Local 12 Boston plumber with face mask during pandemic

Cautiously optimistic as industry copes with pandemic

When the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Boston and other municipalities abruptly closed virtually all construction sites, along with a series of other preventative measures. Consequently, the unemployment rate for Local 12 members shot up to about 80%, and GBPCA contractors saw their revenues drop sharply.

As industry leaders gathered to discuss safety protocols in advance of restarting jobs in May, there was much angst about the impact on productivity and the general viability of projects. So, many months later, how are things going?

“I’m happy to report that we have over 95% employment among our members,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, adding that the rate is typical for this time of year. In other words, employment has more or less returned to pre-pandemic levels. “I’m pleasantly surprised,” Fandel adds. “After the depths of the initial shutdown, I wouldn’t have thought we would be where we are now.”

Contractors are also indicating that nearly all jobs have resumed, and that the industry in general has rebounded well. That’s not to say, however, that everything is exactly normal. COVID 19 has fundamentally changed many things and continues to present challenges.

Weathering a difficult storm

When projects such as Boynton Yards in Somerville and 325 Main Street in Cambridge halted in March, GBPCA contractor J.C. Higgins reduced the field work force of its plumbing division by about 80%.

“Those of us in the office went to a four-day work week to help reduce payroll,” says John Shaughnessy, VP of the contractor’s plumbing division and a 36-year veteran at the company. Among other mitigation strategies, some employees took early retirement. Through it all, J.C. Higgins was able to retain 90% of its office staff. 

“We lost the opportunity to generate much revenue during the three-month shutdown of the first coronavirus wave,” Shaughnessy says. “We are tightening everything where we can. We have been able to weather the shutdowns, but it has not been easy.”

On the bright side, things have gone well since work resumed in May under “new normal” conditions. Company officials were trying to anticipate what might happen when practices such as social distancing and tool washing were introduced at construction sites. 

“Would it cost us 20% of a day’s productivity? More? We just didn’t know,” says Shaughnessy. As it turns out, J.C. Higgins has seen that the impact has not been as severe as anticipated. 

Local 12’s Fandel concurs. Workers quickly adopted safety precautions such as wearing facemasks and other PPE. And technology such as phone apps and QR codes were rapidly deployed to help streamline health screenings. “It’s become standardized,” Fandel says. “We incorporated new processes, made them part of our routine, and adapted.”

In-person instruction returns to training center

The pandemic has interrupted routines at Local 12’s training center. The school quickly pivoted to remote learning after it went into lockdown mode in the spring. Apprentices and instructors connected online via electronic classes. When the fall session began in the new academic year, however, the training center reopened, and the day school program reverted back to in-person classes, albeit with a number of adaptations.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the reduction of class sizes. To accommodate social distancing, most classes have about ten apprentices, or about one-third less students. Because the class sizes are smaller, the training center will be expanding its schedule and presenting more classes.

All work areas are regularly sanitized, and the classrooms themselves are disinfected daily. The center installed many hand sanitizer stations, increased the airflow of its HVAC system to improve ventilation, and closed its break room. Apprentices and instructors are required to wear masks at all times. If team projects require participants to be closer than six feet, they wear clear face shields in addition to masks.

The modifications are not insignificant, and the conditions are not ideal, according to Rick Carter, the training center’s director. For example, it can be difficult for instructors and students to understand each other when they talk with masks on. But he says that the overwhelming consensus is that in-person classes are considerably better than the alternative, adding that there is no substitute when you’re trying to teach somebody a trade.

“Most of our apprentices are visual, hands-on, tactile learners,” Carter notes. “You can’t do that virtually.”

To illustrate the point, he says that he presented the math for a project during a class, and one of the apprentices was having trouble understanding it conceptually. When they built the project together in the shop, however, it all came together. “She did a great job with it and immediately got it. We couldn’t have done that online,” Carter says.

Fandel says that he is hopeful that the center will be able to continue to offer in-person classes, but notes that much is dependent on conditions outside of the school’s control such as rising infection rates in the community.

With a wobbly general economy, the trustees that oversee the training center decided to reduce the size of the incoming class by about half to 30 apprentices. Should conditions warrant it, Fandel notes that the school could open its enrollment later.

