Harry Brett at Local 12 Boston

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.”

Harry Brett addresses the audience at Local 12’s 125th anniversary event.

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.”

Local 12 business manager Harry Brett with apprentices.

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.”

GBPCA offers free math prep classes

Part of the application process for Local 12’s apprenticeship program includes a mechanical aptitude test. To help candidates get ready for the exam, the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA) is offering math prep classes at no cost to participants. The first four-week course, which was held at the Building Pathways Boston office in Roxbury, wrapped in February.

The experienced instructors that teach the classes are affiliated with the Latimer Institute, which has offered similar courses for IBEW Local 103 apprentice applicants for the past 15 years. The first course for Local 12 applicants was wildly popular, so the GBPCA made the limited number of slots available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

A second set of math prep classes will be held later in the spring. Info will be available at the greaterbostonpca.com Web site.

Boston Plumbers Local 12 Business Agents

The business of being a business agent

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.