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ON THE LEVEL: 18 months into leading trade association, Kowalski finds himself faced with global pandemic (VIDEO)

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//May 14, 2020//

ON THE LEVEL: 18 months into leading trade association, Kowalski finds himself faced with global pandemic (VIDEO)

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//May 14, 2020//

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Jonathan Kowalski, executive director of the Plumbing, Mechanical and Sheet Metal Contractors Alliance
Jonathan Kowalski, executive director of the Plumbing, Mechanical and Sheet Metal Contractors Alliance

With only four staff members, the Plumbing, Mechanical and Sheet Metal Contractors Alliance had plenty to keep it busy before the outbreak of COVID-19.

There were labor contracts to be negotiated, local and school officials to be told of the benefits of union construction, pension and health funds to be managed. The global pandemic certainly hasn’t lightened the burden.

Jonathan Kowalski, who has been executive director of the organization for the past 18 months, said that the biggest change he has seen — apart from remote working — has been in his organization’s role as a disseminator of safety guidelines and advice.

“For the first several weeks of the shutdown, it was a lot of education,” he said. “We were just taking the federal and state relief information about the (Payroll Protection Plan) and CARES Act and chopping it up, digesting it and sending it out to our members. We have an e-newsletter that we were doing once a month before this. But for the first several weeks of this, we were doing this almost every other day, sometimes every day.”

In normal times, the Plumbing, Mechanical and Sheet Metal Contractors Alliance’s main responsibility is to represent the interests of between 30 and 40 unionized contractors and between 70 and 80 associate members — many of them suppliers — in southeast Wisconsin. It also works closely with three unions: Local 18 of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Local 75 of the Plumbers Union and Local 601 of the Steamfitters Union, as well as groups like Building Advantage and the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council.

Kowalski came to his position not through the trades but rather through previous work fundraising for the Milwaukee School of Engineering. It was there that, Kowalski says, he came to appreciate the value that comes from pursuing a career in building and designing things: Work that provides tangible results and often pays well.

“We need to make sure guidance counselors and parents understand what this career can be, especially the way we do it,” he said.

A lawyer by training, Kowalski has been forced by his new job to learn a lot in a short time. The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the list. He recently talked to The Daily Reporter about how he and his organization are handling it all. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

The Daily Reporter: How are the contractors and unions you represent holding up during all this?

Kowalski: We have not — knock on wood — heard specifically about any positive cases, although that doesn’t necessarily mean there haven’t been some. Early on, we heard a lot more about concerns about congestion and people not social-distancing. Our contractors weren’t part of any of that. But, as a precaution, we took the CDC and OSHA guidelines, and we created memos to go out to all local members and local contractor. It was almost a — I don’t want to call it a bill for rights. But it was saying: These are the standards and these are the rules you have to abide by. The biggest thing we are saying is if you see something, say something. Talk to your foreman. If your foreman isn’t helping, then talk to the union. Because if our members aren’t safe, this whole thing goes up.

TDR: How do you think the industry has done during the economic shutdown, and what do you think its prospects are?

Kowalski: Well, we always knew we were essential and now everybody knows that. What I’m hearing from our union partners is that things are OK. The contractors are a little varied on that because they have different niches. People who primarily do new-build work are in pretty good shape. But the folks who have a service component are finding it a little different because the facilities they have traditionally provided services at are often shut down now. So they can’t get in to do work in schools. But we have plenty of open referendums for school construction, so we are probably going to start being busy a month from now. What does that look like in six months? Well, if the architects stay busy, so will we.

TDR: How are your pension funds holding up?

Kowalski: It’s a little too early to say. I can say they are funded locally. The market drop hurt but didn’t decapitate us. For us, the concern is more long-term. We are going to have a large retired population and not as many workers supporting retirees. It’s something that, in some form or other, is affecting all industries that we know about.

TDR: Besides responding to COVID-19, what else are you working on?

Kowalski: Education and recruiting are two of the big ones. We now have waiting lists for all of our union apprenticeship programs. But, still, are we getting the word out to all the communities we need to? I grew up in Whitefish Bay at a time when it was pretty much assumed you’d go to college. Are any of advisors at Whitefish Bay High School now saying going into the trades is a great decision? When that happens, that becomes a tipping point. Why would you choose not to go to college? Well, let’s talk about economics and the benefits and pay that come from being a sheet-metal worker, and make sure people understand what’s out there.


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