Life of a business agent: Striking a balance between operators and unions

July 2016

By Kate Permenter, Pipeline News Editor
For many, pursuing a family trade is a rare endeavor. My great-grandmother used to float in a canoe on the murky waters of East Texas, shotgun in hand, hunting alligators. No one in my family chose to follow suit, but we all know the legend she was.
Still, there is a lingering sentiment that surfaces with a story like David Butterworth’s. His father, Bob Butterworth, started in Local 798 as a welder’s helper and moved up to a welder in 1982. David knew at a young age that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and work in pipeline construction. Over 30 years later, Bob still welds periodically for a small contractor in Nitro, WV. It is clear how proud David is of his father whom he considers his biggest mentor.
Born and raised in West Virginia, David has been a member of Local 798 for 17 years and prides himself on his ability to work well with all different types of people. His affable personality no doubt helped him while he served in the U.S. Army from 1995-97 and attended West Virginia University for a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2002. He started in the union as a welder’s helper in 1998, changing his classification from helper to welder in 2005. David worked as a welder foreman, steward and fabrication foreman until 2015 and as a delegate to the UA Convention. He was appointed business agent last January.
In this interview, David offers his outlook on the pipeline construction industry, the union’s effort to reel in new talent in the midst of skilled labor shortages and the ever-changing relationship between operating companies and unions.
PLN: What got you into the pipeline industry? 
Butterworth: My father and some others from my hometown work in this industry. Clendenin, WV is where Columbia Gas has some compressor stations and pipeline infrastructure. West Virginia historically ranks high in unemployment. Oil and gas has provided opportunities for good-paying construction jobs, especially with coal taking such a dramatic downturn.
I received a bachelor’s of science degree from the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University in May 2002. I worked on a pipeline in the summer months. After graduating, I found that good-paying jobs for that field of study were hard to find in my area. After about six months of searching, I jumped on the first pipeline job I could find and never looked back.
PLN: What does your role as business agent entail?
Butterworth: It’s different than anything I have done but it’s also a great learning experience and a challenge. Currently, I’m working with Rick Taylor, who’s been Local 798 business agent in the Northeast for the past 10 years. Our jurisdiction includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. We’re responsible for the pre-job conference where we sign working agreements that dictate how the job will be set up and manned, along with any other issues that may arise during pipeline construction. We help members in finding work as welders, journeymen and helpers. Most importantly, Rick and I work to ensure that our conditions and the agreement are upheld by our members and by the contractors that we work for.
PLN: What do you think is going to drive the pipeline construction market over the short term, and how much is being affected by the industry downturn? Is natural gas activity still going strong?
Butterworth: The pipeline construction market is unfortunately strongly linked to the policies and regulations of our government. The pipeline infrastructure is aging and there are some integrity management projects underway to repair some older pipelines. Today’s pipelines are built under strict guidelines and the safety of the workers and landowners are held in a much higher regard than in the past. Natural gas activity is not as strong as in 2008, which was one of our boom years, but it is still steady, especially in the Northeast. This year most of our projects have been medium to smaller size.
PLN: Many believe 2017 should be a boom year for pipeline construction. Do you foresee any shortages of labor or equipment that might hamper activity? 
Butterworth: I hope it is but there are no guarantees. Many projects are scheduled for 2017 but we’re noticing that some of the more high-profile projects keep getting pushed back due to environmental concerns and governmental permitting. One thing I noticed in 2008 and saw during other busy years is a lack of quality personnel to man all phases of pipeline construction. Lack of experienced people is a problem that not only 798 faces, but also affects the other crafts involved as well as gas company inspectors. Pipeline construction cannot be learned by simply reading a book. It’s a skill that takes years of listening, watching and doing. Starting out at the bottom and working your way up is something not a lot of people want to do these days.
PLN: Does the location of certain projects correlate with the lack of skilled labor? For instance, Pennsylvania is predicting 30,000 miles of new pipelines over the next decade. Do you see any efforts to encourage local residents to join the workforce? 
Butterworth: While some people believe there is a correlation of skilled labor to certain geographical regions, I do not. I have worked in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. During pipeline construction in each of these states, I have run into skilled labor and, unfortunately, some unskilled labor. To be successful in this business a strong work ethic must be developed from a young age.
As for encouraging local residents to join the workforce, most union pipeline projects use local union halls to man their operator, laborer and teamster positions. The only time you see travelers come in is when local halls can no longer man their work, in which case contractors will use workers from union halls in different parts of the country. Our crews are usually made up of a mixture of guys from all over the country with one common goal— to get pipelines laid, welded and tested safely and quickly while always keeping quality first in mind.
PLN: It’s been nearly 20 years since mechanized welding became a significant factor in the construction process during Alliance Pipeline. Has this been a positive development for the workforce? 
Butterworth: I have personally only worked on one mechanized project as a helper in Michigan. I did not work on this type of project much because mechanized welding has proved to be more conducive to the flat areas in the U.S. and I usually worked on steep terrain where it was not an option. 798 has actively manned many mechanized projects over the years. The union has mechanized training and runs mechanized procedures at our Training Center in Tulsa. Automatic welding reduces welding jobs, but I don’t view it as negative because it is a substantial option in the pipeline industry, It gives 798 the ability to man these projects with qualified workers. It’s definitely not something we should turn our back on; it’s something we should embrace.
