In 1901, all eyes were on Buffalo, N.Y., when the city hosted the Pan-American Exposition. At this meeting, 49 electrical contractors from eight states formed the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). Buffalo, known as the “City of Lights,” was, at that time, the country’s most electrified city, thanks to Niagara Falls’ hydropower.

More than a century later, NECA’s western New York State chapter will host a new expo they hope to be as meaningful for Buffalo as its 1901 predecessor. The “Hottest Place to be Cool Expo 2006”—Business and Labor Energy at Work—will be held July 9-12.

The Champions Network, a consortium of business, labor and academia focusing on economic growth in western New York, conceived the expo at Cornell University with NECA chapter manager David Roll. The expo will focus on labor, jobs and the future of business in Buffalo and is expected to draw 750 CEOs, CFOs and site selectors from around the country, as well as speakers such as Tim Russert and former SEC Chairman Bill Donaldson.

Buffalo has been in need of a boost. After the late 1970s recession hit Rust Belt cities, some Buffalo manufacturers shut down and their support industries folded with them. But the local NECA and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) chapters reversed their downward spirals and hoped to do the same for the Buffalo area.

In the mid-1980s, union contractors reached bottom in western New York. They had little communication with the IBEW and many labor and management representatives were unable to sit in the same room together. Business was dwindling, and NECA market share bottomed at 13 percent.

Less than 20 years later and after many improvements by both sides, NECA’s market share is up to 70 percent and labor and management are working as a team. The change began when NECA chapter manager David Roll met with then IBEW Local 41 manager Gene Adams.

“We agreed that if we didn’t do anything about it, we all could be out of work,” Roll said.

Roll helped organize a tour and filled several buses with labor and management to see the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area. The buses took them to the major construction sites, which had gone to nonunion contractors.

Roll said this tour showed IBEW and NECA members how serious the situation was in the area. Almost every major electric installation in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area went nonunion. If they did not make improvements, the problems could grow.

The organizations began by forming market-recovery committees and brought NECA contractors and IBEW members together. They made videos promoting the importance of what they offered and the strong relationship that accompanied it.

John Pavlovic, business manager of Local 41, said the good partnership between NECA and the IBEW began when Roll took over.

“[Today] our local has 100 percent participation,” he said. “Every electrical contractor that’s signed with us is a member of NECA.”

Pavlovic said his own predecessor, Adams, saw the trend of lost union work and realized that it would be beneficial for contractors and local members to improve the market.

Gerry Zell, Local 237 business manager, has worked with Roll for the past 12 years. Although he described the relationship as adversarial when it began, he noted that meeting Roll in person helped the relationship improve.

An aggressive campaign to increase the market share began, said Edward Howard, president of Electrical Service and Systems Installation. The unions became aggressive at targeting jobs and IBEW and NECA members shared the role of attracting new clients.

“Their customers are our customers,” Howard said. “We’ve made sure the work force knows we’re all working for the same person.”

Local 41 sent out letters to new businesses introducing themselves and the NECA chapter. They also set up a joint training program.

“We put courses out and NECA supplies that information,” Howard said. “Contractors are encouraging members to go. David Roll has been very, very cooperative with that.”

Angelo Veanes, president of Ferguson Electric Construction Co., remembers the dark days of the mid-1980s all too well. He attributes much of the improvement to Roll and the business managers.

“The two business agents were both really forward-thinking guys,” Veanes said. “Now the bigger jobs are all going union.”

To continue that success, labor and management hold monthly lunches for discussing their goals and concerns. They find common ground, even with the most contentious issues, Veanes said. Some cooperative inspiration comes from IBEW president Ed Hill.

“I think Ed Hill would like everyone to be cooperating together and working for the good of the industry,” Veanes said.

As a large sector of NECA and business managers reaches retirement age, they are also looking to the newer, younger members to continue the cooperative tradition. Veanes does not see that changing.

With progress made between Roll and Zell, good relations have passed through several hands. Once they were able to work together, it did not take them long to find ways to reach out to potential customers.

“We all know what we have to do to gain our work,” Pavlovic said. “It’s not going to do any good to be confrontational.”

Most mitigating circumstances are resolved with a phone call. In 2004, only two grievances were filed and both were settled before going into arbitration.

In an upcoming 2006 economic trade show called “From Brain Power to Hydropower,” the NECA and IBEW partnership model will be showcased as an example of what can be accomplished through a cooperative relationship. The NECA chapter will be the host of the program, while the IBEW is using their union halls for meeting places. The expo is part of a program known as Champion 1, established by Cornell University and formed in partnership with NECA and IBEW.

The Champion 1 concept evolved from a 2000 study that Cornell conducted of business and union representatives. The unions and employers including NECA and IBEW members featured in the study now form the core of the Champions Network.

Roll sits at the helm of the steering committee. Lou Jean Fleron, director of the Economic Development Initiative, said Roll’s position there was a natural fit.

“[NECA] is clearly a success story,” Fleron said. “They have crafted solutions for their industry that are quite admirable. By being involved in the construction industry ... that makes them a key player.”

Fleron has been trying to improve Buffalo’s economic profile as well as its image. Labor and management cooperation are one of the key draws to the area, and NECA is a leading example of labor management cooperation.

“In order for a region to prosper you need cooperation,” Fleron said. “We want to attract investors from Canada and the United States to see first-hand the assets this area has.”

Today, the Buffalo NECA chapter and the IBEW chapters take their message to other labor unions and management in their region, including the United Auto Workers at the Ford plant in Buffalo and the Plumbers/Steamfitters United Association. Roll and Zell offer discussions entitled, “NECA and the IBEW: National Model for Labor-Management Relations.” EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.