Last time around, I tackled the topic of the segregated installation situation. Most subcontractors are in business for themselves simply because that is the majority position that retailers or dealers put us in. If you want to better yourself, this is the model that we are forced to adopt. I think all too often we have let our rates be set by the "what are you paying policy," rather than the real value. We cope by cutting corners, not only on the workmanship and supplies, but also in how we treat our help, who are the future of the installation industry.
Honestly, installation is plagued with subs of subs of subs, meaning 1099ers, of 1099ers in many cases. Is a living wage combined with health insurance, tax deductions and a pension too much to ask for? I put forth that unionizing is the most viable path to correct the dilemma we find ourselves in. United we stand, divided we fall, fail or plain keep getting the short, shorter, low, lowest pay. It may be a solution that takes some warming up to, but it is the only rallying point that can take us to where we want to be. One of the main obstacles that prevent us from advancing with this effort is that there are so many negative myths and misunderstandings regarding unions.
Many people want to hang on to some 1950s mentality regarding unions, when the simple truth is that unions have advanced. They operate with the same modern administration processes and accounting practices that any Fortune 500 company does. While those big corporations answer to shareholders, unions are held accountable by the membership. The day of the so-called union bosses is long gone. As a union member, your vote puts those people in office, either directly or indirectly by the representatives you put in office. That is not just on the local level, but also the regional level, and even the number one person. Overwhelmingly these representatives are members who worked in the field at the trade before moving on to their current positions.
Just as there is no single price per square foot that fits floor covering installation, there is no union contract or wage that works for all marketplaces. Agreements are tailored to meet the needs of those being represented. The agreements are negotiated between the company owners and the union. The union gets its direction from the membership.
While an agreement covers all of the financial matters, it represents more than that. It establishes the ground rules and sets an expectation level for both sides to live up to. Many people associate unions with strikes, or the management equivalent of a lock out. Both of these actions are avenues of last resort and seldom implemented in the floor covering industry. I should note that the union itself cannot call a strike without the authorization of a membership vote. We would be far better to associate unions with the progress they have made for workers, including the forty-hour workweek, overtime, training and implementation of benefits.
Besides fair wages, the two biggest benefits that draw installers to the union are the pension and health insurance. Nobody wants to eat cat food or face poverty when they retire. Life happens too fast, and installers seem to put more focus on the next job than their own future. Stashing away a few bucks a week into a pension plan goes a long way when you are ready to bail out. Sure, the payout is much greater the younger you start, but you can get vested in as little as five years of service.
Health insurance is simply a must for everyone. You never know when an accident or illness could occur to you or your family. Yes, the plans typically provide for you and your immediate family. These health packages are not token plans, but have comprehensive coverage. Health care is a difficult proposition for the small business owner. Often, it is plain cost prohibitive to even obtain heath insurance for themselves, let alone for any workers. Because of membership numbers, the Union can get better rates on premium plans. This gives a union member piece of mind for them and their family.
Union dues amounts are a subject that is so blown out of proportion, it is beyond belief. It is a fact of life that if you want something, you have to pay for it, and since the union is driven by the membership, then we collectively pitch in a few bucks to support it. While the dollar amounts vary from area to area, they are reasonable, and the phone bill, rent, and letterhead are not free. Don't forget there is a staff of representatives that take care of the day-to-day membership business.
I want to point out that just because you are a business owner, you are not automatically excluded from union membership. There are certain circumstances that need to be met, but you can have the same benefit package as you are willing to provide for your employees.
As a contractor, you can contract, or subcontract from anyone you want. The unions do not involve themselves in your business, other than to help promote your services in the marketplace. You can hire, layoff or fire the journeymen that work for you. Why in the world would you keep an installer who is not a good employee? The same freedom goes for the journeymen. If they have issues working for an employer, there is nothing forcing them to stay. Fair is fair.
The concept of a shared, or portable, workforce seems foreign at first. When a contractor lands a big job or needs a couple of extra installers to catch up, they call the union representative to draft the help they need. If an employer slows down, or their schedule gets offset for a day or even several weeks, an installer can work for a different union contractor. They are assured to receive the same wages, working conditions and benefits.
Employers fret that they will lose their installers if they work elsewhere for any period of time. Most installers develop a home shop and are loyal to it. Other installers love to rotate around, working with different people or following a particular type of floor work. The thought that union members don't work all the time is not true. They might enjoy doing resilient flash cove, nail down wood or only like installing carpet. Perhaps it is not the flooring at all, but the site that is important, whether it is new commercial construction or residential replacement.
Installers have been pushed into being business owning subcontractors. The union model gives journeymen a choice. No doubt that many installers want to own their own businesses. They are driven and have a talent for it. For others, dealing with all the payroll, measures, taxes, and feast or famine workloads are just not fun. They are good skilled installers and that is what they want to do. There is nothing wrong with doing your eight and hittin' the gate. It can be like getting your life back. Be there for the school programs, take a day off to go fishing and actually schedule a vacation.
The value of training can never be underestimated, and the Union training is recognized as the best in the industry. As installers we pride ourselves on our skills, not only what we can do, but how well we can do it. Apprenticeship programs impart the fundamental skills that are necessary to be a professional floor layer. This is real structured education, not task training to make someone a helper. There is classroom instruction and theory, hands-on exercises, and even some field projects that allow apprentices to lead rather than follow. The union provides steady pay increases throughout the apprenticeship training, as a person grows and learns.
For journeymen, there is on going skills enhancement training and opportunities to earn industry recognized certifications. Often experienced floor layers have never had a chance to expand their skills. Training is limited to a program at a distributor's warehouse. Worse yet, is when an installer must learn about a new product by the seat of the pants, at a jobsite, when it comes off the truck.
Unions were started by trade workers realizing they could not improve their lives without standing up for themselves. There is camaraderie, a willingness to share, and be respected. This type of bond is what a brotherhood is all about. Have today's installers had enough to look into such a bold move, or is it better to just complain and take things as they are given to us.
Having been there myself at one time, the union idea takes some getting used to. Perhaps you now understand that a union is what you make of it. It is a premise that helps our industry thrive, for both labor and management. Why not take the lead and call a local union to find out some facts that pertain to your area. Being divided by cheap attitudes is splitting our unity and dragging our craft down. Unless something changes soon, we are going to be compensated about as well as unskilled laborers. It's bad enough that we are sometimes treated that way.
Getting Down to Business: The Benefits of Unionization
September 26, 2006