Looking to the future

How might conditions evolve in the construction industry? In the near future, Shaughnessy and Fandel believe that the unprecedented boom times that have prevailed over the past few years will mostly continue. Not only have nearly all existing jobs resumed, but owners and developers of many major new projects that had been in the pipeline have indicated that they will be moving forward with their plans. These include the massive Suffolk Downs development and Mass General, which has a $1-billion, 1-million-square-foot expansion on tap.

Some sectors, however, are shaky. Shaughnessy says that the city’s previously red-hot condo market might be taking a bit of a hit in the near term, noting that a residential project in the Seaport switched to lab space (for which there is continued huge demand). And some spec jobs that developers were building without tenants in place have been put on hold. The dicey economy has dealt a blow to retail and restaurant projects as well.

But Fandel points to the many engines that undergird the Boston area’s resilient economy and support the construction industry, including its universities, hospitals, research and development, and biotech. “It’s a testament to the region,” he says.

Post-pandemic, Shaughnessy remains upbeat. “In a year or two, I expect that there will be many new projects that we will be bidding.” He adds that, in his opinion, office space will remain an important part of new construction. “Offices will not become obsolete,” Shaughnessy says. “I don’t think people will work from home forever. I believe we are very social and want to join together in workspaces.”

Regardless of what the future holds, Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, says that contractors are up to the task. “The pandemic has presented a new type of challenge. There is still so much uncertainty as to how everything will shake out, but our contractors will remain nimble and continue to evolve.”

Shaughnessy says that he’s “cautiously optimistic. J.C. Higgins and the industry will persevere.”

Jovai Taylor and Michael Alewxander Local 12 Boston apprentices

2020 will be memorable first year for apprentices

No matter what may be happening outside of the industry, it’s always momentous for apprentices when they join Local 12 and begin their training.

Members likely have vivid memories of their first year in the program as they began to learn the trade and started on their journey in a new career. But for the thirty first-year apprentices who came on board in 2020 amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, their experiences will be especially memorable. The Pipeline caught up with two of them to learn about their path to Local 12.

Michael Alexander

As a third-generation Local 12 member, you might think that it would have been Michael Alexander’s destiny to become a plumber and join the union. But that wasn’t necessarily the case.

While he always liked putting things together and making things work, Alexander chose to study engineering in college. But when he joined the Army National Guard three years ago as a helicopter mechanic, he found his calling working with his hands.

“It was then that I knew the desk thing wasn’t really going to be for me,” says Alexander, noting that he enjoyed being in the field repairing and replacing helicopter parts. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work in the trades.”

As to what trade, his family provided inspiration. Alexander’s grandfather, Ed Farrell, uncle, Brian Farrell, and cousin, Ryan Farrell, all joined Local 12 and pursued plumbing as a career. He sought the advice of his uncle, who helped convince him to follow the family tradition.

“Even though I had grown up hearing about the union, I didn’t know much about it,” Alexander says. “After my uncle told me about the high professional standards, the safety standards, the wages, the benefits, and more, I decided to apply.”

Alexander was accepted into the local in 2019, but duty called when the Army National Guard deployed him to the Middle East. Part of a heavy maintenance team, he serviced Blackhawk helicopters in his home base, Kuwait, as well as in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Over the course of Alexander’s deployment, which lasted through

January of this year, his team supported 33,000 hours of combat flight time. “I knew that I had Local 12 to go home to,” he says.

Upon his return, Alexander went to work for Glionna Plumbing and Heating where he has remained. Not long after he started, the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. Alexander notes that there have been no reported virus cases at any of the job sites on which he has been working. He credits Glionna, the general contractors, and the safety protocols adopted by the building trades for helping to keep him and his coworkers safe.

Many of Glionna’s projects are municipal buildings. Alexander, for example, has been working on new police headquarters in Belmont and Beverly. The crews are relatively small, which makes it easier to social distance. 

He cites another benefit of working for a smaller shop. “My uncle was a foreman and ran a lot of huge jobs. With Glionna, I get to do a lot more, because I wear many hats. I’m getting a lot of hands-on experience with a variety of things.”

Alexander says that his military experience and regard for the chain of command has served him well at job sites. “It makes it easier for me to learn. I have respect for the journeyman and foreman above me,” he notes. “You only have to tell me things once.”

