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USGNN Original StoryIUPAT General President Shares Views on Current Issues Affecting Contract Glaziers and Other Construction Trades
March 6, 2009

James Williams, general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) met with both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis during the AFL-CIO Executive Council closed door meeting, which took place this week in Florida. Williams talked to today about the meeting, some of his concerns and challenges the construction industry is facing.

Q. What were some of your specific concerns/issues you wanted to see discussed during the meeting with Secretary Holis and Vice President Biden?

A. With Secretary Holis …my question concerned her knowledge of unemployment. All too often when people are put on unemployment, if the unemployment expires in say 26 weeks, once they are off unemployment … no one really [keeps up with] them or they are forgotten. Secretary Holis is quite aware of the working aspect of it because she came from immigrant parents. And her concern is for the working people and I was really happy to hear that.

There were also questions about OSHA standards, which protect the workers. During the Bush Administration [enforcement] was slashed. The only thing that was increased was enforcement of the regulatory issues. So instead of being a Department of Labor (DOL) that protected the working person, it was more of an inspecting DOL. We voiced concerns about that.

Joe Biden came in yesterday and that was quite exciting to have one of the people we supported [in the election] come in. He talked about being the sheriff of this huge stimulus bill and having to look out for fraud to make sure that not one penny is misspent. When you are talking about billions of dollars that's an awesome thing. If you go back to the Iraq war they found tremendous fraud right of the bat. As he said to me, 'we're going to build bridges and build schools and instead of doing it in Iraq we are going to do it in the United States.' So I think his oversight of the stimulus package will be a big advantage to the taxpayer. Because it [all the extra spending] was not looked over during the war and that's probably what got us into this mess and now we have to turn around and do double duty-pay for that and get people back to work.

Biden was open and honest and probably spent an hour afterwards just going around and meeting people. My relationship with him goes back about 30 years. I was a business agent in Wilmington, Del., when he was first running for office. (CLICK HERE to read Vice President Biden's speech from yesterday)

Q. Did you have a chance to ask questions of him? If so, what were they?

A. I spoke to him off the record … there were 47 people at the table, everyone would have had questions and we'd still be there. So he broke it down into individual segments of the federation … building construction trades, public employees, transportation and manufacturing unions. [And the manufacturers] are the ones who got hurt, with jobs going overseas and now we're trying to [bring that] back. And in the stimulus package there is pointed legislation that says these are for jobs in America.

Q. In regards to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)…

A. He [Biden] said he supported it, period.

Q. So why do feel it is important for the construction trades?

A. Let's just say it was a 100-percent labor issue. Step aside and look at our partner, the Finishing Contractors Association (FCA). All of those groups contribute to the Labor Management Cooperation Initiative (LMCI). The chairperson of the FCA, Ed Smith of Hartman Walsh Painting Company, he is also the co-chair of the LMCI. The FCA supported EFCA. So, forget about the labor end of it and look at the management end of it. They want a level playing field; so my contractors want passage of EFCA, too. We've gone in and had elections where 70-75 percent of the cards were signed (to be union represented) and because of the stalling of the national labor relations board it would take a year-and-a-half to two years to get those people to an election through the board. During that period the employer could intimidate or just weed the people out [of wanting the union] and when we come back with the contract there is no one left. I think the bill itself cleans a lot of things up and the Labor Department basically says we support collective bargaining … we kind of drifted away from that over the years, but I think we are going back to it.

Q. How do you respond to the critics of the bill who say that its takes away …

A. You mean the secret ballot? Bullsh^&-100-percent. And I say that because they have a chance to vote or not vote. Before … forget about EFCA … with an organized company, I had to get pledge cards signed by the same people. So were they worrying about the secret ballot then? This year, before the bill is passed, if I want to organize a company with ten people, and six people sign a card … I don't even need six people … I only need three in order to take it to an election (30 percent). Those three people sign a card and seven don't, do you realize what it's like for those three people at that company? Do you realize how long they are going to be there? So if you are going to a majority, it's just the fairness of the issue. That secret ballot thing and the big unions want to take [it] away, that's bullsh^&.

Q. Looking at what's happening right now with the construction market, what are some things you'd like to see happen/areas addressed by the government? What do you think are some measures that could help get things moving again?

