Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 29, 2013

Building the brotherhood

Carpenter'sLocal 615 is signing up contractors.

By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — At Local 615 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, Chet Fincher is seeing success.

Over the past two years, the local trade union’s business representative said eight new companies have signed agreements with the local, putting union carpenters on projects around a seven-county area in North Central Indiana.

There’s no doubt the wage scale is different for union carpenters, but like any trades union, Local 615 touts cost savings on the back end for customers — shorter construction times, fewer mistakes, fewer on-the-job issues.

And with construction activity picking up in 2012 and 2013, Fincher said more companies are looking for quality workers to get projects done.

“I think the exciting point is that people think trades unions are kind of going by the wayside, and aren’t needed,” Fincher said. “Some people don’t even realize we’re here. But we’ve just been really aggressive in putting ourselves out there.”

Membership hasn’t varied wildly at Local 615, even through the recession, dipping from around 270 pre-recession to 252 today, Fincher said.

The biggest difference for members has been in the amount of work available, and for several years, the recession ground nearly everything to a halt. In 2006, more than 2,500 people were employed in construction trades in Howard and Tipton counties; by mid-2009, that number had been cut in half.

Since then, the trades have picked up around 200 more workers in that area, and the carpenter’s union has benefitted.

Most of their work is on commercial building sites, Fincher said. Market conditions in the residential home building sector won’t allow for union wages, which are $24.52 an hour in this area, plus health and retirement benefits.

That’s definitely a living wage in a low-wage area like Kokomo, where private sector weekly earnings are now roughly half what they were pre-recession.

Fincher estimates the union has agreements with perhaps 35 percent to 40 percent of the companies employing carpenters in his area, which includes Tipton, Howard, Grant, Miami, Cass, Fulton and Wabash counties. The goal for Local 615 is to get 70 percent of those companies signed on.

He’s also working on getting high school students interested in the trade, offering a route to an associate’s degree through Ivy Tech State College for anyone completing a four-year apprenticeship, which includes four courses through Ivy Tech, and the opportunity to learn while earning a living.

For companies, the union can offer kind of a built-in human resources function, where workers are vetted and trained before ever setting foot on a job site.

“I love to clear up misconceptions about the union,” Fincher said. “If a guy isn’t being productive on a job site, the contractor isn’t required to keep him.”

So far, the union has added four workers from a 2012 low, but Fincher said his goal is adding 50 more.

“We’re starting to come back up, and sign up new contractors,” Fincher said. “It’s not as much as we’d like to see, but if you can weather the storm we’ve had in these parts for the past four years, and be up four members, that’s not bad.”

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569, scott.smith@kokomotribune.com, or on Twitter, @JasonSSmith1.