He also notes parallels between the military and the union. “With Local 12, there’s strength in unity. We have each other’s backs. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.”

As for the benefits he is receiving, the 24-year-old says that he doesn’t know anybody else his age with a health care plan, an annuity, and a pension. “It’s pretty fantastic.”

Jovai Taylor

She always liked working with her hands, but Jovai Taylor ended up with jobs at auto dealerships and a car rental agency. Tired of sitting at a desk and seeking a change, she thought about the things she liked doing and remembered how much she enjoyed working alongside her father helping him with home 

repairs and improvements. It’s something Taylor carried with her throughout her life. She says that she always tries to figure out how to do things herself. She thought construction could be something to pursue.

“I wanted to get into the building trades for a long time,” Taylor says. “But I just didn’t know how to do it.”

Then a friend who is a pipefitter told her about Building Pathways. The Roxbury-based pre-apprenticeship program helps prepare people, especially women, people of color, and others in underserved communities, for careers in the building trades. Local 12 is one of the unions that works with and supports Building Pathways.

Taylor enrolled in the program in 2019 to begin her new career path. As part of the curriculum, participants are asked to identify two trades they would like to enter. She chose plumbing and pipefitting.

After graduating from Building Pathways, Taylor applied to some of the building trade unions. While she waited to hear from them, she took a job with a nonunion shop to get some experience.

Accepted by Local 12, the first-year apprentice says that up until recently, she didn’t know much about unions. “Now, there is a sense of security. I understand that Local 12 has my best interests at heart and is looking out for me,” Taylor says. “Unlike past jobs, it feels like a career for me now.”

Having briefly worked for a nonunion contractor, she says that there is a big difference on the union side. “The way I’m treated, the pay, the benefits–it’s all so much better.”

As a woman working in the trades, Taylor says her gender has been a non-issue. Everyone has been accepting her.

Since joining Local 12, Taylor has been working for GBPCA contractor TG Gallagher at 51 Sleeper Street in Boston’s Seaport District. The mixed-use building, which dates back to 1924, is being renovated and converted into new office and lab space.

While the class sizes are smaller than usual at Local 12’s training center, and everyone is wearing a mask along with other safety measures, Taylor says that as a first-year apprentice, she has nothing to compare it to. Her experiences in the classroom and the center’s shop have been great, she notes. Taylor is especially looking forward to learning more about welding and brazing.

Local 12 Boston Plumbers member with mask

Industry adapts to the new normal

“This is a unique and challenging time,” says Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), referring to the conditions that the coronavirus pandemic has imposed on the construction industry. “Our contractors have had to put on new hats. Now they are not just construction and business experts, but also contagious disease and medical health specialists.”

Welcome to the new normal. Once GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers processed and dealt with the initial shutdown of most projects on which they had been working and other immediate effects of the pandemic in mid-March, they then had to figure out how to cope with the longer-term fallout. Like everybody else, they are anxious for a vaccine or treatment to emerge so the virus is no longer a threat. Until then, it’s not exactly business as usual.

A building trades group convened to help prepare for the reopening of construction sites that had been closed in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville (where the bulk of the region’s major projects are based). Among the participants were general contractors, plumbing and other subcontractor reps, and business agents. They met via conference calls, videoconferencing, and other remote means to talk about issues such as safety and hygiene protocols. Discussions centered on CDC and OSHA guidelines and recommendations.

Taking temperatures, staggering starts, and other modifications

Sites began reopening in May, and most have since resumed. So what do they look like? The details vary slightly from project to project, but they typically include a core group of updates and changes. Most of them mirror the kinds of safeguards that can be found at many places where people now gather. These include:

  • Screening procedure – People admitted onto construction sites have to confirm that they do not have a fever by having their temperatures taken. They also have to answer a series of self-identifying questions indicating that they are symptom-free and have not been exposed to anyone with the virus.
  • Staggered starts – Workers from different trades arrive at job sites at different assigned times in the morning so as not to overwhelm the screening process and to prevent large groups from having to congregate in one place.
  • Personal protective equipment – Everyone has to wear a facemask, which sometimes has to be an N95 mask, as well as work gloves. In some cases, face shields are also specified.
  • Social distancing – Where possible, workers are required to remain six feet apart from others. For high-rise jobs, only five people are allowed in service elevators, including the operators, and they are asked to face away from one another.

