Times certainly have changed since Kinsey Robinson was earning $3.56 per hour working for Spokane Roofing Co., Spokane, Wash. Now, a starting wage for a union roofing worker is about $16 per hour plus $6 in medical and pension benefits, and Robinson—the newly elected president of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers—is helping that worker earn every penny.
"I want contractors and owners to know the union represents the best-trained, quality-conscious and productive roofing contractors in the world," he says.
Elected in April to a term that expires in October 2008, Robinson follows the presidency of John Martini, who recently retired after three years, and the long reign of Earl Kruse, who retired after 18 years. Kruse and Martini paved the way for Robinson, who intends to build on the worker training programs that began during the Kruse years and increase the recruitment efforts Martini made a priority.
"Earl really ramped up our training programs and should get credit for that," Robinson says. "John built an organizing campaign that caused our membership to increase. I'm just following up where they were headed."
To do that, Robinson has restructured the union staff a bit. First, he put longtime union training and education expert Bob Krul into an expanded role to oversee not only worker training but safety and health issues, too. Krul also will oversee national maintenance agreements and will be developing new agreements to allow signatory employers to bid work that previously was unavailable to them.
In addition, Jim Hadel has been charged with market development. Hadel will continue to improve labor-management issues, as well as devote considerable time to recruiting new union members.
And progress is being made. The union is set to release its new foreman training program in 2007, as well as a revised built-up roofing manual. On the recruiting side, the union actively is stepping up relations with employers.
"We want the opportunity to showcase what the union is all about," he says. "We have to be flexible as a union to not only claim the work but also show that our guys are trained."
Robinson, similar to his predecessors, has a wealth of roofing experience. He began his career at Spokane Roofing, which is where he first became involved with the union through his local chapter.
"I had a sincere curiosity about democracy in the workplace," he says.
He served two terms on the local union's executive board and then became business manager. Soon after, he was elected president of the Washington State Building Trades before becoming involved with the national office, serving as an international representative. During these years, Robinson's desire to continue his education pushed him to earn degrees in economics and labor studies while continuing his work for the union.
In 1985, Robinson was elected secretary-treasurer of the national union, a position he held for 21 years until he was elected president.
With all his years of involvement with the union and roofing industry, it's natural for industry players to wonder whether Robinson will be a longtime president like Kruse or stay for a shorter period like Martini.
"I don't think I can accomplish all I want to in one term, which is why I would like to run for a second term," Robinson explains.
"But I don't want to say how long I'll be around," he continues, laughing.
Although Robinson's agenda clearly is defined and focused on training and recruitment, the union cannot operate in a vacuum and ignore other challenges affecting the roofing industry as a whole.
For example, union contractors, similar to open-shop contractors, have a vested interest in seeing legislation favorable to immigrant workers pass Congress.
"The union agrees with the McCain-Kennedy bill in principal," Robinson says. "Workers have to be allowed to stay in this country, or we will face a great disruption in the work force—both union and nonunion. The immigration law needs to provide for a sufficient number of work visas per year—much more than it does now."
According to Robinson, 45 percent of the union work force is Spanish-speaking, and that number has been constant for some time.
The other labor issue facing the industry is an aging work force. All contractors are struggling to attract new workers to an industry where the average age is continuing to rise.
"Our records are clear that entry age in the union is 29 years old," Robinson explains. "This has climbed from an average age of 24 years old 20 years ago, but it has been stable for the past four years. Of course, we have to take into account people who join the union tend to be older because they often join after having been in the roofing industry for some time. Nevertheless, the average age of a worker is climbing for everyone."
To help contend with these issues, Robinson says he wants the union to work even more closely with NRCA.
"One of my first actions as president was to fly to Chicago to meet with Bill Good, NRCA's executive vice president," Robinson says. "Because NRCA represents union and nonunion employers, it historically has been regarded by both sides as an impediment to finding a real middle ground. However, I think the organizations can work together, particularly on legislative issues."
As Robinson prepares for the hectic life of union president, he knows he has to trust his officers and staff members.
"I like a decentralized style," he says. "I allow the staff to use their best judgment and set reasonable objectives to get the job done. Bob Danley, the new secretary-treasurer, complements me and brings a new energy to the organization."
With a strong team in place, Robinson is ready to face the challenges of the industry and fulfill his goals for his term, as well as look toward the future.
"My great hope is that we'll see technological advances in equipment that not only will improve productivity but increase safety," he says. "I want our workers to be able to come home to their families with their health intact and their employers more profitable."
Ambika Puniani Bailey is editor of Professional Roofing magazine and NRCA's director of communications.