Earlier this year, members of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association and Plumbers Local 12 sat across from one another and ironed out the details of a four-year contract. The document they developed specifies the terms and conditions by which contractors employ the Local’s plumbers and includes issues such as wages, benefits, and safety practices. The process for the meetings, which included representatives of both management and labor that negotiated on behalf of their groups, is known as collective bargaining, and the result of the negotiations is a collective bargaining agreement.
The collective bargaining process is at the very heart of what unions are all about. It is one of the key attributes that distinguishes Local 12 members and the union’s affiliated contractors from their counterparts at non-union plumbing shops and the plumbers who work for them. The employee-employer relationship is fundamentally different.
According to both sides, the negotiations reflected the positive relationship that the PCA and Local 12 leadership have enjoyed for many years. Unlike the stereotype of labor and management being inherently suspicious of one another and, in some cases, at each other’s throats, the two organizations operate more out of a common belief that in partnership they can help each other succeed. It’s a collaborative rather than an adversarial relationship.
“The best deal is one that benefits both sides,” says John Marani, president of the PCA and lead negotiator for management at the collective bargaining meetings. “That’s the attitude we went in with, and that characterizes where we landed.”
Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager and the chief negotiator for labor, expresses a similar view. “Our shared goals are woven together,” he says. “There is an underlying incentive for us to reach an equitable agreement.”
That doesn’t mean it is always sunshine and rainbows. The two leaders acknowledge that the sides have their differences and separate objectives as well. While they might not agree on everything, however, they say that they are always respectful of one another. And when they reach an impasse, they resort to a time-honored negotiation strategy: compromise.
As an example, Local 12 came to the table asking that Martin Luther King Jr. Day be recognized as a formal holiday. After some discussion, MLK Day was added to the holiday calendar in the collective bargaining agreement. Including the paid holiday imposed a financial impact on the contractors, a point that Fandel acknowledges.
Jeremy Ryan, the contractor association’s executive director, noted that he believes the plumbers are the first trade in Boston to make MLK Day a full holiday. “I think that speaks to the leadership of the PCA and Local 12. It’s a great thing for our industry.”
The contractors proposed increasing the number of miles for which they must compensate plumbers commuting to job sites from 50 to 75. “It was a reasonable ask,” says Fandel, demonstrating another instance of compromise at the negotiations. Among other items included in the agreement were some language changes. For example, to reflect changing attitudes and encourage diversity, “journeyman” will be updated to the gender-neutral term, “journeyperson.”
Both labor and management take the “collective” in collective bargaining to heart. Marani says that it was vitally important to him that the negotiators representing management spoke with one voice for the contractors. To that end, he and Ryan sought and welcomed input from all signatory shops, received a lot of good feedback, and was able to advocate on behalf of contractors of all sizes for a variety of issues.
To make the necessary concessions and move the process forward, both Marani and Fandel say that they tried to consider each other’s perspectives. They also tried to consider the state of the construction industry and project where it might be heading, which is never an exact science. The Boston area has been on a remarkable, long-term tear since 2009. But the industry historically endures both boom and bust cycles. The future may be vague, but the agreement that they hammered out provides continuity and certainty for both sides as they face whatever lies ahead.
During the negotiations, the two groups looked even farther into the future and discussed issues that may not be of concern for another 20 or 30 years. Fandel says that even though it’s difficult to know what the state of the industry will be then, it’s important to start thinking and talking about upcoming concerns for the collective bargaining agreement now.
In the end, both sides considered the bargaining process and the agreement to be successful. “You want the person you’re negotiating with to be of good word,” says Marani. “Tim proved that he was an honest and forthright guy. We tried to be the same way.”
Likewise, Fandel believes that the successful negotiations came down to mutual trust. “That’s why it works so well,” he says. “It’s a covenant between us.”