It may sound like a lot, but those on the ground say that workers at job sites have gotten into a routine and have been able to carry on with their work without too much interruption.

“It’s different, no doubt, but we can adapt,” Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent, says. He notes that when he started, workers at construction sites didn’t always wear hardhats or safety glasses. With regulations and guidelines now universal, nobody gives donning items like that a second thought. “The masks we have to wear are just another piece of PPE,” adds Keady. “It’s a matter of safety. With COVID-19, we have to be aware of the conditions and deal with them to the best of our training.”

One thing that is different is the size of crews. To accommodate social distancing, there are often limits on the number of workers that can be together on a floor or in a space at any one time. According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, project timelines are longer because there are less people doing the work. While almost 100% of the jobs that the contractor had been working on have resumed, Dionne says he has less people in the field.

There is also the extra cost of conducting business. Contractors say that they often have to pay a premium for items such as N95 masks and disinfectant wipes that are in high demand and short supply. There is also the time and energy they have to spend sourcing the items.

There is a new normal at Local 12’s training center as well. With physical classes cancelled, the instructors have shifted to remote learning. The apprentices and teachers have adapted, but the situation is not ideal, says Rick Carter, the center’s director.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s unconventional for us,” Carter says. Much of the curriculum is developed around practical, hands-on instruction presented in a shop setting. Lessons like that do not translate well when presented online.

With the fall session slated to resume in September, Carter is hopeful that at least some of the classes can be held in person. “We don’t want to do remote unless it’s absolutely necessary,” the director says. The training center will keep an eye on how state guidelines progress for getting back in the classroom. It is possible that the session may be a hybrid of in-person and remote classes.

What might the future hold?

The pandemic has not only presented immediate health and safety concerns. It has also wreaked havoc with the economy and may lead to lasting changes that could have an impact on the region’s construction industry. After many years of unprecedented growth and expansion, there could be a pullback on new projects–or not.

“Medium-term, I don’t expect much to change,” says Ed Strickland, president of William M. Collins Company. “All of our contractors have a pretty good backlog of work. Longer-term, the impact remains to be seen.”

Dionne is bullish on the future. “I’m an optimist. I see things bouncing back,” he says. There has been speculation that with so many people working remotely as a result of the pandemic, the practice may become more ingrained and the demand for office space may decrease. Dionne isn’t so sure. “I think people want to be in social environments. Yes, people can work from home. But I don’t think we’re wired to work there for the rest of our careers.” Office towers and mixed-use projects that include office space have been driving much of the construction boom in the Boston area.

Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, is optimistic as well. “On the residential side, we see a significant lineup of projects and every indication that there will be more to come,” he says. “Talking with our contractors, they are bidding on plenty of new projects.”

Pandemic throws a wrench into building trades

The COVID-19 pandemic that emerged earlier this year turned life upside down for everybody. It brought the economy to its knees and had an impact on virtually every sector, including the construction industry. What had been an especially prolonged and robust boom cycle for the
region’s building trades came to an abrupt halt in mid-March when most major job sites
temporarily closed down.

Nearly all GBPCA contractors suddenly found themselves with little work. And Local 12 plumbers went from essentially full employment to about 80% unemployment almost overnight. Most sites have since reopened, although they have been operating under a new wave of regulations and restrictions.

The pandemic has presented a variety of unique and urgent challenges. For example, Local 12’s training center had to quickly replace in-person classes with remote learning. “In modern times–certainly in my lifetime–this has been unprecedented,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager.

As information about the pandemic started to emerge and evolve, everyone was trying to understand the coronavirus and evaluate its threat. When Boston Mayor Marty Walsh initially ordered the shutdown of construction sites in mid-March, it was unexpected, Fandel says. “As painful and disruptive as it has been,” he adds, “it seems like it was the right call. When we look back, the approach and the level of seriousness that the mayor, governor, and others have given this issue will be validated.”

Along with Boston, Cambridge and Somerville officials also shuttered construction sites around the same time. The three cities account for most of the major building projects in the region. Some construction did continue in other locations. And some public projects and others that were deemed essential remained open in Boston and elsewhere. But the impact from the pandemic response was far-reaching.

