Organizing turns failure into success

On the one-year anniversary of the unsuccessful vote to unionize Ellis Construction Company (Ellis), Business Representatives Luke Kramer and Kyle Alters, out of Wausau, WI, invited all non-union Ellis carpenters and those who have left Ellis for a union contractor to a gathering. The gathering was to demonstrate the benefits of union membership and the successful recruiting done over the past year. Luke and Kyle continue to dedicate their time and effort organizing Ellis’ carpenters making it difficult for Ellis Construction Company to maintain enough carpenters to bid projects they were routinely being awarded.

Sign at Ellis construction site to help them monitor any union organizing that may occur

Over one year ago, Ellis Construction Company was growing at a rapid pace. Competing unionized contractors were being underbid and losing projects to this non-union contractor. Luke and Kyle couldn’t stand by and let a non-union contractor grow by taking business from unionized carpenters any longer. They began holding meetings at the Carpenter’s Training Center in Wausau, meeting with Ellis’ 23 carpenters in job site trailers and completing over 63 house calls demonstrating the benefits of a unionized workforce. Meetings averaged about seven non-union carpenters in attendance.

In response, Ellis hired a union-busting attorney from the West Coast. Luke and Kyle were now in a full-blown organizing drive attempting to unionize Ellis Construction Company. They felt pretty good about their chances of winning this vote, but knew how hard the fight to keep morale high was during the length of the campaign. The result of the vote was not to unionize by a total of 13-9. The loss could have dealt a devastating blow to the efforts of Luke and Kyle, but they just couldn’t sit back and let Ellis Construction continue to grow.

Meetings didn’t stop once the vote was completed, and the conversations still have not ended. In fact, Luke and Kyle still haven’t stopped organizing the carpenters from Ellis. Of the 23 carpenters Ellis had working for them during the vote, 12have been recruited away from Ellis and began working for several unionized contractors in the area. “The guys who have left for other jobs love it. We recruited three more guys recently, and two just this past week from Ellis. Two office staff have also resigned,” said Alters. 

The first employee who left Ellis Construction was Jason Smith of Local 310 who went to work for Wynn O. Jones and Associates. He left Ellis three work days after the vote. Smith gave his two-week notice at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday and was fired at 10:00 a.m. the same day. Nearly one year later, Smith has been promoted to foremanwith Wynn O. Jones. Smith said, “Now, the benefits are better, the pay is better and the company doesn’t play favorites with assigned work.” 

Jason Smith (left) – with Business Representative Luke Kramer (right)

Ryan Konopacky left Ellis just over one week ago to work for Miron Construction. He left Ellis due to being treated poorly. Despite having a friend as a Superintendent at Ellis, Ryan stated, “The benefits and pension are terrible. After two years, you get $1 per hour towards your pension. Health care premiums are $120 per month and come with a $4,000 deductible.”

Kramer and Alters continue to recruit carpenters by phone, after work, on lunch breaks, holding meetings at the training center and through house calls. If a contractor has work and needs to hire, they frequently reach out to Luke or Kyle. Contractors know they have information and bios on all carpenters at Ellis’ sites. If a union contractor is looking for a particular type of skill or individual, Luke and Kyle can help match up a non-union carpenter and assist them in recruiting new employees.

Luke and Kyle agree that the experience has been very rewarding. They improve people’s lives, create new friendships and get to watch carpenters prosper beyond what they could have with the non-union contractor. Several new members even attend multiple local union meetings. They help demonstrate the importance of organizing by spreading the message that the grass is greener on the union side.