PLN: Does the union have any training initiatives or job fairs designed to attract the next generation of skilled labor into the industry?
Butterworth: The National Pipeline Welding School in Tulsa was established in 1974 and has grown into the Local 798 Training Center. This is a 33,000-square-foot facility that houses 52 10- by 12-foot welding booths with a 10-ton overhead crane. Members can use the Training Center in many ways such as brushing up for a gas company qualification test or to learn a new welding procedure. They also offer two classes per year where helper members can change their classification to welder. The classes start in September and January with financial aid available. Sessions last 14 weeks and members must meet strict requirements to gain admittance.  The opportunities are there if you choose to follow up on them.
PLN: Much of the world used to run on apprenticeships. Is this still the case? 
Butterworth: In 798 this is still the case. Helper members are the apprentices in our local union. The goal of many helpers is to become a journeyman or a welder in our union, but it takes a special person willing to work hard, listen and apply the teachings of welders and journeymen in order to succeed.
PLN: When you talk to members, what do they say are their biggest concerns? 
Butterworth: Attaining work and keeping their families fed. Our industry is cyclical with many ups and downs. When my dad and the older members were coming up in this business, they were happy to work six months a year. These days, members have been able to work year round. The past two winters have been slow largely because projects take longer to get started due to environmental permitting. In this business you have to take the good with the bad and save your money for the hard times. You have to be ready for the slow times, because they are unfortunately part of working in the pipeline business.
PLN: How has the relationship between operating companies and unions changed in recent years?
Butterworth: The relationship between the clients and the union will always be delicate. For example, certain clients have historically done most of their work with non-union contractors but some of them now have decided to use our labor for their upcoming larger projects. It seems that our union contractors always get called in to do the large-scale difficult projects because we have a proven track record of completing these projects on time with solid repair rates. We would love for all the pipeline work to go union, but some clients don’t want to pay our rates and for some reason see us in an unfavorable way. If you look back at most of the major pipeline projects historically, including the Alaskan pipeline, you will see that they were completed by a union contractor.
We’re also working with operating companies is by letting our voice be heard at FERC hearings, town hall meetings and letter-writing campaigns. The environmentalists are highly organized in their attacks, but we in turn, as organized labor, are well-equipped to combat them. Our members just want to provide for their families and we understand how pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and natural gas. Operating companies would be well-served to take advantage of our organization going forward in their efforts to lay pipelines and improve our infrastructure.
PLN: How are members helping repel the pushback against new projects? 
Butterworth: Myself and the other business agents and organizers of 798 are actively working to attend events where our voices can be heard. I recently attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s Task Force meeting in Harrisburg with Terry Langley, who is an organizer for 798, and spoke in favor of pipeline construction.  During this meeting, seven environmentalists were arrested for their behavior. We also have had business agents and organizers attending the Dakota Access meetings in Iowa.
PLN: In recent years, union membership throughout the nation has continued to decline. Is this also true of 798?
Butterworth: Our union has not declined. In fact, we’ve grown because of the boom years of 2008 through 2013 when we sold books in order to man the abundance of work we had. The decline of unions as a whole is politically linked with anti-union legislation such as right-to-work laws. West Virginia just went right-to-work this year. This makes it tougher on union contractors to compete because they have to cut their bids. Before, they were pretty much given those contracts. It affects government and state projects more because union contractors have a tougher time competing with non-union contractors who don’t have to pay benefits and health insurance.
This doesn’t affect the pipeline industry very much because we already have a set rate. Also, the industry isn’t under a federal or state bidding process. Right-to-work people claim that we forced them to pay dues, but at this point in this country you’re not forced to do anything. If you want to go to a union, that’s your choice. Unions are a way for you to have representation, retirement and healthcare.
PLN: What advice would you give someone who was interested in getting into the pipeline field? 
Butterworth: You have to love it. I’ve always said pipelining is something that grows on you and becomes a part of what you are made of. This business is not for the faint of heart. You have to be tough because not only do you have to live on the road for most of your life, you must also be able to deal with the struggles involved with the job. Our welders especially have a tough road when seeking employment in this industry. When a welder is called to a job, he’s not guaranteed employment. He must first pass a qualification test and then he can go to work. How many people would travel 2,000 miles just for the opportunity to take a test without being promised a job? These qualification tests are by no means a “gimme” and they have to pass visual and nondestructive testing. I had many sleepless nights early in my career worrying about these qualification tests.

PLN: What are you most proud of?

Butterworth:
My greatest accomplishment is being able to provide a good living for my wife, Maria, and my two children, Bobby and William. The other accolades such as being appointed business agent or working as a welder, foreman and steward are important, but when I set out in this business all I could think about was providing for my family. That drive has helped me attain all the other achievements that have come my way.