A More Civil Union: Big Oil and Labor Learning to Get Along

American Petroleum Institute CEO, Jack Gerard


Sitting down to eat barbecue at the Pipefitters Local 211 union hall in Houston, American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard may have looked out of place. However, with as many as 500,000 new jobs to find workers for in the Gulf Coast region (by the year 2020), the expectation that big company management and labor will forever be at odds is getting called into question.  

Trade unions have a proven track record of preparing qualified workers for large-scale projects through their rich history and devoted apprenticeship programs. And energy leaders like Jack Gerard are taking note with a boom in their industry so big that drill wells, new refineries and chemical plants are cropping up like grocery stores. A new partnership is being forged that will keep both sides happy for the foreseeable future.  

Jack Gerard was joined by other energy industry officials and corporate representatives with a stake in the Gulf’s surge on a tour of the construction union’s training facility because, as he put it, ”We want to explore ways to work together.”

Southern unions are evolving and putting themselves in position to help supply the energy industry with labor in a time of need. Union organizer Don Booth explained some of the long-term changes that have enabled his union to work side by side with management to help reshape the future of the Gulf Coast economy:

…Pipefitters Local 211 has undergone massive changes in its business practices by eliminating cumbersome work rules, instituting a no-strike clause and ditching seniority traditions.

The contract used to be an inch and a half thick, union organizer Don Booth said, recalling the 1970s, when the Johnny Paycheck rendition of ”Take This Job and Shove It” was a working-class anthem. Now it’s about one-eighth of an inch thick.

The contract has a no-strike clause, said Booth, who also teaches welding in the apprenticeship school. If there is a disagreement – over money, typically – both sides take the issue to an arbitration board.

The six-member board, with three management and three labor representatives, listens to the evidence and makes a binding decision. The last time the union won its case for a raise, negotiators for both sides went out and played golf, Booth said.

It’s important to build those relationships, he said. The union wants to make sure its members earn a decent wage and it also wants the contractors to expand.

”If they don’t make money, we don’t have jobs,” he said. ”I think the industrial side is beginning to see that.”  

Apprenticeship programs that feature on-the-job training and classroom study are likely to be the biggest winners in this newly formed relationship. Rapidly and reliably expanding the base of workers that will make up the next generation of skilled tradesmen and women is a vital piece of what the unions have to offer. When the jobs come, guys like Jack Gerard want to be ready.

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