Hardhat utopia

Sixties social theory meets the building trade at Dallas contractor TDIndustries -- and it works

"We have one guy that retired at TD as a millionaire," Joseph tells the applicants for the plumber-helper jobs. "I can't wait."

As she concludes her spiel, Joseph tells stories about TDIndustries' 59-year-old CEO, Jack Lowe Jr.

"If you become a partner," Joseph tells the group, using TDIndustries' term for its employees, "you will meet in a room with Jack Lowe, and you can tell him honestly what you think. He's just that kind of guy. He treats everybody with respect."

But the newcomers seem unmoved by the talk of a trustworthy CEO, a potentially lucrative ESOP, and a we-love-you philosophy. They ask few questions. (Many TDIndustries employees say it took them a year or longer to comprehend how deeply rooted were the company's attitudes about workers getting say-so and respect.)

"This is an unusually quiet group," Joseph says. The only one with any queries is the woman who cracked the joke about Herb. She wants to know about daycare (the company doesn't provide it) and cross-training (no, TDIndustries isn't hiring electricians' helpers now, though opportunities for other trades might arise later, Joseph says), and if you are paid for the time you spend in school (no).

At the end of the 30-minute talk, Joseph distributes tests to assess the applicants' math and reading skills. "Can we use a calculator?" one applicant asks. No, Joseph says. The exams test for ninth-grade-level skills in math and reading comprehension.

Later, Joseph reports that only four of the applicants passed both portions of the test--a necessary requirement for getting into the plumbing training program. After the background checks, the field is whittled down to two. Last year, the company hired 300 new workers of 1,500 who applied.

While it might not sink in for the uninitiated, long-time TDIndustries employees confirm that much of Joseph's talk to prospective employees accurately reflects the company's policies and practices.

The company does liberally provide for training and schooling, and tradesmen who've become master craftsman for the company can cross-train.

Marlin McDaniel, Bernie Williams' 25-year-old son, who's worked three years at TDIndustries, has gone through pipefitting courses at Northlake College and welding programs at Trinity Contractors. He has about a year to go before he reaches journeyman status--the end of a typically four-year process. TDIndustries paid for all his education.

Wearing a yellow canvas work suit, an orange hard-hat and protective eyewear, McDaniel takes a lunch break at a construction site on Harry Hines Boulevard where TDIndustries is among the subcontractors helping erect the headquarters for the Dallas chapter of the American Red Cross. "We're hooking up the coolers and the chilling towers, then we'll turn them on and test for leaks," says McDaniel, who talked to the Dallas Observer after we approached him--without any prompting from corporate promoters--on the construction job.

McDaniel, a Louisiana native who worked in a shipyard back home before taking his dad's advice and coming to Dallas, speaks gratefully of the opportunities his company has provided him. Like all the other TDIndustries workers at the Red Cross site--and all other jobs where TDIndustries has field employees laboring--McDaniel has the chance to get some extra change, $100 or more, if he and his crew finish the work on the building under budget. The entire team at a job site--from the lowliest helper to the superintendent--will share 30 percent of any money saved on a specific building contract. For superintendents and foremen, those incentives amount to thousands of dollars a year, and for lower-tier workers, hundreds.

McDaniel knows he's moved up in the company at an accelerated pace. He became a foreman in a surprisingly short period of time, three years. At a unionized shop, McDaniel wouldn't be eligible to be anything but an apprentice for another two years. At TDIndustries, he says, the advancements come much faster. "I was just a little welder's helper, and my foreman asked me if I could handle it," McDaniel says.

His father, a master plumber before he came to TDIndustries 13 years ago, seems aware that his son's fast climb raises questions about whether he possesses enough seasoning and hours on the job to be a decent foreman. He says defensively about his son: "He came in at the right time. And at TDIndustries, you are allowed to rise that fast. He doesn't necessarily have all the training, but no one else wanted the responsibility. He was willing to take on the extra work."

For TDIndustries' detractors--and the biggest contingent of those exists among the unionized building-trades workers--the notion of a young, less experienced McDaniel supervising other workers represents everything that's wrong with the company's policies.

In the mid-1970s, when most commercial buildings in Dallas were still built by union labor, TDIndustries (then known as Texas Distributors) led the way in putting unorganized workers on the job. "They were one of the first companies to go in with nonunion workers," says Johnny Gibson, secretary treasurer of the Dallas Building and Construction Trades Council.

The unions, not surprisingly, have not embraced TDIndustries. They argued--and continue to stress today--that the company's nonunion labor is not skilled enough or properly trained. "These jobs are just swarming with people who are not qualified," Gibson says.

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