Local union merges with Seattle chapter
A recent merger with the Seattle plasterers and cement masons union bodes well for apprentices, workers and for the future of the union in Alaska.
The Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 867 obtained its original charter in 1972. In July, the group merged with the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association Local 528 in part to reduce overhead costs but also to increase the potential work year for members and enhance the apprenticeship program for incoming union members.
“There seems to be a shortage of seasoned journeymen,” said Scott Davis, OPCM’s deputy business manager. “I think across the board, a lot of unions are beefing up their programs for apprenticeships because there is a demand.”
Davis, who has been the union’s deputy business manager in Anchorage for three years, said merging with the Local 528 hasn’t changed a lot for local union members. The Seattle office will handle administrative duties such as payroll and paying bills, but the roughly 150 union members in Alaska still have representation in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Pat Brashler, operations manager with Bradshaw and Associates, a commercial subcontractor in Anchorage, said merging with the Seattle union
is helpful on larger jobs as well, simply by virtue of
increasing the pool of skilled workers.
“Plastering is not really a lost art, but it takes quite a bit of training to be a skilled laborer. We’re able to get that help from Scott up here, and if we need more (workers) we’re able to pull from Seattle. We’ve completed quite a few jobs that we wouldn’t have been able to do if we didn’t have that manpower,” Brashler said.
In other states, plasterers and cement masons often lay bricks or work on interior lath-and-plaster work, but in Alaska brick jobs and even cement block work are not common and most interior walls are sheetrock. OPCM members in Alaska do a lot of EIFS — External Insulation and Finish System work — on exteriors. Cement workers rely less on masonry and more on concrete work such as swimming pools, curb and gutter, bridges and the like.
Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in the Valley was a job on which the OPCM installed EIFS panels, Brashler said. Bradshaw is currently working on StayBridge Suites in Midtown Anchorage, another EIFS job.
Brashler said one of the most successful aspects of the union under Davis’ direction has been a market recovery program, in which union workers put a portion of their pay into a fund in an effort to target jobs that will keep them working during the winter.
“(Using the fund) we can compete with nonunion companies on jobs that aren’t necessarily Davis-Bacon jobs,” Brashler said. The money comes out of the benefit plan instead of out of hourly wages.
“It’s really worked well for everybody,” he said.
Strength in numbers
Working as a plasterer or cement mason is not an easy job, and it’s a hard one to do year round and for a life-long career.
“I kind of equate our trade and iron workers,” Davis said. “It’s physically demanding.”
Training new workers is important to the union and to the employers who rely on the union for workers. It’s not as simple as accepting apprentices, training them and sending them out into the workforce. Some apprentices decide the challenging work is not what they want in a career, Davis said. And in Alaska, the season is typically pretty short, with more than 80
percent of the work happening during the summer months.
That’s where the connection to Seattle is vital, said Kenn Johnson, OPCM business agent and apprenticeship coordinator. Apprentices can train year-round in Seattle, although they have to find their own room and board, and their hours transfer seamlessly. Johnson said with help from the Seattle office and a grant that pays Johnson to focus on the apprenticeship program 15 hours each month for six months of the year, the program is thriving.
“We’ve tripled the acceptance. Before, we had one, two people in the Fairbanks area and five to eight in the Anchorage area,” he said. This year, the union will accept between 12 and 20 applicants.
More applicants are interested, too, he said, thanks to more advertising about the apprenticeship program and a greater effort to get the word out. With dedicated time able to be spent on the program, he said, it’s possible to cultivate new interest.
Gaining skills on site
Having a field of new skilled workers is crucial, said Chuck McHenry, Alaska Division Manager with Finishing Edge Concrete. McHenry and Brashler both sit on the board of trustees overseeing the apprenticeship-training program.
Finishing Edge handles highprofile projects that Anchorage drivers use on a daily basis: the Klatt Road roundabout, the Glenn Highway/Muldoon Road interchange, improvements on Seward Highway and O’Malley Road and on Spenard Road at Turnagain Boulevard. The company is geared for large projects, both civil and commercial, McHenry said.
Finishing Edge typically runs five crews in the summer, with an OPCM apprentice on each one. Finishing Edge also works with the Laborers and Carpenters unions, he said.
“We have some who are thirdyear apprentices now and some that come out of the hall and are brand new and don’t know anything,” McHenry said.
Generally it works out, he said; new apprentices learn on the go and gradually work up to jobs that require more skill. If not, McHenry said, his company might ask that the hall send out a different apprentice.
“We’re pretty high-performance. We’re all about teaching these kids and helping them out,” he said. As long as the apprentice has a good work ethic, McHenry said his company is happy to help them learn.
It has worked out well for the company. One of his foremen came up through the apprenticeship program, he said.
“We have a good relationship with them,” McHenry said of the union. “Ever since I’ve been here it’s been pretty seamless.”
Rindi White is managing editor of The Alaska Contractor.