Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

Mike Davis: Advocate for Working People

When Mike Davis was growing up in the Finger Lakes, his dad, Larry, would tell stories about sleeping on the dirt floor of his uncle’s grocery store and traveling from place to place to find work. These stories instilled a strong belief within his family to fight for the people who go to work each day to provide for their families.

Mike Davis

My father said over and over that the only people who really care about these people are working class people, because we have the same interests: To make sure there’s food on the table, health care for our families, and to get our kids an education. That’s what it’s all about,” says Mike, who has been business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 840 since 2011.

He is proud that his family has put themselves in positions where they can make a difference in people’s lives. His father is a retired union leader. His wife, Kathleen, is an assessor. His brother, Ryan, is an economic developer for Ontario County, and his daughter-in-law, Sarah, is an economic developer for Seneca County.

Mike also speaks with deep pride about his three sons, Zachary, Tyler, and Jacob, and, of course, the newest Davis addition, his one-year-old grandson. My greatest accomplishment is raising them and seeing what they’ve come to be. It sounds kind of cliche, but that’s honestly what I think about when I think of what I have done in my life. It’s all about family.”

Advocating for the Finger Lakes

It’s also about advocating for the Finger Lakes. “Anytime our economy grows, it’s good for working people,” he explains. This means Mike’s involvement goes far beyond IBEW. He’s chairman of the Ontario County Industrial Development Agency (OCIDA), chairman of Finger Lakes Work Their Hands, president of Finger Lakes Building Trades, and he serves on the boards of the Finger Lakes Workforce Investment Board (FLWIB) and Locate Finger Lakes.

I serve on OCIDA not just for the people in my local, but for all working class people — what their needs are and what the area needs. I really enjoy being involved with other businesspeople in the area, so I can understand how I can help them grow, put more people to work, and help them pay their current people more money.”

Mike Davis

Being business manager of Local 840 hasn’t been an easy job. When Mike first started out, there wasn’t much employment for electricians. He spent several years looking for work for union members. The local was strapped for cash, and he had to negotiate partial payments to the provider of their health care plan.

Then del Lago Resort and Casino opened in 2017. Since then the union has been at full employment. “It was a godsend for our local. I fought hard for it and not just for our union members. I remember giving a speech in Ithaca and rattling off at least 40 employers that had shut down. We were losing our population because there were no places to work. We needed something, and I think del Lago has done very well for this area as far as growth.”

Advocating for Careers in the Building Trades

Growth can be a double-edged sword. “Now there’s just more work than there are people. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem,” explains Mike. There are 185 members in the local, up from 120 when he started this position. In the upcoming year, he will need 400 electricians for three major projects.

Getting help from electricians outside the area doesn’t work because of high nationwide demand. That’s why his team is actively involved in local workforce development, training and membership development. One focus is showing high school students and others that the building trades make a good career. He is excited that more young people are giving new life to the local and becoming more involved.

Mike Davis

Mike knows firsthand that the college track isn’t for everyone. When he first went to college, he couldn’t sit still and realized that he needed to use his mind and his hands. He found the trades a perfect way to use both and make a good living. Currently, journeymen in the union make $38.95 an hour with full health care and a pension plan.

Additionally, the increased use of new technology such as sophisticated software and environmentally friendly designs for buildings have the potential to attract younger people. “I was talking about recruiting with a contractor who said if he used the term ‘electrician,’ he had a hard time getting attention. However, when he attached solar technician to the job description, people started applying.”

He also thinks the trades are an excellent career path for women, and the local is actively recruiting to get more involved. “It’s a good spot to be in if you’re a woman because you get treated exactly like your male counterpart. You make the exact same money. Everything is exactly the same.”

Advocating for Unions

According to his calculations, about 60 percent of electrical work locally goes to union contractors versus non-union. Mike thinks increasing that percentage is critical for a variety of reasons including safety. “With a few exceptions, New York has no licensing requirements. You could slap a sign on the side of your truck and say I’m an electrician and literally go to work.” In contrast, becoming a journeyman in the union is a five-year process requiring 840 hours of classroom training and 8,200 hours of on-the-job training.

Yet, despite this vigorous training, Mike still needs to explain why unions are important because there are many misconceptions. “Unfortunately, there are still non-union contractors who can sometimes not be entirely honest about their reasons for not hiring union workers. The most non-sensenciale reason I ever heard was that after 911, operating engineers wouldn’t allow in non-union people or their equipment. That’s a completely false story.”

Mike Davis

He does acknowledge there have been some people in union leadership who did not have stellar reputations. “They’re a very small minority. Most of the people that are in leadership positions are here to do better for the people they represent. We want better pay and stability. We want people to have the ability to work and retire with dignity.”

Mike also believes there is a misconception that unions will take anyone and protect them no matter what. “That’s just not the case. It’s never been the case in the construction industry, especially. We make sure of each other’s work. We have the philosophy that if they aren’t doing their job, then we’re not being productive enough. And eventually we’ll both lose our jobs. We have to do what we’re supposed to do.”

Advocating for the Future

The Finger Lakes region, according to Mike, is ripe for opportunities and growth for the building trades. He believes there will be a boom in technology companies and offshoot businesses to supply businesses like Micron in Syracuse. He is bullish on increases in the tourism and hospitality sectors and thinks successes in Ontario County will continue to spread out to other counties.

One concern he has is the ability to provide housing for new employees coming into the area. His local has been involved with OCIDA in the potential development of a solar home factory. He also believes there will be significant growth in prefab buildings and is currently talking with contractors about building a large prefab shop that all contractors can use. “We’re in a new era where a good chunk of the buildings will be built inside and shipped,” he predicts.

As for his own future, he doesn’t plan on doing much electrical work himself. With a son, brother, brother-in-law, and nephew who are all electricians, his family’s needs are covered. That means he can continue to devote his energy to powering up efforts to bring good jobs to hard working people in the Finger Lakes.

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