Do you think you know what a business agent does? Think again.
Sure, the business agents at Local 12 conduct the union’s business. It’s right in their title. They represent the interests of Local 12’s members and get involved with responsibilities such as negotiating collective bargaining agreements, advocating for members’ rights, interacting with affiliated contractors, and recruiting new members. But the position is much more than that.
“The job of business agent doesn’t come with a handbook,” says Harry Brett, Local 12’s business manager. A former business agent for many years, he says that nothing can prepare people elected to the position for the wildly diverse nature of the work that they will encounter. There is no such thing as a typical day. And the best-laid plains can get waylaid in an instant.
The union’s three business agents, Tim Fandel, Barry Keady, and Jim Vaughan, all agree with Brett’s assessment. The longstanding Local 12 members thought they had a handle on the role when they ran for the job. Then they became business agents.
The personal along with the professional
The goal, Vaughan says, is to help members be successful. That means keeping them employed, ensuring their safety on the job, advocating for good wages and benefits, and doing everything else possible to help members with their careers. But success can also mean helping members with their personal lives. Vaughan wasn’t ready for that.
“As a business agent, you see members from many perspectives,” he says. They sometimes confide in the agents, look for a shoulder on which to lean, and seek help for problems they encounter. “People may think of me as a hardened guy,” notes Vaughan. “But I’ve gone into my car and cried sometimes after hearing members’ stories. We have to be there to support them, and that’s not always easy.”
Pulling out a stack of Mass cards and a Jewish skullcap from his overstuffed drawer, Vaughan says, “In the four years I’ve been doing this, that’s how many wakes and funerals I’ve been to.” The huge pile deftly illustrates one of the more difficult aspects of the job. Because of whom they represent and their significance, Vaughan says he can’t bear to throw out the remembrances.
Some of the funerals have been related to alcoholism and addiction, insidious diseases that affect a wide swath of people. Before he became a business agent, Vaughan says that he didn’t have much experience with sobriety issues. “I was naïve in some ways,” he notes. To learn more, he did research and went to some AA and Al-Anon meetings to observe. Vaughan helped start a sobriety group at Local 12, which now meets regularly and is one of the many ways that the union offers support to members facing addiction problems.
“We are a support organization for our members,” Brett says, noting that among the many hats that business agents wear, they sometimes have to act as social workers and psychologists. “Members may have a hiccup along the road. We help direct them to resources. We look out for each other.”
“We have to be good listeners,” adds Fandel. He says that brotherhood and sisterhood is a central feature of Local 12 and has to start with the union’s leadership. Business agents need to have a lot of patience and compassion. Members may deal with issues such as divorce, illness, and other tragedies. “It’s a part of life,” Fandel says. ”We don’t necessarily have the answers. Often, members just want someone to listen to them and empathize with them.”
Local 12-sponsored social events, which the business agents help organize, also enable the union to promote brotherhood and sisterhood bonds. Among the events members and their families can enjoy are skiing at Loon Mountain, golfing in the spring, riding roller coasters at Canobie Lake Park, and picking apples at Honey Pot Hill in Stow. The events are enormously popular and demonstrate the camaraderie that members seek. When Vaughan helped launch the apple picking event four years ago, 376 people participated. The numbers doubled in the second year, topped 1,000 last year, and reached 1,400 this fall.
Supporting the community in unexpected ways
First and foremost, business agents represent Local 12 members. But they sometimes end up helping a wide array of other people—even plumbers working for open shop contractors.
Keady, who has been a business agent for seven years, says that he sometimes fields requests from plumbers who are not members of Local 12. They reach out because they have nobody to represent them and don’t know where else to turn. He recalls assisting an apprentice who worked for a non-union contractor that wouldn’t sign off on his hours and cheated him. “It’s unlawful, and it shouldn’t be tolerated,” Keady says.
Likewise, members of the public contact Local 12 when they need guidance and support. “Sometimes homeowners call us, and they don’t have heat or hot water because some unscrupulous plumber stiffed them,” says Keady. The alleged plumber may be unlicensed and doing illegal work. The business agent has helped direct homeowners to the state plumbing board and provided other resources so that they could resolve their problems.
Local 12 members may come to business agents seeking help not for themselves, but for their family. For example, a member that has a child with a rare disease reached out. Because they know their way around the State House and have expertise in the legislative process, the business agents are advocating for a bill that would require insurance to cover the child’s medical treatment.
It’s not just family members. Business agents often spearhead efforts to help the community at large. A member approached Keady to see if Local 12 could help support Trauma Spa, a charitable organization in Dorchester that supports women who have lost loved ones to violence. “I grabbed some apprentices, and we were able to install a sink and fix some other plumbing problems at their facility,” he says.
Among many other outreach efforts, business agents also help organize blood drives for Children’s Hospital at the union hall, coordinate work for veterans who can’t afford to hire a plumber, and collect toys during the holidays for St. Mary’s Home, a residential program in Dorchester for pregnant and parenting teens in need. Local 12 also installed a bathroom to support St. Mary’s.
Job 1: Get jobs
The primary focus for business agents, according to Brett, is job creation. They are always on the lookout—at town meetings, in their daily travels, in conversations they overhear—for projects in development. They also rely on members to act as their eyes and ears and to let them know when they hear about a potential project or see a construction fence pop up or a pile of dirt moved in the field.
Once they discover projects, business agents let Local 12’s affiliated contractors know about them so they can submit bids and secure work for members. “Things are going great now in the construction industry,” Brett says, referring to the regional boom that has kept members at virtually full employment. “But we know it’s cyclical. That’s why we never stop drumming up business. We want to keep everyone working.”
Fandel, who has been around plumbing and Local 12 his whole life and whose family ties to the industry reach back many generations, says that when he was younger, he thought all jobs were union. “That’s all I knew. As a business agent, I quickly came to realize that it’s a stack of cards. If we are not out promoting, being proactive, branding, chasing work, nobody else will do it. It could all come tumbling down.”
That’s why Fandel, Keady, and Vaughan remain vigilant and focused on jobs. That is, when they are not picking apples, collecting toys for needy kids, being there for members who are going through difficult times, or the countless other things they do as business agents.