John Ballantyne stopped watching television for one year.
That act of self-denial—he felt it distracted him and stole time away from his work—is emblematic of Ballantyne’s commitment to the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters (NRCC). And it’s a big job, especially with a recent restructuring of the union carpentry territory that now includes all of New Jersey, New York (except the five boroughs of New York City), Greater Philadelphia, Delaware and parts of Maryland.
Last September, Ballantyne, 53, became the NRCC’s Executive Secretary-Treasurer, usually referred to in union parlance as the EST; in most organizations, he’d hold the title of CEO.
When asked what it’s like to be the powerful leader of 40,000-plus union carpenters and signatory contractors (who have agreed to use union carpenters), Ballantyne grimaces at the word “powerful.”
“I lead. I direct. I compromise. I suggest,” he says, indicating a clear distaste for any suggestion that he runs a fiefdom with him at the top.
Ballantyne has a corner office on the second floor of the union’s Edison, NJ, headquarters. He never sat down at his executive-style desk, preferring to sit at a small round table at the other end of the room when meeting with someone. When reading emails, he would balance his tablet on a window ledge overlooking the parking lot and State Route 514. During phone conversations, he paced frequently, made decisions quickly, approved ideas but also override associates when necessary.
However, the larger issues that he confronts will be the ones everyone judges him on during his four-year tenure as EST. Unlike most company officials, Ballantyne, the former Assistant EST, had to be voted into his current role by union representatives, who are voted upon, in turn, by the general membership. Ballantyne calls it union democracy at work.
The carpenters union faces a cloudy horizon, as do all the trades. Union membership is down, and the trades face a shortfall of skilled labor. The economic downturn in 2008 pushed many out of the industry. The generational spigot of recruits—grandfather to father to son—is no longer reliable. Too many of this generation, including the kids of trade workers, are going to college, while experienced tradesmen are retiring.
There is also the image of some unions, in popular media reports, that seem to highlight the contentious aspects of the construction-related industry, rather than the jobs they bring to local communities along with regular volunteer work. (Each local has a volunteer committee that matches its members’ carpenter skills with organizations or individuals with those that need their help.)
Ballantyne emphasizes what most people forget, especially nonunion members. “If you hear about some union-related incident, the negative brush applies to the entire union membership,” Ballantyne says. “If a major corporate executive creates a public mistake or even a crime, no one points the finger at all the employees, saying they’re all guilty.”
Ballantyne is setting the tone for the union’s future. The first is that today’s union is different from the past. It almost seems like it’s a cliché, except in the carpenters union, it’s patently true. “It’s not your father’s union,” Ballantyne says emphatically, not minimizing past accomplishments that contribute to a livable wage, but acknowledging that today’s workforce, culture, demographics and technological landscape are different. He concedes that union penetration isn’t the same as it was during the 1970s.
But the carpenters union under Ballantyne isn’t pausing on the playing field. He has committed himself to ensuring that the carpenters meet the challenges of the construction industry in the 21st century.
One example is the carpenters’ multiyear push toward recruiting with the overarching theme of diversity. Historically, women and minorities have been on the sidelines. The NRCC, together with the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development Inc. (PRAHD), have developed a pre-apprentice program that allows potential carpenters to have a taste of the carpenter life. It’s a new venue for recruitment and finding hidden talent for a carpentry trade that had, until recently, been largely untapped.
This effort, in part, acknowledges Ballantyne’s pragmatism. His attitude and approach are measured, open-minded and almost collegial. (Union literature these days is apt to use the word “partnership” when dealing with builders or contractors.)
Another visible change is his growing emphasis toward shaping the Carpenter’s union into a more professional organization. Most trade organizations are amateurs when it comes to marketing. The Carpenter’s union is changing that. The Carpenter Contractor Trust, a management-labor trust, serves as the marketing arm for union carpenters and its signatory contractors. Its professional staff developed the theme—supported by Ballantyne—that the advantages union carpenters bring to the job are skill set, flexibility, equity and productivity—as part of their recruitment effort and pitch to developers and builders. The language today is about fairness, partnerships, give-and-take, and the disappearance of a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach when negotiating.
This sophistication is also evident in Ballantyne’s political pragmatism. He points out that not only does the union support specific candidates, but they urge their members to become active, beyond the ballot. Today, more than 200 elected or appointed officials are union members. If there is any sense of regret from Ballantyne, it is that if more nonunion builders or developers gave his workers a chance, they would see the results of training and witness the work ethic firsthand. He points out that it takes four to five years of training (both classroom and on the job) before an apprentice carpenter becomes a journeyman.
Ballantyne is a patient listener, and though he didn’t graduate with a college degree, the self-taught labor leader is urbane and reasonable. But it would be an error to presume that he isn’t zealous about protecting his workers and the funds to which union members contribute. Hard bargaining is as American as apple pie. It’s as true in the corporate boardrooms as it in a union hall. In the bliss of modern day comforts, we might overlook why we have unions in the first place. Ballantyne won’t get a soap box, but he will remind people—especially around Labor Day, which was founded by a union carpenter—that in the past, they campaigned for “outrageous” demands like the eight-hour work day and the 40-hour work week.
Surprising to some, Ballantyne uses words like streamlining, reducing redundancies, and freeing up assets as he describes the future of the Carpenter’s Union.
“A corporate executive is concerned with the bottom line and reducing redundancy in services for a profit line,” Ballantyne said. “I have no profit line. I’m looking to put people to work. I may take their core principles [of corporate America] on how to get there, but my end goal isn’t profit. It’s work, capturing man hours and establishing benefits and security for our membership. That’s the difference.”
While he is poised to handle labor and business issues in a new era, he breaks it down into simple English. “Our core principals are work, wages, and benefits for our members. That’s it. All the other stuff is just bells and whistles.
“We’ve taken the best of what we see in Fortune 500 companies and tried to convert that into how a labor union should run. It’s a $161 million budget. Our members should be glad we’re looking at this as a corporation. This is big business. We walk into a room; we utilize that money to capture work for people. [The union will invest its funds if projects pass a rigorous litmus test.] They should be glad it’s run like a corporation. The other thing is our transparency. You can find out anything about this union on the Internet, down to a secretary’s wages. The disclosure is more [detailed] than any corporation.”
“If somebody tells me, ‘Hey, that guy runs it like a Fortune 500 company,’ I’m proud because I’m running it not for profit. I’m running it for our people.
Someone described him as a guy who will back you up in a fight, but has the smarts to avoid it because he sees it coming. That’s Ballantyne in real life. Being the leader of an immense union organization always carries some edge to it. He maintains that even in his personal life. He boxed as a youth, is a pilot and has a scuba diving certification. He is also a recreational motorcyclist (he owns a Harley), and recently scuba dived with friends exploring a sunken Mexican Navy vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. His oldest, son, Justin, 31, is a carpenter (and trains mixed martial artists), and his younger son Ian, 20, is a college student. He’s been with his wife, Alison, a licensed electrician, for 32 years.
Ballantyne is urbane, calm, intense when necessary and an accomplished public speaker. When asked: “John, you’re in the barber’s chair, you strike up a conversation, and someone asks, ‘What do you do?’ how do you answer?”
Ballantyne looked mildly surprised, as though it was a trick question.
“I tell ’em I’m a carpenter,” he said.