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Industry Dialogue: Frank Christensen

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IUEC General President Frank Christensen shares his thoughts on compensation, training and transparency, as well as the current state of the union.

International Union of Elevator Constructors (IUEC) General President Frank Christensen is many things: laborer, leader, athlete, teacher, student, family man and advocate for the workforce, children and the less fortunate. Christensen, a star wrestler during his early years in Chicago, has been in the industry for nearly 40 years, joining IUEC Local 2 in Chicago shortly after high school and winning elected office after 15 years in the workforce.

He served various positions with Local 2, culminating in being elected business manager in a special election in November 2001. He was reelected to the three-year post four times and remains the longest serving business manager in Local 2’s 100-year history. He served as a trustee for the IUEC’s National Elevator Industry Education Program (NEIEP) and helped create the first QEI testing program, reflecting his strong commitment to education. He has continued his own education at Chicago-Kent College of Law and the George Meany National Labor College, as well as through the U.S. Department of Labor and NEIEP, for which he has served as a substitute teacher.

In Chicago, he was involved in state and local elevator boards and committees, winning several major National Labor Review Board rulings that set powerful precedents for future labor negotiations. He and his wife of 30-plus years, Lynn, have four children but also a large, extended family that includes Local 2 members. EW’s Ricia Sturgeon-Hendrick and your author met Christensen at the Elevator Industry Safety Summit in May. Afterward, he took the time to chat with us about the state of the industry and his convictions.

EW: Have you seen IUEC growing? If so, in which geographical areas?

FC: I am very happy to report that the IUEC is growing in all geographical areas. On the whole, construction has picked up across the country, bringing a lot of attention to the trades. The IUEC has long been the most highly paid, most highly regarded trade in the construction industry, so, with increased attention on the construction boom taking place across the country, people have become more interested in joining the elevator trade. Our local unions that have had recruitment drives have seen lines of would-be applicants wrapped around their buildings.

EW: Why do you think it’s important elevator union members be well paid?

FC: I feel very strongly that compensation (in wages and benefits) for our members should reflect the skills our members must have to perform their work. It is not a fact that I enjoy repeating, but our trade is one of the most dangerous trades in the construction industry. There is absolutely no room for error and no second chances in our industry. Of course, there is also the fact the riding public steps onto our elevators, escalators and walkways
with the complete trust and confidence that these massive pieces of equipment have been expertly installed and will operate safely.

It takes a certain type of person to choose a career in the elevator industry — someone who is focused on a lifetime of learning, someone who appreciates the importance of the job they are doing, and someone who understands the risks to themselves and to the riding public associated with the trade. NEIEP — our training program — is not for everyone. It is a rigorous program designed for those who not only appreciate the rewards of our industry, but the risks, as well. This is why the graduates of our training program, our members, deserve every dollar they receive in wages and benefits.

EW: What are the most important issues facing the IUEC today, and are they being successfully addressed? If so, how?

FC: As I mentioned earlier, the IUEC is greatly concerned about safety. I would say that it is our number-one priority. As general president, my focus is on preserving the health and safety of our members so they may return home to their families at the end of every day and ensuring the safety of the riding public by providing the most highly skilled elevator constructors to install equipment relied upon millions of times each day. The IUEC created a Safety Committee four years ago to serve as a liaison between the union and our signatory companies in regards to safety and serve as safety advocates on behalf of our members.

It is important to point out the safety of our members and the safety of the riding public go hand-in-hand. If our members are provided with the training they need to be safe on the job, the quality of their work will be second to none. That level of training is being provided by our IUEC training program and is ever evolving as the industry and equipment change.

By the same token, our members must be given the assurance safety will always trump all, including even an expedited schedule, so they will be able to remain focused on the task at hand, and not on a clock or calendar breathing down their neck. To that end, we have been working in close partnership with our employers to establish a unified front, union and company together, when it comes to our shared belief that the only good job is a job done safely.

I, along with the general and local IUEC officers, was recently honored to spend a day with our counterparts from Otis touring three jobsites in Atlanta to spread our shared message about safety. I believe this sent a powerful message to our rank-and-file members.

EW: You are the longest-serving business manager in Local 2 history and have been general president since 2012. Of what accomplishments are you most proud?

FC: There are really so many things I am proud of. First and foremost, I am proud that our members and officers have fully embraced our tireless focus on safety. As a result, we have seen our fatality rate drop each year since I have been general president. Although I will not be truly satisfied until our fatality rate is zero, our members are the reason we are working smarter and safer than ever. Of course, I am also proud of the momentum the general officers have created, which the membership has carried forward, to get even more involved in charitable efforts. The fact we are well compensated and are afforded an amazing opportunity to ply an honorable trade each day has never been lost on me, and it is definitely not lost on our members. They are constantly seeking ways to pay it forward to their communities.

Our general officers and myself will take credit for bringing charity to the forefront of our IUEC agenda, but the rest of the credit most certainly goes to our members, who have embraced it fully and run with it.  And, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out my pride in making the IUEC a global name, as we have expanded our reach beyond our borders here in the U.S. and Canada, joining a collaboration of unions from around the world to address the issues we share, regardless of the country in which we work.

EW: You have been described as a “tireless crusader in protecting the work jurisdictions of your members.” Why do you feel this is important?

FC: I believe my members elected me to be a tireless advocate, so it’s important I do the job they elected me to do. It’s that simple. Serving as general president has been the greatest honor of my life but also my greatest calling. Of course, what I do is a job, but working in a union is a completely different culture from any corporate environment. We see each other as family, to which we have a responsibility. I know that every decision I make has a profound effect on not just our individual members, but on their families and the generations of IUEC members and families to come.

EW: How are you providing greater transparency and curbing unnecessary spending at IUEC?

FC: I have always believed that unions should be completely transparent and advocated for fiscal responsibility, as a leader on the local union level and certainly as general president. After all, our local unions and our international union are built on the backs of our members. We are a nonprofit organization, and everything we have in place has been voted on and paid for by our members.

This union belongs to the membership. As such, they have a right to know about every penny that comes and goes through our union. We have three highly respected and experienced trustees, hailing from local unions large and small across the U.S. and Canada, charged with reviewing all of the expenses of the international entity. We also have created a culture in which any member, officer or rank-and-file member, feels comfortable asking questions about our expenses. Those questions will always be respected and answered completely. We have worked hard to change the culture of our union to one that is accessible to all.

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