A. The stimulus package is going to address infrastructure needs that are far too long overlooked. Putting the money into these shovel ready jobs that are immediately ready to start up. We've kind of failed miserably with the stimulus package with the banks. Now, hopefully the stimulus package by the Obama administration will put people back to work so they can spend money and pay taxes, because it is quite scary. I represent people that live week-to-week with their paychecks and they are not socking away 10-20 percent of their paychecks for a rainy day, so this has definitely affected my members and I feel for them.

Q. What were some green building discussion points?

A. That's a big portion of the stimulus package. You have a lot [of that] with the glass industry there. I think that people have to get confidence back in the country and they have to support the president, and that does not mean they have to be all democrats.

Q. How long will it take do you think for this to start moving forward and helping people?

The economists we had at our meeting said they do not see a turnaround until the first quarter of next year. I hope that it does come by then. I know a lot of our members are hurting now. We are in meetings to change some of our benefits to better help the members facing hard times.

Q. What do they plan to do with apprenticeship classes now that so many journeymen are sitting idle?

A. We cannot stop taking people into this organization and we have to continue the apprenticeship programs. The last quarter of last year we were down 3 percent in hours; I'm sure that January-March of this year we will be down at least that or more in hours. That offers up the availability of training in upgrade classes for our journeyman glaziers, so we will continue to train and continue to educate. And look on the other side of this because there are a lot who are teetering on retirement. They could live on retirement. You might see more people going on retirement as a secured income rather than trying to sit around and wait for the next job to break. So we will track our retirement to numbers to see if they go up that we have the people to replace them.

Q. I understand that there are a lot of older guys working part time the last few years. Are you encouraging them to retire?

A. That's a personal decision, but I know when we went through a similar down period in the late 1980s I offered an [early retirement] window in our pension fund, to then bring in younger people, drop your average age and then help your actuarial rate with your pension.

Q. With these tight construction times are you feeling more non-union competition?

A. Not really, they are hurting just as much as we are. If you have a stable union contractor and he has to sharpen his pencil, he'll sharpen his pencil and get the job. The non-unions are going to be lining off just like the unions. The only difference is when a non-union glazier gets laid off, he goes to another company and he's starting all over again. A guy who works himself up to $15/hour as a non-union glazier, and he went to work for XYZ after being with ABC, now he's starting back at $8 or $9 an hour.

Q. What are you doing to police your own members and keep them from taking on side jobs?

A. It's more prevalent in painting and drywall than glazing. In the glazing industry, I can honestly say that in my 17 years in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia glazier union is the largest in the country, I don't think I've had to discipline more than two people. In the glazing business, you're looking at an initial investment of $75,000; you want to paint a house, you're looking at a station wagon or a van. Bidding a job in glazing, you could have 70-80 percent cost be for material, which means you lay that money out before you do the job. If I am going to finish some drywall, I can go down to Home Depot and buy three buckets of mud. They are completely different industries. And for me, as general president, I have to make myself aware of them all and the differences between them.

Q. Are you ever worried about being absorbed by a bigger or stronger union?

A. Not to sound egotistical, but our organization is so tight, that that's the last of my fears. And I say that for many reasons … we have not raised per capita in three of the last five years, so our members' dues are much lower on a national level than a lot of the other building trades; we're sixth or seventh in size in the building trades; and we are second in per capita. So on that end, I do not see that happening. Plus, we have been building for this downtime; I have been talking about for the last seven years. We have the largest reserves in our general funds in our history of our international. And we have a pretty tight-knit organization … like a family really.

Q. What do you worry about?

A. I worry about what's happening to the financial markets in the country and the stock market … we had a very, very good year on our pension fund that was a negative good year because of the stock market. I worry about the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation … think of those poor guys who had a 401K during this period. Compared to a defined benefit like the pension fund, if I was planning for retirement and I had $600,000 in my 401K, now the stock market is right in half of what the high point was. So that $600,000 is now $300,000 … how can I retire? So that scares me. We have diversification of our pension funds, and we are still in the green zone, as they say in pension funds. It's good, though not 100-percent funded-our last reporting period was 82 or 83 percent funded-we will probably drop to the yellow zone, but we will take action to fix that. So, that does worry me, but that's worrying everyone in the country right now. I say, you can't make my job any better than it is; my job is to make it better for the people I represent.

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