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.”

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.