Henry Spitzmiller, SMWIA Local 36.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The future of the union sheet metal industry may lie in the residential service market and the large numbers of immigrant workers now entering the profession.

Those were some of the messages Sheet Metal Workers International Association and Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association leaders stressed during the SMWIA-SMACNA Labor-Management Partnership Conference, held March 3-5 at Walt Disney World.

The biennial gathering was established in 2000 to promote better communication among SMWIA union workers and the SMACNA member companies who employ them.

At this year's conference, market share and recruitment of workers were the hot topics. The seminar "Building a Residential Market" encouraged more SMACNA contractors to consider expanding into hvac sales and service.

The hvac residential market, including service add-on and replacement work, is one that too few contractors are pursuing, said John Beaulieu, business manager for SMWIA Local 10, which covers Minnesota and the Dakotas.

"In my areas, I don't think we have 25% of the residential market," Beaulieu said. He blamed a lack of available manpower and the fact that Local 10 did not actively try to recruit residential sheet metal workers 20 years ago.

Many SMACNA contractors may not be aware just how lucrative the residential market can be, said George "Butch" Welsch, president of Welsch Heating and Cooling in St. Louis. Welsch expanded into the service/replacement market in 1988. Today, up to 35% of the company's annual sales come from the service and add-on market. Welsch employs 16 residential technicians who handle more than 100 calls a day and six add-on/replacement crews.

Welsch said the residential work has kept his firm busy. "It's like the recession bypassed St. Louis and we can't figure out why. We built right through it," he said.

However, adding residential workers can present complications for SMACNA and SMWIA officials, since contracts often have to be amended or renegotiated for the residential employees. Under many contracts, residential workers earn less than their commercial counterparts.

Tommy Fuller (left) Business Manager SMWIA Local 5 Knoxville and John Wilson, Local 67, San Antonio.

Crossing borders

SMWIA and SMACNA officials are also looking beyond North America for the union's newest possible members. For both groups' long-term health, the union needs to recruit more recent U.S. immigrants to the sheet metal industry, which was the message of "Recruiting and Organizing in a Multicultural Society."

"We will not succeed if we don't go after them," said Luther Medina, an organizer for Corona, Calif.-based SMWIA Local 105.

It's a sentiment being echoed in union halls across the nation. After years of fighting the rising numbers of foreign workers on U.S. soil, long seen as taking jobs from dues-paying union crews, labor groups are turning to immigrants as a largely untapped source of new members.

Consider this: In 2000, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) launched an ongoing campaign for the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants. And some labor groups, such as the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, are mostly comprised of immigrants.

With union membership in the construction industry at near-record lows, it only makes sense to seek out immigrant workers, one of the sector's fasting growing segments, said Michael Small, SMWIA director of organization.

Millions of immigrants from Vietnam, Mexico and elsewhere seek work and residence in the U.S. each year. "You're not going to stop it," Small said. "(It's) what's coming in the 21st century."

A growing trend

Many immigrants seek employment in occupations in which they already have experience. The sheet metal industry is no exception to this influx of foreign workers. While the SMWIA's Washington, D.C. headquarters does not keep statistics on the ethnic makeup of its national membership, leaders from Local 105 - with its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border - estimate up to 40% of the group's 6,000 members in its territory are minorities.

Local 105 has been one of the SMWIA's most active recruiters of minority and immigrant workers. In the last three years, the union has signed approximately 30 sheet metal shops, ranging in size from five to 150 employees. Key to its organizing strategy, Medina said, is a belief that all workers, regardless of their nationality, have much in common.

"Sheet metal is sheet metal," he said. "It's the same all over the world. Some of the technologies may be different in some parts of the world? but the trade is basically the same." Many of the sheet metal workers in Local 105's territory come from Mexico, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union.

However, even if the work they do is the same, their language and culture is often very different. To overcome the communication problems, Medina and other Local 105 organizers try to learn about the immigrants' backgrounds, even taking language classes if necessary. Many of the workers are suspicious of people they do not know, and talking to the workers in their native language, even if the immigrants know some English, helps build rapport, he said.

"(Many immigrants) are family oriented," he said. "So one of the things you have to do (is) develop that trust."

The union has made organizing foreign workers nationwide a top priority. The SMWIA sponsors Cinco de Mayo celebrations in communities with a large Hispanic population and offers free English lessons to recent immigrants. "Just because we can't speak the language doesn't mean we can't organize them," Medina said.

It has also joined with unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Teamsters to eliminate jurisdictional boundaries that hampered past recruiting efforts. Now the SMWIA is turning its focus to immigrant workers in other industries. Small said the union is actively trying to organize laborers in construction, manufacturing and the service sector.