10/07/2010 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Prescription for Union Growth: Be Proactive, Take Risks

What does a responsible union do when a deep recession causes work to dry up, and prospects for long-term growth appear limited? Do we wait passively for the market to dictate when our people can go back to work? Or do we take steps to shape our own future?

These are the choices faced by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) as we confront the ravages of the current economy and plan for the post-recessionary period. Like all change designed to achieve a long-term goal, our plan to capture the work we are not doing has caused some pushback by those who only understand the traditional way of doing business or, worse, those who will do or say anything to undermine the trade union movement.

Several media reports have trumpeted as fact that the IBEW is "hiring" less-qualified lower paid electricians to staff its jobs (unions don't hire; we provide the workforce), at the expense of its current membership. Others have crowed about our admitting that we are overpaid. This may pass for truth in today's world of 24/7 media, but neither gets at the truth, which is, as usual, requires more thought and analysis.

To put it simply, the IBEW is embarking on a program in its construction branch designed to increase our membership, provide more work for current and future members, expand our market share and ultimately raise standards of quality, safety, wages and benefits for worker across the electrical construction industry.

In 2011, the IBEW will celebrate 120 years of existence. We have built our reputation by working with our unionized contractors to provide the best-trained, safest and most productive electrical construction workforce in the world. We are proud that our journeymen earn a wage and benefit package that provides a solid, middle class living and, like people everywhere, are fighting to maintain our standard of living in an era of constant erosion of real wages, health care and pensions. Our goal is to raise everyone in our industry to our standards.

We can only do that and serve the best interests of our construction membership (the IBEW also has members in utilities, manufacturing, telecommunications, railroads, broadcasting and government) by having a presence in all aspects of our industry. A reality check, however, shows that even in good times, our members have been working mostly on large commercial and industrial projects where their skills are most in demand. These are the kind of big-ticket projects that have been cut back most severely during the recession. What has been missing is the kind of day-to-day work that we and our contractors either chose not to pursue or found ourselves unable to compete. I'm talking about jobs like wiring a big box store, a fast food restaurant, a gas station and market or a small strip mall. Bread and butter jobs like these provide a solid basis to keep people working even in a downturn and open up more opportunities for more electricians to join our ranks.

In a pilot project in Florida that started in 2005, the IBEW learned that cracking new markets required new thinking, even challenging long held traditions. If we wanted to compete for residential construction and smaller commercial projects in a state where our presence was unacceptably low, we needed to try something new. By creating classifications between those of apprentice and journeyman, as had been tried in other areas from time to time, we gave our contractors the ability to offer mixed work crews on jobs where they previously would not have been competitive. Better, we were able to organize new contractors and their work and bring new members into our ranks. As a result, our Florida journeymen got more work because they were called onto projects that they would not otherwise have been working on instead of sitting on the bench.

The nationwide use of the construction wireman and construction electrician (CW/CE) classifications is voluntary for the IBEW and its contractors as part of our standard agreements. However, it is not voluntary in a new program to launch recovery agreements. These are separate contracts that can be offered to existing contractors or used to sign up new employers and are designed to go after work that locals currently are not doing. They will not be used to lower wages of journeymen or to undercut our current market. They will allow us to compete for the types of jobs I mentioned above or any others on which our members do not now have the chance to work.

Not only will this bring new members and a new scope of work to the IBEW, it will give our new members a chance to upgrade their skills through our apprenticeship programs. When the recession eases, and the expected pent-up demand for high level electrical construction is felt, we anticipate putting our journeymen to work and needing more to staff the jobs and fill the places of those who retire in the next 2-3 years. The IBEW that emerges will be stronger, bigger and in a position to raise standards of excellence across the board in our industry.

I understand the concern that some union brothers have about our program. The scourge of unemployment that currently affects our industry has caused a great deal of fear and uncertainty. Our program is intended to build a stronger future, their future.

I also recognize that there are those who wish us ill no matter what we do. These are the same people who believe that only corporations and well educated professionals have the right to organize into associations to improve their bargaining power and secure their collective goals. To them I say that the street runs two ways, and those whose skill involves working with their hands at one of the trades most vital to our modern wired world have all the same rights and can use the principles of the marketplace to our advantage just as every business attempts to do.

The effort to reverse decades of wage stagnation and to ensure that hard working Americans have health care and pension benefits -- as once was common throughout our economy -- will not be won overnight. Our recovery program is our marker in the game and our best shot at making sure that a good day's pay for a good day's work along with health security and a retirement with dignity once again becomes the norm in our great country.