Union Talk: Why S&C Electric opts for all union all the time

S&C Electric John Blumenshine knows a thing or two about electricity. As Vice President of Facilities for S&C Electric Company, a Chicago-based supplier of advanced fusing and switching equipment, Blumenshine presides over some 1.2 million square feet of manufacturing, office and product testing space, including a new 43,000-sq.-ft. Advanced Technology Center, one of the most environmentally friendly buildings of its kind in the world.

In addition to green lighting and mechanical systems, the Tech Center features a rooftop garden, reflecting S&C's commitment to renewable energy and sustainable design, according to Blumenshine. The center also marks the latest chapter in a story that's been unfolding for nearly 100 years, more than 60 of them at its current site on Chicago's northwest side, Blumenshine says.

S&C also shares a long and storied history with local union contractors. Blumenshine used the occasion of S&C's upcoming 100th anniversary to discuss those experiences with Illuminations.

How would you characterize S&C's working relationship with union contractors?

Blumenshine: We've used them exclusively since moving to our current site in 1949. Rather than bid projects, as most building owners do, we have a tradition of establishing long-term relationships with our contractors. We currently contract with Continental Electric Co. for our electrical work. Before that, we worked for many  years with Hatfield Electric, until they were sold in the mid-1990s. At that point, I had a meeting with the owner of Hatfield and the owner of Continental, to discuss the transitioning of our business to Continental. And I have to say, it worked out beautifully. In addition to working with Continental on large projects like our Advanced Technology Center, we have three of their employees on site five days a week to augment our maintenance and small project functions.

So, you're obviously sold on union contractors. What are some of the primary advantages of working with them?

Blumenshine: They have very intense training programs. In fact, most of my internal training programs are patterned after union programs, which typically employ combinations of on-the-job training and structured education. With union trades, there's an expectation of skill and expertise, that the contractor will have all the pieces in place to do the job from the time I place a purchase order until the time the job is commissioned.

How critical is worker safety in evaluating prospective contractors?

Blumenshine: Very. Safety is our #1 goal at S&C, keeping our employees and visitors safe at all times. We expect our contractors to have this same priority and have their own on-site worker safety program in place, and we ask them to prove that they do. From a liability standpoint, the issue is huge, so it's very important our contractors assume a leadership role with respect to worker safety.

Your Advance Technology Center received gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. How well do Chicago's union contractors rise to the challenge of executing green technology?

Blumenshine: Both IBEW and NECA have strongly embraced green initiatives. Our electrical contractor, Continental Electric, for example, has several LEED-certified workers on staff. For the Technology Center, our mechanical contractor, Hill Mechanical, took the lead in working with USGBC to ensure our solutions were consistent with the LEED program. As it turned out, certain requirements — parking, for instance — just weren't practicable for the project. But that's part of the process — determining what's feasible and what isn't. It's also the essence of good project management — partnering with professionals who bring experience and insight to the table.