Contractors confront COVID fallout

According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, he went from 170 employees down to 50 as projects such as a mixed-use development at Somerville’s Assembly Row closed down. Some work continued in earnest, however.

“We were busier than ever with our office staff,” Dionne says, explaining that employees took advantage of the downtime to focus on upfront work such as coordination and computer design of projects. To accommodate staff members and allow enough room for social distancing, the company is seeking additional office space. Some employees have been working remotely from their homes.

Likewise, designers and budget managers at GBPCA contractor, William M. Collins Company, also decamped to their home offices while a skeleton crew held down the fort at its Braintree headquarters. Ed Strickland, the shop’s president, estimates that he furloughed about 80% of his crew when most of the company’s projects shut down. He credits the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for helping to cover overhead for the employees that remained.

“We didn’t have any income coming in,” Strickland says. “With a three-month gap, we’ve essentially cut out one quarter of our revenue for the year. With the PPP loan, we marched on.”

Training center adjusts

With the pandemic taking hold, the training center cancelled its classes in the middle of March. “We had to scramble to figure out what to do after we shut the doors,” Fandel says. “We had to shift gears quickly.”

According to Rick Carter, the training center’s director, he and his staff had been talking about introducing remote learning options for a while. Like many initiatives that may have otherwise taken months or years but were rapidly deployed due to the conditions imposed by the pandemic, the center began offering electronic classes by early April for the following session.

The United Association (UA), the national organization to which Local 12 belongs, has been working with the “Blackboard” online learning system and was promoting remote learning well before the pandemic. Local 12’s training center team was able to refer to UA instructional videos about how to use the system and other resources.

After a crash course in remote teaching, the center’s instructors moved online. “They worked tirelessly transferring info and getting up to speed,” Carter says. The center got the remote hours approved as fulfilling apprenticeship requirements. Thanks to the staff’s hard work, Local 12’s apprentices were able to complete the academic year by the end of June, and the fifth-year apprentices were able to graduate on time in May.

GBPCA and Local 12 step up to help the community

– Organizations donate $80,000 during pandemic

As the COVID-19 outbreak began causing havoc and disrupting the economy, Joe Valante, president of Valante Mechanical, was struck by the suffering it was causing. When he learned that many people suddenly didn’t have the money to buy groceries and saw that food banks were having great difficulty keeping up with demand, he thought that the plumbing industry should try and help out. As president of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), he sounded the call to his colleagues in the contractors’ organization as well as to their partners at Local 12.

They came through. Big time. Together, the two groups donated a total of $80,000 with half supporting the Greater Boston Food Bank and half going to the Boston Resiliency Fund.

“We owe our livelihood to Boston and the surrounding cities and towns,” Valante explains. “I think it’s only right to help the communities at a great time of need.” His plea resonated with his fellow contractors as the GBPCA’s board decided to double the contributions that were originally proposed.
The organization was able to provide the needed support “thanks to many years of responsible, conservative spending and forward thinking,” added Jeremy Ryan, GBPCA’s executive director.

Likewise, Local 12 officials responded to the call with equal enthusiasm by matching the donations. “We may not realize how challenging it can be for people to get necessities like food during difficult times,” says Tim Fandel, the local’s business manager. In addition to the making the monetary contributions, the union helped in other ways. For example, a group of Local 12 members distributed groceries at a food bank set up at the Boston Housing Authority. “We have a long history of supporting the community,” notes Fandel.

“We are very grateful for the incredible generosity of the Greater Boston PCA and the Plumbers and Gasfitters Local Union 12,” says Alisha Collins, the Greater Boston Food Bank’s director of corporate and community engagement.
The organization helps address food insecurity in the region, which has been compounded by the pandemic’s effect on the economy. Since March, the food bank has experienced the three largest distribution months in its 40-year history. “This donation will translate into 120,000 meals going to those who need it most and help to ensure that our operations can continue uninterrupted as we respond to historic levels of demand in our community,” Collins adds.

The Boston Resiliency Fund was established by Mayor Martin Walsh to provide food for children and seniors, technology for students engaged in remote learning, and support to first responders and healthcare workers in the city.

