Homeowners, don’t despair: You CAN find union contractors

DO IT UNION, DO IT RIGHT Home repair and remodel firms are overwhelmingly non-union. And yet companies like Greenbox Mechanical are able to stay competitive with skilled union labor, paying a living wage to tradespeople at the top of their craft, like IBEW Local 48 members Gonzalo Arellano-Sanchez and Jeremy Lekar, above. | Photo by Cheryl Juetten

By LINDA BAKER

Chris Haynes is passionate about his job as head plaster foreman for Fred Shearer & Sons, a ceiling and wall contractor that has specialized in lath and plaster repair since the company was founded in 1916.

“I love that the work is artistic,” said Haynes, a member of Plasterers Local 82. “When you see a wall that is in complete disrepair and know you don’t have to rip it out — it’s very satisfying.”

Commercial contracts make up about 60% of the plaster business at Fred Shearer & Sons, which employs around 100 people. But residential is 40%, and that share is growing, Haynes said.

“We’re making a big effort to reach out to the residential market,” Haynes said. “We see that as part of our history. We have a responsibility to let people with beautiful, century-old homes know there is a way to restore them.”

Almost any home built before 1970 will have been constructed with plaster.

Union building trades work is overwhelmingly concentrated in industrial, commercial and large-scale multi-story residential construction. But there are some contractors that perform smaller-scale residential jobs for individual homeowners. With a little effort, homeowners can find union plumbers, electricians, roofers, tile setters, plasterers and other tradespeople to work on repair and remodeling projects.

Union contractors who do small-scale residential work say they enjoy the personal interaction and independence that comes from working with homeowners. Diversifying into residential can also provide commercial contractors with another income stream, and in some of the trades, profit margins can be higher.

But competing in the small-scale residential market is no easy task. Overwhelmingly, small-scale residential work is performed by non-union shops.

“The cheapest way to start a business is to go with non-union labor, so there is a real science to penetrating our marketplace (with union labor),” said JC Kootnekoff, owner of Greenbox Mechanical, a union contractor that provides electrical, plumbing and HVAC services exclusively to the small-scale residential market.

Prior to launching Greenbox in 2017, Kootnekoff managed restaurants in Seattle and Portland and worked as a manufacturers rep for a company selling toilets, faucets and bathtubs. He says he aims to make Greenbox the “Nordstrom” of the three trades, a reference to the retailer’s famous customer service. 

“We won’t be the cheapest,” said Kootnekoff, who pays Greenbox employees up to $57.35 per hour plus comprehensive union vision, dental, and retirement benefits. “But we’ll be the best.”

Union contractors in the small-scale residential market range from one-person shops to family-owned and larger businesses.

In 2022 Candance Paradis and her husband bought the Portland branch of NW Umpqua Roofing & Waterproofing and moved it to Brush Prairie, Washington. Umpqua services commercial contracts — Metro regional government is a customer — but it also provides waterproofing, shingle roof installation and recertifications for single family homes.

Umpqua’s general liability insurance policy restricts the amount of residential work to about 10% of the business, said Paradis, a former parks and facilities manager for Washington County. 

“But we’re not close to meeting that, and we’re trying to grow that side of the business,” she said. Umpqua has a special service department dedicated to doing that, she said.

Paradis said commercial roof installations typically happen in spring, when the weather is good. Residential roofing is less weather dependent and can take place year round.

Expanding residential market share will help keep their workers, members of Roofers Union Local 49, busy all year and off the unemployment rolls, Paradis said.

In remodeling, one advantage of small-scale residential is the higher profit margin, said Eric Shepherd, owner of Majestic Built, a one-man kitchen and bathroom remodeler.

“In the commercial world there is a blanket (amount) that we can charge per square foot — and it’s about one-third of what I charge,” Shepherd said. New residential construction doesn’t pencil out either. He can charge $1,200 to install an 80-square feet backsplash in an existing home, whereas the same job in a new house would net $300.

Shepherd, a member of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, says he likes doing all the work himself, whereas on commercial or large scale residential jobs it’s common to have drywallers and other workers pitch in.

“I love building stuff,” he added. “I like to see the end product. There are very few things in the trades where you get to stand back and look at and admire your work.”

A commitment to social and environmental sustainability inspired Jackson Vargas to launch Blue Crow Plumbing in 2022.

“I have a real passion for doing things in a way that is environmentally responsible and sustainable,” said Vargas, who makes service calls in an electric vehicle. “The sort of people who are interested in that sort of service will be more interested in a company represented by a union.”

Vargas specializes in repairing plumbing fixtures and enjoys working on old houses.

“I like to rebuild things,” he says.

Vargas has worked in both union and non-union shops, and says there is a huge difference in quality and workmanship. The union apprenticeship programs offer much better training, he said. “And people tend to have a better attitude since they are taken care of with better benefits.”

Union means benefits

Union contractors say they pay their workers about the same hourly rate as non-union shops.

“But where non-union can’t compete with unions is on benefits,” Kootnekoff said.

Greenbox’s 16 journeymen and apprentices are members of IBEW 48 and Local 290. His lone administrative employee is a member of OPEIU Local 11.

Industry-wide labor shortages and a historic focus by unions on commercial projects make it harder for union residential contractors to find talent.

