and laborers, to name a few.
I know we do not live in a perfect world; some jobs have problems, and we do not always agree with our union representatives. However, we do resolve most issues professionally and always in the best interest of our mutual customers.
Victor Salerno is CEO of O’Connell Electric Co. Inc.
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