SMWIA's Mike Sullivan (center) talking with contractors including Willis Warburton, Tougher Sheet Metal, Albany, N.Y. (right).

BIG ISLAND, Hawaii - "Controlling the relevant work force," was the message Michael J. Sullivan, president of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) conveyed to a crowd of contractors and business owners here at SMACNA's annual Labor Forum.

The head of this 150,000-member union entered the lion's den here with surprising magnanimity. There were times in the past when relations were strained between management and the union. Today, work is abundant and controversial issues are fewer. Sullivan was warmly received by fellow Hoosier and SMACNA president Phil Meyers, of Bright Sheet Metal, Indianapolis, whom he has known for 25 years.

However, there was some open concern about the flow of new workers into the workplace in this tight job market. One contractor, for example, told Snips he would like the opportunity to recruit his own workers, rather than relying on the local union hall to provide them. Some jobs are going unbid, he said, because there simply isn't enough manpower available to do the work.

Sullivan said the union is working to reduce the shortage of skilled labor, but at the same time insisted, "We want to be the only game in town." It is the role of the SMWIA, he maintained, to provide contractors with the necessary number of workers.

As an example, he said in Indianapolis there was a case where one worker at age 35, let go after 10 years in a factory job, wanted to begin a union apprenticeship program but wasn't allowed to because of an age cap. The rule was changed, and that worker was allowed to enter the apprenticeship program.

Older workers

As for older workers, it was also suggested that those who have already retired be allowed to come back into the workforce temporarily if they choose, perhaps to train younger workers, without having to recalculate their retirement benefits.

Sullivan said initiation fees have also been reduced, where warranted, to encourage more people to enter the trade. "One local was charging a $2,000 fee, but after working with them we had it reduced to $25," Sullivan said.

The union has also posted its job bank on the World Wide Web ( Workers interested in relocating can access this site to search for job availability in other states and other areas.

Sullivan also said SMWIA will make a concerted move into organizing roofers -and not just those involved in metal roofing. In the U.S., only 10% of the workforce is union, he said, versus around 80% in Canada.

Asked how the SMWIA might succeed where others have failed in organizing roofers, Sullivan said the necessary manpower is available to do so.

He also said he would like to see current union members involved more in the service sector.

In response to improving the image of the sheet metal worker, in part to attract more young people into the trade, Sullivan said the union would even consider a name change if that would help. He also suggested that contractors might look to the influx of recent Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants to fill their manpower needs.