“Union construction work is so heavily weighted toward commercial building that they didn’t produce residential journeymen,” Kootnekoff said. “The unions told me point blank that they did this to themselves. Quite frankly, happy hunting for me is the non-union side, and then I convert them to union.”

Working in residential requires balancing higher labor costs with prices homeowners can afford. Pricing strategies can help bridge the gap.

Greenbox uses an upfront pricing model that eliminates unexpected fees once the project gets underway.

“It makes the customer more relaxed,” Kootnekoff said.

$200 incentive

To encourage homeowners to use union electricians, IBEW Local 48 has a program called Qualified Electricians PDX. Its website qualifiedelectricianspdx.org offers a coupon good for $200 of electrical work when you use a union contractor, and it lists union contractors who are ready to do the job.

“It’s a win-win cycle,” said Randy Davis, Local 48’s business development representative. “We give dues back to the customer, and they hire our employers.”

Davis said the program has helped grow union market share in the residential sector.

Shearer & Sons advertises in neighborhood newsletters to let people know there’s someone they can call to repair plaster. “We specifically get projects because homeowners want to hire a union shop,” Haynes said.


Union residential contractors

It’s not comprehensive, but this list includes union residential contractors in our readership area that we’ve confirmed do work for individual homeowners, along with some of the kinds of work they do.

Masonry (Bricklayers and Allied Crafts Local 1)

  • Reddstone Masonry Eugene/Albany  Brick, Block and Stone: fireplaces, chimney restoration, outdoor kitchens, exterior accents, pillars, patio restoration and more. 541-915-7944 [email protected]

TILE (Bricklayers and Allied Crafts Local 1)

  • Majestic Built Portland metro Tile and Marble: Kitchen and bathroom remodels, flooring, and more 971-708-5250 majesticbuilt.com

Plaster (Plasterers Local 82)

  • Fred Shearer and Sons Portland metro  Plaster: repair, restoration and much more  503-317-2756 fredshearer.com

Roofing (Roofers Local 49)

  • Griffith Roofing Portland metro, Salem, Coast  Reroofing with asphalt shingles and sheet metal flashing. 503-643-1596
  • NW Umpqua Roofing & Waterproofing SW Washington  Reroofing with asphalt shingles  360-723-5653

Plumbing/mechanical (UA Local 290)

Electrical  (IBEW Local 48 and IBEW Local 280)

There’s a lot licensed union electricians can do for homeowners. Here’s some of it: troubleshooting electrical problems, rewiring, replacing outlets lighting fixtures, fans, appliances, installing heaters and mini-splits, EV chargers or RV outlets, panel upgrades, installing hot tubs and saunas, safe step tubs, kitchen and bathroom remodels, ADUs, smoke detectors, home security systems, generator feeds, phone/internet installs and repair.

PORTLAND METRO AREA TO THE COAST 

SOUTHERN WILLAMETTE VALLEY AND CENTRAL OREGON

Sheet Metal/ HVAC (SMART Local 16)

Sheet metal workers install, service, and maintain furnaces, air conditioning systems, ductless mini-splits. They also so metal countertops, handrails, and much more.

  • CJ Hansen Co. Salem Heat pumps, air conditioning, radiant heat, mini splits.  971-240-1655 cjhansen.com
  • Day Heating Company Salem/Corvallis HVAC Installations and repairs 541-452-5111 dayheating.com
  • DeTemple Mechanical Portland  Service work on gas furnaces, heat pumps, air conditioning, mini split systems, exhaust fans, ventilation, ducting and sheet metal, thermostats, water heater. 503-227-2641 DeTemple.com
  • Hanset Metal Fabricators  Portland Custom Fabrications in steel, stainless, aluminum, copper, brass, bronze for accents, cabinets, countertops, handrails, hoods, vent covers Hansetcorp.com
  • Harvest Valley Specialties  Eugene 541-345-8921 harvestvalleyspecialties.com
  • Harvey and Price Co. Eugene HVAC, Fire Sprinkler, Fire Alarm 541-746-1621 harveyandprice.com
  • McGowne Ironworks Coos Bay Sheet metal and steel fabrication, HVAC, residential roofing and siding. 541-808-9200 mcgowneironworks.com
  • Milwaukie Heating & Cooling Portland Metro Residential HVAC installation, service, and maintenance, gas and electric systems. milwaukiehvac.com
  • Specialty Metal Fabricators Portland Metal/stainless steel countertops, handrails, guardrails, custom fences, planter boxes, tables, tube frames, custom kitchen hoods, steel panels for fireplaces/mantels and custom metal fabrication needs. 503-281-0059 specialtymetalfab.com
  • Umpqua Sheet Metal Roseburg HVAC, duct cleaning 541-672-3888 umpquasheetmetal.com

Carpentry (Carpenters Local 503)

  • The Harver Company Oregon-wide Repairs and custom work: drywall, plaster, framing, remodels. 971-409-5661 harverco.com
  • Neil Kelly Portland  Kitchen and bathroom remodels, ADUs, solar installations and much more NeilKelly.com

Did we miss one?

Know of a union contractor in our area that we missed? Let us know, and we’ll add it to our listing.

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