“The outpouring of support and generosity that we’ve seen from our partner organizations has been tremendous,” says Walsh. “I want to thank the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association and the Plumbers and Gasfitters Local Union 12 for their generous contribution, which will go a long way during this difficult time.”

In March, when there was a dire need for personal protective equipment (PPE) among frontline health care workers, the Boston area’s Building and Construction Trades Council organized a drive to collect respirators and other material. It encouraged industry workers and contractors to donate surplus equipment, including N95 masks, which is used at construction sites.

Spearheaded by Jim Vaughan, Local 12 business agent, the union donated boxes of N95 masks. Along with donations from other trades, the Boston Public Health Commission distributed the PPE to first responders and health care providers.

The benefits of being a Local 12 member during the pandemic

As the pandemic took hold, many people found themselves out of work and trying to adapt to unforeseen downtime. But Roger Gill, Local12’s Health and Welfare Fund administrator, and the staff he oversees in the organization’s benefits office were busier than ever.

That’s because the benefits that members receive–including health care–continue while they are unemployed.

When most major construction sites in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville were ordered closed in March, about 80% of Local 12’s members, through no fault of their own, were laid off. (Most have since returned to work as projects were allowed to resume.) Many of them used the opportunity to check in with the benefits office. Some had questions related to unemployment. Others updated info and resolved matters that they had been meaning to pursue.

The pandemic has created much uncertainty and stress for everyone. Many American workers who have been let go faced the double whammy of losing their job and scrambling to replace the healthcare benefits they suddenly lost. That wasn’t the case for Local 12 plumbers.

“Our medical insurance allows members to take that concern right off the table,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “It’s a level of anxiety they did not have. It’s hard to overstate the benefit.”

Once they have been working in Local 12 for one year, members are eligible for 12 months of continued healthcare coverage should they become unemployed. Those who were laid off in March due to COVID-19, therefore, would be covered through the end of March 2021.

Compare that to plumbers working for open-shop companies (as well as a large swath of employees in other types of work). They typically lose their employer-provided benefits and have to apply for COBRA health insurance, which can be costly. That could add insult to injury at a time when laid-off employees are dealing with financial uncertainty.

The union has members’ backs

When people are out of work, they generally have to go it alone. From applying for unemployment, to seeking health care alternatives, to being subjected to potentially shady financial advisors, to seeking new employment and reestablishing themselves at a different company, it can be overwhelming. It’s different at Local 12.

“Members have advocates here that work on behalf of them,” Gill says. “They have resources and someone to go to throughout their careers.” For example, those members that were laid off were able to get help navigating the process to apply for unemployment benefits.

The health insurance benefits that Local 12 offers compares favorably to those available at open-shop companies. Non-union workers often have to navigate a variety of options, some of which might include high-deductibles and may not be available for families. Local 12, however, has one comprehensive plan that is extended to members’ families, includes medical, prescription, vision, and dental coverage, has generally lower co-pays and deductibles, and features more robust plan benefits, including a $50,000 life insurance policy for active members.

In addition to health insurance coverage provided through retirement and a Medicare supplement, members also have a local union-defined benefit pension plan, a national union-defined benefit plan, a defined contribution pension plan, and Social Security benefits that allow them to retire with security and dignity.

Another benefit that Local 12 provides is counseling services. With all of the anxiety and stress-related issues caused by the pandemic, members were able to receive counseling via online telehealth sessions. Because of the camaraderie that Local 12 engenders, members were also able to turn to one another. “Informally, we sometimes step into the role of counselor,” Fandel says, referring to the sympathetic ear he and the business agents offer to members.

Gill notes that he has been through downturns before, including the recession of the early 1990s, the 2002 tech bubble burst, and the 2008 real estate market and banking collapse. “Nobody can prepare for these,” he says. But, he notes with optimism, people in Local 12 weathered those storms and will weather the COVID-19 pandemic “thanks to generations of strong leadership and top-notch employers. We’ve been around for 130 years. We’re not going anywhere.”

Patrick Mulkerrin Local 12 business agent

Local 12 welcomes Patrick Mulkerrin as business agent

To fill the business agent position vacated by Tim Fandel, Local 12 members elected Patrick Mulkerrin earlier this year. Fandel is serving as the local’s business manager.

