Visionary leader Harry Brett chose to expand Local 12
After increasing membership twofold and successfully leading Local 12 as its business manager for six-and-a-half years, Harry Brett was tapped by the United Association (UA) to serve as its special representative in New England. He took on the new role in early 2020, and the local elected Tim Fandel to succeed him.
“It’s been the best job I’ve had in my life,” Brett says about his term heading the union. “I can’t say enough about the people I worked with. We all believed in what we were doing. That has made all the difference.”
When talking to the people with whom he worked, it’s clear that the feeling is mutual. If Local 12 members and the organization’s other constituents believed in what they were doing, that’s largely because Brett had the vision to chart and articulate a course–which included some unconventional paths–and the charismatic leadership to rally people with a sense of common purpose.
“That’s Harry,” Fandel says about his predecessor and friend. “He comes up with fresh, innovative ideas, gains consensus around them, and moves forward with a plan.”
Brett, 57, joined Local 12 in 1986. After serving on a number of committees and helping the union in other ways, he was elected as a business agent, a position he held for 13 years. In 2013, the local elected him to serve as its business manager.
Asked to reflect on his tenure, Brett says that he “was able to get the membership and contractors to take a chance on some different thinking and expand our horizons.” Perhaps the single most expansive initiative he championed was the introduction of a residential division in 2016.
For many years, Local 12 plumbers and the contractors with which they work did not participate in certain residential construction projects such as mid-rise, wood-frame apartment buildings. Amid a regional housing shortage, there has been an explosion of activity in the sector. It represented an enormous, overlooked market, and Brett saw it as a prime opportunity.
In order to make the new residential division work, the business manager had to change the hearts and minds of people who were set in their ways, including Local 12 members and the plumbers, plumbing contractors, and general contractors that specialized in residential construction.
To help sell the concept, Brett says that he asked members to tell him how many non-union jobs they passed on the way to their union projects. When they said there were a lot, he responded, “So why aren’t we on those jobs?”
Price, according to conventional wisdom, might have been one of the primary reasons offered to explain why union plumbers weren’t working at residential construction sites. But Brett thought it was more about the relationships–or lack thereof–between general contractors and Local 12 contractors that accounted for the situation. People gravitate to people they know, he reasoned. So, it followed, the union needed to prove itself and develop some new relationships.
Initially, a couple of contractors took a chance and explored the market. The response was immediate and dramatic, with union plumbers driving the schedules and doing exemplary work at residential construction sites. In short order, general contractors recognized the value of working with the union, and plumbers and plumbing contractors wanted to join Local 12’s new residential division.
“People’s perspectives shifted,” says Brett. “We have created many new, positive relationships. And it’s growing.”
The former business manager says that he values the relationships he has with all of the contractors that work with Local 12 as well as the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), the organization that represents them. Instead of being adversarial, as some might expect from labor and management groups, the two sides are congenial and work collaboratively. Brett says that they have a high level of mutual trust.
“I would never put them in a position to fail,” he notes, to help explain the contractor’s trust in him and the union. And no matter what new paths Brett pursued and what opportunities arose for contractors, they knew the local had the horsepower of its trained workforce to back them up when they bid jobs.
“Harry was a transformational business manager,” says Jeremy Ryan, the GBPCA’s executive director. “He implemented hugely progressive policies that grew our markets and crafted an organizing mentality that will have a positive impact for decades to come. We as an industry are at our best when both labor and contractors are thriving.”
Brett acknowledges and embraces the notion of the two groups working in tandem. “Without successful contractors, we don’t have much to offer membership,” he says.
While the introduction of the residential division may have been his signature accomplishment, and one of the factors responsible for doubling Local 12’s membership over the course of seven years, Brett had a number of other significant achievements during his tenure. For example, in addition to advocating for new residential construction work, he also placed more of an emphasis on residential and small-business service work, another area that the union typically ceded to non-union shops. To help market the work, Brett developed the Plumbers 911 brand and campaign.
In order to accommodate growing demand and better prepare the next generation of union plumbers, Brett oversaw the expansion of Local 12’s Training Center. Over the course of his term, the center was able to double the number of apprentices in its program. One of the ways that the center was able to accomplish the increased enrollment was by transitioning to a day school. Whereas apprentice classes had previously been presented at night, the introduction of the day program increased capacity and better utilized the facility. Arguably the day school also produces better-trained plumbers.
Another way the program was able to increase enrollment was by expanding the physical facility. The local converted a space on its campus into a new shop and a state-of-the-art classroom. The union was able to pay for the annex without taking any loans.
“I put my heart and soul in Local 12, and I believe to the core that everything we did was for the good of the organization and its people.”Harry Brett
Between the new apprentices and other new members that have swelled its ranks, the union is bursting. “I’d like to think that Local 12 is seen as a very welcoming place,” Brett says. “That’s one of the reasons we have grown so much.
Rank-and-file members, including women and people of color who have been joining the plumbers’ union, echo Brett’s assessment of Local 12’s inviting and open atmosphere. That wasn’t always the case among unions. There was an attitude, Brett says, that members had their jobs and the unions didn’t need anybody else to join. To his mind, it’s a flawed view.
“We need to grow, to attract new members, and to expand the scope of our work,” Brett says. “We need to reach beyond our horizons, to knock down barriers. Ultimately that will benefit current members, now and in the future.”
Having essentially grown up while at the local, it has been a bit difficult for Brett to write the next chapter in his career. “It is bittersweet moving on,” he says. “I put my heart and soul in Local 12, and I believe to the core that everything we did was for the good of the organization and its people.”
So what’s next? As the special representative for the UA in New England, Brett will serve as the liaison between the national organization and the twelve locals in the six-state region. In addition to other New England plumbing unions, the UA represents pipefitters, sprinklerfitters, and HVAC techs. He will be assisting business managers with training initiatives, legislative matters, and other important UA issues. For now, he says he is busy learning the job and getting up to speed.
Brett is the first to admit that he has been fortunate to lead Local 12 during a time of unprecedented growth in the local construction industry. But the industry can be fickle and is not immune to the whims of the economy.
“The boom can’t last forever,” Fandel says, as he contemplates the future under his leadership of the local. Brett’s legacy, he believes, is that he has opened up new markets and positioned the union for growth and sustainability. “Harry thought farther down the road. He has been an excellent steward of the local.”
“In a good economy–and we are in the middle of an incredible one–there are two choices,” Brett says, as he explains the reasoning that drove him. “You could just ride it out. Or you could take advantage of the good times and expand. We chose to expand.”