New Leaders Build Profile of Skilled Trades

BOARDMAN, Ohio — Rocky DiGennaro Jr., Carlton K. Ingram and Tony DiTommaso Jr. approached Mark Munroe Sept. 13 and extended their right hands to shake his in a setting Munroe rarely visits, the union hall of Teamsters Local 377.

Munroe was in the audience of 40 or so businessmen, professionals, officeholders and union officers who support the efforts of the Mahoning County Coalition for Job Growth and Investment to defeat amending the charter of the city of Youngstown Nov. 8 in an attempt to ban fracking.

All three labor leaders handed the chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party their new business cards that identify them as the new president, vice president and secretary-treasurer of the Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council. The council consists of 18 union locals in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties who represent some 10,000 skilled tradesmen.

While DiGennaro is a Democrat – as are Ingram and DiTommaso – he and Munroe aren’t strangers. “Rocky is my neighbor,” Munroe says. He applauded their outreach, part of the new building trades leadership’s effort to make themselves and their unions more visible and open in the Valley.

“There’s no good reason why the skilled trades and Republicans shouldn’t be good friends,” Munroe says.

“Thirty-five to 40% of our membership is Republican,” Ingram ventures, a statistic that flies in the face of a widespread misperception that the rank and file votes as a monolithic bloc and as instructed by union bosses.

Ingram is also a business agent for Local 66 of the Operating Engineers union. He is responsible for its members in the Mahoning Valley.

“We’re working to educate both parties,” says DiTommaso, also president of Local 171 of the Carpenters union, about issues of concern to both his local and the building trades.

One is the importance of collecting the income taxes owed cities where skilled tradesmen work temporarily on a project, whether a building under construction or repairing infrastructure such as roads and bridges.

“Cities don’t always collect all the taxes owed,” DiTommaso explains, “because of payroll fraud. When elected officials realize how much revenue they’re losing, they’ll be more receptive.”

A contractor or subcontractor engages in fraud when he has five full-time workers on a project but reports the wages of only two, DiTommaso explains. Local governments lack the staff to regularly visit and monitor construction sites; they take the word of the contractor – they submit written reports after the work is complete – and so it isn’t hard to escape detection.

Most fraud is reported by business agents who visit the construction sites to ensure safe work conditions for all workers at the site and that all are paid correctly for the type of work they perform.

The shortfalls many local governments face when they prepare their budgets would be greatly reduced, if not closed, Ingram says, if they made it a point to enforce the law.

Also of concern to the building trades unions is enforcement of prevailing wage laws. “We’re still having [enforcement] issues,” DiTommaso says, and for the same reason, lack of inspection at worksites, “It’s easy to cheat on prevailing wage and it hurts everyone,” he states. Local governments might save on construction costs, he says, but the quality of the project suffers and costs more in the long run.

“It’s a matter of educating elected officials that the savings aren’t what they think,” he says.

The economic impact on the Valley of the 10,000 skilled tradesmen – carpenters, plumbers, structural ironworkers, Teamsters, sheet metal workers, roofers, painters, electricians, cement masons, bricklayers, millwrights and pile drivers, operating engineers and laborers – is far greater than most residents realize, Ingram notes.

The average annual wage “is $50,000,” he says, “probably more. So the value is $500 million.”

Adds DiTommaso, “When elected officials realize how many of us there are, they’re more receptive to what we contribute to the economy.”

The General Motors complex in Lordstown is the largest single employer in the Valley with 4,000 members of the United Auto Workers, he says, and is more visible, but the building trades have far more members.

For too long, DiGennaro, Ingram and DiTommaso say, unions have taken heat for fighting for the best interests of their members. “There’s a misperception that we’re handed everything,” says DiGennaro, business agent for Local 125 of the Laborers International union.

Yes, skilled tradesmen have negotiated contracts to be paid between $22 and more than $30 an hour. But the weather dictates when and how long they work. “We need to make hay while the sun shines,” DiGennaro says, that is, in warm weather. His members can do very little outdoors when it’s cold and snow covers the ground, so they have to spread what they earn in seven to nine months over 12 months.

And even in warmer temperatures, “We’re in the third-most dangerous field of work,” he says. “We work in any weather except lightning. If I want my kids to eat, we have to be out there.”

The building trades have their own apprenticeship programs paid for entirely by employer contributions negotiated through collective bargaining.

“The educational needs of our members have changed,” DiTommaso says.

Technology has greatly reduced the need for brute strength, adds DiGennaro. “My father [also once an officer of Local 125] used to tell me, ‘They work me from the neck down.’ That’s no longer true.”

Unions, including the building trades, “stand for work equality, man or woman, regardless of race,” Ingram states, and strive to open doors to types of work once the domain of men. So an increasing number of women have become journeymen and are enrolling in the apprenticeship programs, all report.

The building trades give back to their communities, something DiGennaro, Ingram and DiTommaso would like to see their members get more recognition for.

“We’re always willing to help out,” DiGennaro begins, citing the United Way’s Day of Caring.

The Carpenters have built wheelchair ramps on private residences, DiTommaso adds, volunteering their labor on weekends and using wood donated by lumber companies.

Local 10 of the Bricklayers union and Laborers Local 125 have built dugouts for Little League and high school baseball teams including Niles McKinley and Western Reserve high schools, DiGennaro says.

The skilled trades helped to rebuild the American Legion Post 472 at 323 E. Indianola Ave. when the old building had to be razed and replaced, he adds.

With the Greenford Christian Church, DiGennaro says, Sam Pitzulo Homes provided the materials in its renovation while Laborers contributed their efforts, including “tearing out a tree and replanting it.”

At Monument Park & Veterans’ Memorial in downtown Warren, the Jack Gibson Construction Co. furnished the stone for the wall dedicated to veterans and Local 935 of the Laborers union installed it.

“You ask us, we’ll help,” DiGennaro promises.

The building trades are about economic development, the labor leaders say. “We want to work [as partners] with the public and private sectors,” Ingram says, in the comeback of the Valley.

They’re confident about its future, a confidence bolstered by “All crafts are taking new apprentices nearly every month,” the operating engineer reports, an indicator that word is getting out that college is not needed to earn a good living. “We’re getting our apprentices in,” he says, and they’re learning and mastering the skills they need.

“Nobody can beat us at our own trade,” DiGennaro says.

Pictured: Tony DiTommaso Jr., Rocky DiGennaro Jr. and Carlton K. Ingram hold the original charter for the Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council. The labor leaders are the council’s newly elected officers.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.