Mulkerrin is the first plumber in his family, but not the first union member. “That’s what we do in my family,” he says, noting that his father is a laborer and his grandfather was business manager of the laborers local.

Growing up, Mulkerrin says that his family did most of the repairs and work at their house. He remembers pitching in with projects such as rebuilding the deck and replacing water heaters and says that he was always handy and interested in the trades.

To help pay for college, Mulkerrin worked nights doing construction. While on the job, he became fascinated by and drawn to the mechanical trades. “Seeing a project start from nothing and watch as the whole system got built was almost like artwork,” Mulkerrin recalls. He decided not to return to college and pursued plumbing as a career instead.

Joining Local 12 in 2006, Mulkerrin apprenticed with GBPCA contractor, Kennedy Mechanical, and worked on the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, one of the first major projects in the Seaport District. He says he loved the trade from the start. “I had fun every day and came home smiling.”

The Great Recession intervened in 2008 and temporarily derailed Mulkerrin’s apprenticeship. He was out of work for ten months. The experience, which illustrated the sometimes-cyclical nature of the construction industry, left a deep impression on him. He returned to work and finished his apprenticeship with Cannistraro.

Soon after becoming a journeyman, Mulkerrin got involved with Local 12 and was appointed to the Joint Conference Board, which is comprised of both union officers and contractors. That gave him the opportunity to meet and work with many GBPCA contractors and get to know the management side of the business.

Mulkerrin subsequently ran for and was elected recording secretary for Local 12, was a delegate for the New England pipe trades at the 2016 United Association (UA) convention, and then got the nod as the local’s vice president. When the UA asked former business manager Harry Brett to serve as its special representative in New England, the local appointed Mulkerrin as interim business agent at the start of 2020. He was elected to the position in February.

Soon after Mulkerrin became a business agent, the pandemic created chaos and caused 80% unemployment among Local 12 members because of construction site shutdowns. It’s been something of an extreme trial by fire.

“There’s nothing in any UA manual to prepare anybody for this,” Fandel says, referring to the COVID-19 crisis. “Nonetheless, Patrick has been extremely focused and engaged. He is doing a great job despite the circumstances.”

For his part, Mulkerrin says that he knew business agents assisted members, but he didn’t realize the extent of the involvement—especially amid the pandemic. At the height of the layoffs, the business agents were kept busy helping members navigate the unemployment system and apply for benefits.

The most frustrating fallout from the pandemic has been the inability to meet face-to-face with members, Mulkerrin says. With in-person union meetings cancelled and most other communication limited to text messages, Facebook posts, phone calls, and other remote means, it’s been difficult for the new business agent.

“I look forward to things retuning to normal,” says Mulkerrin. “I want to meet people at the hall and have personal interactions where we can be with one another.”

Tim Fandel at Local 12 Boston

Tim Fandel takes the reins at Local 12

When the United Association appointed Harry Brett, Local 12’s business manager, to the position of special representative for the New England region, that left a leadership void at the union. In early 2020, the membership elected Tim Fandel to head Local 12. For the new business manager, the role was many years–and generations–in the making.

Plumbing and Local 12 are something of a tradition in the Fandel family. Tim’s dad, Hank, now retired, worked as a Local 12 plumber and taught the trade at a vocational school. Tim’s uncle and Hank’s brother, Jack, was also a plumber and served as the director of the local’s training center. Tim’s grandfather and Hank’s father, William J. Fandel II, was a plumber and was one of the first Local 12 members to draw a pension when it became available in the mid-1950s. Tim’s great-grandfather, William J. Fandel, began the tradition. He emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the late 1880s and found work as a plumber. Tim’s brothers, Hank Jr. and Sean, and his cousin, Danny Weeder, are also Local 12 members.

Fandel has childhood memories of his father and uncle putting on their sport coats to attend union meetings. (That was back in the day when people would get dressed up for such occasions.) “At first, I didn’t know what the heck they did at union meetings,” he says. “As I got older, however, I slowly understood more about Local 12 and unions and the impact they had on me and our family. They were lessons to be learned.”

