For Deborah Wyandt, Esq., SMACNA’s executive director of labor relations and human resources, the signs of spring mean that the spring and summer contract bargaining season is getting underway.
The warmer and longer days of March are marked with swells in the number of calls that SMACNA’s Labor Relations staff fields from chapters and members who work to negotiate multiemployer labor agreements with one or more of the 100 or so SMART union locals across North America.
“We typically respond to an average of 300 labor relations inquiries per month from SMACNA chapter executives and members on issues involving collective bargaining, arbitration, benefit funds, etcetera,” Wyandt said. “But during the bargaining season, those numbers ramp up to about 350 calls per month.”
Wyandt and her staff offer advice to members who work on local negotiation committees about the topics they are likely to encounter at the bargaining table, what’s legal and what’s not during bargaining and what other bargaining teams across the continent are seeing as trends and contract sticking points.
“Just about all of our contracts expire between March and July in any given year,” she said.
On average, nearly 30 percent of contracts between SMART locals and SMACNA chapters expire annually.
Everything is Local
Unlike some union contracts, agreements in the sheet metal industry are negotiated between local SMACNA chapters and SMART local unions. There is an industry Standard Form of Union Agreement (SFUA) negotiated by SMACNA National and SMART that provides recommended contract language for local agreements. It is up to the local bargaining parties, however, to negotiate over the SFUA language and the economic conditions that fit their local market conditions.
Because issues such as wages and market trends vary so greatly, local negotiations are key, Wyandt said.
The length of contracts varies as well. “You could have a one-year agreement or you can have a six-year agreement,” she said. “Occasionally, SMACNA chapters and SMART locals have signed 10-year contracts, but those are rare.”
Jason Watson, SMACNA’s director of labor relations, agreed. “During the economic downturn of the late 2000s and early 2010s, SMACNA saw a lot of shorter term agreements.”
“When work is at its busiest, people are more comfortable negotiating for a longer term,” Wyandt added.
“Typically, the most common sheet metal agreement is for three years in length. In fact, 51 percent of industry agreements are for three years,” Watson said.
For those contracts that are up this year, Wyandt said she expects wage and benefit issues to remain at the forefront. “Language changes haven’t been prevalent in the past few years. Strikes, likewise, are not prevalent in the industry. Two strikes occurred in 2018.”
“I have seen very little new language entering into collective bargaining agreements,” she said.
“An exception is that one local in the southern U.S. last year tied future wage increases to the completion of eight hours of industry-related training,” Watson said.
Trend is Small
Since all SMACNA-SMART contracts are negotiated locally, it’s difficult to say what changes they’ll contain. But according to officials with the Construction Labor Research Council (CLRC), any increases in wages and benefits are likely to remain smaller than wage increases prior to the Great Recession of 2008. The council’s figures come from its “Union Construction Labor Cost Trends and Outlook 2018” report, which looked at the construction industry overall including the 18 different trades and nine regions.
“The plurality of 2018 increases in the construction industry as a whole (for all trades, including sheet metal) were in the 2.6 to 3.0 percent range,” said Carey Peters, the CLRC’s executive director. “For regions in 2018, the largest average construction percent increase by far was in the Northwest region and the smallest was in the Mountain Northern Plains. Three regions had averages greater than the average for the U.S. — the Northwest, the Southwest Pacific and the South Central regions,” he noted.
Looking to the future, “for 2019 the CLRC expects to see more of the same — small but steady increases, with some over the 3.0 percent threshold,” Peters added.
“SMACNA’s own figures for 2018 show similar numbers, with the average contract package increase at 2.9 percent. Negotiated increases are being used to shore up benefit obligations,” Watson said.
While SMACNA and SMART have had a good relationship for more than 30 years, there are times when the local SMACNA chapters and union cannot agree. That’s when the members of the National Joint Adjustment Board (NJAB) try to help. Made up of SMACNA and SMART representatives, the board tries to head off strikes, lockouts and other labor disruptions.
Wyandt said that SMACNA and SMART have serious concerns regarding the impact of strikes on the industry and its customers, not to mention the long-lasting negative image it conveys. It is always advisable for the local parties to settle their contract terms locally, but the NJAB provides an important additional step to prevent work stoppages when local negotiations do not result in a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
Kevin Yearout, president of Yearout Mechanical Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has served as a management representative on the NJAB for 21 years. He said between 12 and 20 cases come before the board annually. All cases are handled in person. Typical issues include wages and benefits, worker classifications and apprentice ratios.
Yearout said he’s proud of the work the board does. “It isn’t always pretty, and it isn’t always comfortable, but I believe it is effective and ultimately beneficial,” he said. “I am positive that we have helped avoid many strikes over the course of my time being on the board.”
He also added that his two decades on the board have taught him that many contractors need to do a better job preparing for contract negotiations. The union is always well-prepared; SMACNA members need to be as well.
“We all have businesses to run and preparing for contract negotiations gets pushed to the back burner,” Yearout said. “But I can safely say that I have never had a contractor group come to the meeting and say they wish they hadn’t spent so much time preparing for negotiations. Most always wish they had more data and information to support their positions.”
Rarely, despite the board’s best efforts, the NJAB can deadlock and work stoppages can happen. “SMACNA and SMART work hard to prevent that from occurring,” Wyandt said. “They can have a devastating impact on customers’ projects and the labor-management relationship. People have very, very long memories.”
Spring is coming and Wyandt and the Labor Relations staff are ready to answer questions, offer advice, and help members plan for the busy negotiation season ahead.