Despite his family’s ties to the industry, Fandel says that he didn’t think about plumbing or other construction trades while he was in high school. He did, however, consider a career as a chef and was accepted to Johnson & Wales, the culinary school in Rhode Island. Fandel instead opted to get a job (although he still loves cooking for his family and friends), and in 1982 went to work for Streeter Plumbing and Heating. He also went to school nights to get his plumbing license. His dad was the instructor. It was also his father who gave Tim the phone number of Irving Streeter and handed his son old tools that had been used by generations of Fandels.

Although he had no hands-on experience, Fandel quickly acclimated and enjoyed the work. Streeter Plumbing, based in Winthrop, did mostly residential projects including service, new construction, and kitchen and bath remodeling. It allowed Fandel to develop a broad base of skills.

He became a Local 12 member in 1983. As was the convention back then, Fandel was indentured to one shop, Maurer Sforza Plumbing and Pipefitting in Needham, for the duration of his four-year apprenticeship. His first project, which lasted three years, was a large research and development facility at Harvard University. Joe Croce, who now leads Local 12’s retirees, was the job’s foreman. After he got his journeyman’s license in 1987 and his master’s license a year later, Fandel stayed with Maurer Sforza. He later went to work for larger shops including J.F. Shine Mechanical and American Plumbing and Heating.

Soon after he joined Local 12, Fandel got involved in the organization’s politics. “It’s what the plumbers in my family did,” he explains. “There is a sense of giving back to the union and to the industry. There are probably few positions in the local that I haven’t held.” The experience gave him a broad-based understanding of the union. It also allowed him to develop ties with many of the local’s leaders, who encouraged him to run for office. In 2006, he tossed his hat into the ring and was elected as a business agent, a position he held for 14 years.

During many of those years, he worked alongside Brett, who was also a business agent before he was elected as Local 12’s business manager in 2013. “He’s been my partner every step of the way,” Brett says, referring to his successor and friend. “Tim has a wonderful way of dealing with people. He’s not afraid to act. He’s the right guy and the members know it.”

Coming into the role of business manager, Fandel inherited a good working relationship with the plumbing contractors that employ Local 12 members. He considers himself lucky and credits Brett for nurturing the relationship. Fandel thinks it is critical for both parties that they work together amicably, and knows that it’s not always the case for labor groups and the companies that hire them. “It’s one of the great strengths for both the local and the contractors,” Fandel says.

“We take pride in our ability to collaborate on issues with shared goals and shared perspectives. We sometimes agree to disagree–without being disagreeable. We’ve always been able to resolve issues through communication, respect, and an understanding of our shared history. The fruits of out positive relationship are easy to see. We do things as partners. Unfortunately, some people find that unusual,” notes Fandel, referring to the stereotypes often associated with unions and management. “It should be the rule, not the exception.”

Jeremy Ryan, the executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association, supports Fandel’s outlook and looks forward to working collaboratively with the business manager. “Tim is a voice of reason and has a calming influence. His mentality of always trying to find common ground makes him invaluable,” he says. “I see our industry moving forward and growing boundlessly under Tim’s leadership.”

Although the construction industry has enjoyed a long period of growth and prosperity, Fandel says that he remains bullish about the future and points to economic engines such as the healthcare, education, and research and development markets that make the Boston region uniquely positioned to weather potential downturns. In addition, he calls out some especially large projects, such as Cambridge Crossing, Harvard University’s development in Allston, the Bulfinch Crossing complex in Government Center, and the Suffolk Downs redevelopment that all have long buildout plans and will keep Local 12 members working for decades.

“I remain cautiously optimistic,” Fandel says. “But I think we need to be diligent and vigilant about plotting our own course. To that end, he hopes that the signatory contractors with which the local works will refocus on public work projects such as major high schools and other government-funded development. Fandel believes there is a lot of opportunity to expand in that sector, and that public work tends to continue regardless of prevailing economic winds.

As for the residential division that Brett launched, the new business manager sees nothing but growth there. There are many transit-oriented projects being built near MBTA stations, especially in areas outside Boston. He would like to chase more of that work and wants to increase the number of signatory plumbing contractors that do residential construction.

“We all know construction is cyclical,” notes Fandel. “But I see residential construction, residential service, and service for commercial and other markets as being right in our wheelhouse. This kind of work can insulate us to a degree should the economy falter.”

“Tim will do a great job,” Brett attests. “I think he will help Local 12 continue to grow and expand.”

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.